20
Jan
2012
The Office: Season 8, Episode 12
Pool Party
Michael Richardson
Sitcom success is more magic than science. People like me will try to argue otherwise - go through the last reviews and see how much I mention "basic story telling techniques" and character development. Those things are important, but sometimes even the most basic story arcs, medieval techniques that have worked wonders for centuries, don't add up. The "will-they-won't-they" set-up that goes back to Lancelot flirting with Guinevere is wholly dependent on how likable the two characters end up. If one or both are unlikable, or even if they don't catch on with the audience, that plot is doomed to fail. That, for me, is why it's so dispiriting for the Office to force this on us once again with Erin and Andy. From the show that created the most modern touchstones of the story (Ross and Rachel passed the baton to Jim and Pam, in this extended metaphor), this plot line can't help but fall flat in comparison. You're asking relatively minor characters (or, alternatively, major characters that have the depth of minor figures) to carry major emotional weight. It's a challenge that The Office does not handle well, and it's not for lack of trying.

The Office is clearly going back to the well for its plot lines. If I told you that I wanted to watch the episode where the gang go to a party at their boss's home, only to learn about his failed relationship and unhappy life, you'd be thrilled that we were about to enjoy "Dinner Party," probably the best episode the show has ever produced. This can't help but be a pale shade of that earlier episode, because the characters it centers on are simply underwritten. Robert California has begun to overstay his welcome - while originally he was just a cipher, now he seems to be a general oddball, the proverbial wall on which shit sticks. Would we care about the failed marriage of someone we've known for years? Absolutely. Hell, watching Phyllis break it off with Bob Vance would be devastating. But not Robert California. It's telling that he is simply explaining his life in long-winded diatribes; there's nothing to show us, so he can only tell us.

The bulk of the show takes place at Robert California's enormous house he is getting ready to sell. Red flag - episodes outside of the office are always a bad sign, but last week's episode was competent enough. While the boss leads most of the men, including an eager-to-leave Jim, throughout the house for a tour, the others remain to swim. Included among them is Andy, who has brought along a diamond ring he has been contemplating. The joke, of course, is that Andy would be foolish enough to propose to his girlfriend far too early. Nothing we know about Andy suggests he would be this kind of person, especially considering his past relationship with Angela. This was a Michael Scott storyline, tailored perfectly to that character, and set in his past experiences. Why the writers think they can get away with this kind of "replace all" bullshit is lost on me.

Erin is there to throw a wrench in things. After she's told about Andy's remaining affections for her, she tries to make him jealous by flirting with Dwight. During a game of chicken, Dwight almost drowns. This should be a big deal. He is dead in the water as the show goes to the commercial. This is a moment where the whole episode can turn, throw some much needed drama into the fairly sedate storyline. Not so, as by the time the show comes back he just coughs up some water and goes back to trying to have sex with Erin. If this isn't a metaphor for the style of storytelling The Office now unfortunately embraces, I don't know what is.

Two things manage to save the episode, and they're two things that generally are handled poorly in earlier episodes. Kemper gets to show off some of her acting chops, which are impressive, and manage to give Erin some actual nuance where normally she is the sketchiest of caricatures. And the minor story lines are charming enough to act as a nice distraction: Toby find himself in over his head as Oscar accidentally takes him as wine connoisseur, and Darryl is afraid to take his shirt off in the pool. Typing that out makes it sound bad, but both plots are enjoyable in comparison to the other stories. And at this point, a bit of enjoyment is the only reason I can still tune in to the show.

Grade: C-


Miscellaneous:

The cold open about meatballs angered up my blood. It's best not talked about.

I feel uncomfortable calling James Spader's character anything but his full name. He's weird that way.

Jim may be the master of leaving parties early, but he missed the best way to leave: the Irish Goodbye. Just leave without saying anything, and as long as nobody notices you're gone for a while you get credited that extra time.


Tags: The Office
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