I suppose it’s ironic that the strongest arc of the eighth season takes place the farthest from Scranton the series has ever gone before. Every time I watch The Office lately I’m overcome with a strange sense of ambivalence toward the show. “Test the Store” for example had plenty of jokes and one liners that made me laugh like Creed slapping Meredith, shrieking, and scurrying out of presumably the building after hearing Toby’s strike, scream, run technique of self-defense or Erin’s mispronunciations of Zooey “Des-Channel” and “Coach-rella”. On the other hand, the lack of interconnectivity within the structure of half the episode taking place in Tallahassee and the other half in Scranton felt distracting, like I was watching two separate episodes in one – one a decent send up of consumer culture profiteers selling style over substance, and the other a plot surrounding a grown man receiving not one but two black eyes as the result of an altercation with a 12 year old girl that is even more shallow than it sounds. Essentially, though not without its individual charms, “Test the Store” is indicative of the overall lack of focus and believability that has plagued The Office all season.
Don’t get me wrong, the idea of Andy getting punched in the face by a female fifth grader isn’t necessarily unbelievable or unfunny, it’s just that it had so little relevance or realism that it was difficult to follow for more than five minutes and it constituted an entire plot line much in the same way Michael burning his foot on a George Forman grill did back in season two except whereas that episode had solid cohesion and momentum, this one felt entirely weak if not for the small moments from Kevin’s recommendation of throwing little people into tubs of electricity, Oscar’s summation of the hypothetical transgender attacker, and Toby’s self-defense strategies and Chad Flenderan plugs that barely held it together. The Office used to be so hysterical because the formula of juxtaposing the extremely realistic soul crushing mediocrity of its setting and the awkward bouts of absurdity from the characters that inhabited it worked so smoothly. Now the recipe has devolved into similar ingredients of wacky characters but feels as loosely tossed together as a salad as opposed to a well-blended brownie batter. Or maybe I’m just hungry.
The store-testing plot was of much higher quality because it earned its punch lines with a more sophisticated narrative. The special project that Dwight and company were assigned to work on culminated in the first store opening which invited “gross, obese bloggers with halitosis.” I couldn’t help but find the repeated stabs at bloggers to be especially amusing. Not only did this story have fantastic supporting moments from its characters, but it was realistic, though unusual, enough for me to take satisfaction from those laughable moments. Whereas last episode Dwight really carried the show, in “Test the Store” I liked seeing Jim screw up by being photographed using a phone other than Sabre’s ludicrous Arrowhead model, then having to atone for it by waving a sign outside. It’s always amusing to see Jim out of his element not because I hate him, far from it, but because he’s so naturally laid back that watching him attempt to feign enthusiasm just cracks me up, especially when he has to wear eye liner and a faux futuristic, supposedly gender neutral white suit and spout bullshit that went over surprisingly well after Ryan, in keeping perfectly with the character’s spinelessness, literally bailed to go home to his mom. I’m also so glad the Sabre triangle tablet exists if for no other reason than to see Stanley pull out a slice of pizza from its obtrusive carrying case. The only element of this plot that I found particularly unattractive was when Erin had her conversation with one of the senior citizens she had to remove from the store (in what Michael certainly would’ve recognized as an example of ageism) and brought up once again her feelings for Andy. I cannot convey emphatically enough how little I care about that relationship. It’s dragged along for years now and whereas with Jim and Pam it worked because it was a primary focus of the series, here it’s just cheap and lazy and without any real investment and the writers need to give it up.
By the way, anyone who’s noticed the absence of Robert California’s attention hogging presence should probably know that this season will be his last as he was apparently never meant to do anything but help transition the series from Michael’s departure. You can read more about it and the future of The Office, including a revealing interview with Paul Lieberstein here.
Though the deviation from the norm that is the Tallahassee arc has provided The Office with some much needed focus, motivation, and narrative based humor, I long for the characters to be reunited under one roof again in an environment free of gimmicks and guest stars so it can once again immerse itself in that which once made it such an impressive series. “Test the Store” may have had its shining moments, but they need to be seen in a sustainable environment to truly resonate.