Last week I griped about two early problems with The Office‘s Florida plot arc. I worried that, by dividing the action over so many locations, the show would stretch itself too thin to sustain a meaningful story. I also had a suspicion that the Florida segments would spend too much time with Dwight as the de facto protagonist. In every way “Tallahassee” was weak, “After Hours” was strong. Strangely enough, the episode was even more divided than last week’s and Dwight was still front and center for a lot of the action, but both of those elements shifted their focus to a more satisfying and ultimately more sustainable platform.
In this show’s occasional trips to a Dwight-centric universe, the failure or success of the gag has almost always been predicated on whether Dwight has a foil on hand. Whenever he went gallivanting around with Michael, The Office turned into a cartoonish buddy comedy. Left to his own devices, Dwight always takes things into untenable craziness, as in the diminishing returns of last week’s appendicitis plot. Keep him locked into somebody else’s story and things go more smoothly. That’s why Dwight’s occasional pairings with Ryan, Angela and more often than not Jim have been more solid comic territory. They balance out his weirdness with something more normal or at least low-key.
“After Hours” bats Dwight back and forth between his competition with Packer and his unwitting rescue of Jim from Kathy’s attempt at seduction during the Tallahassee crew’s first Friday night. At all times, Dwight has at least one other player to absorb his insanity and the variety does the comedy and pacing a service. His one-upmanship with Packer over the VP job is brief and surreal, evolving into a race to bed Nellie by the end of the first act. As soon as a covert poisoning with Gabe’s aid puts Packer out of commission, Nellie steps in to be Dwight’s foil. As bookends, Dwight rushes off to Jim’s room to combat a non-existent bed bug infestation Jim concocts to keep Kathy at bay. In all of these scenarios, Dwight is really just a figure in somebody else’s story instead of the hero of the episode. The man was designed to be a villain and/or a sidekick. Keeping him in two-shots is the best way to keep him entertaining.
All the episode’s darting around worked pretty well, too, on account of a cohesive theme. In each of the mini-stories playing out, romance (or more specifically, the pursuit of a hook-up) is central to the plot. In addition to the Dwight/Packer/Nellie love triangle and Kathy’s failed attempt at sexual manipulation, Ryan and Erin find themselves on a pseudo-date, the late-working Scranton folks get caught up in Darryl’s awkward bid for Val’s heart and even Stanley is carrying on a tryst on the margins of the episode. In the end, it doesn’t matter that each story barely graces the screen long enough to carry a webisode because they’re all tied together by the same idea. This also allows each multi-episode plot (the VP job, Kathy’s seduction, Erin’s escape plan, Darryl’s crush, Florida Stanley) to move forward.
Both the recalibration of Dwight and the thematically linked mini-stories illuminate how The Office or a show like it survives and thrives after the loss of its main character and thus its rudder. These things pull back to make the show an ensemble piece, generating plot and laughs by mixing and matching different characters in a wide variety of situations. Whether it’s pairing two of them off for a tense struggle or throwing a bunch of them in a room to play dialogue pinball, the show skips along at a nice clip and stays entertaining. I feel like that idea has been knocking around in the writer’s room of The Office since the end of Season 7, especially when Jim had his talking head bit about the Scranton branch running just fine without a manager.
Despite its flaws, I still really like The Office. Even minus Steve Carell, it sports one of the greatest casts in TV history and its writers are some damn funny people. The show could pull off a great ninth season if they can bring home the right lessons from the creative experiment that is the Florida arc. Afterwards, the art of televised storytelling could benefit from the struggle.