In the climactic scene of this week’s intriguing but ultimately problematic episode of The Office, the show provided an apt metaphor for why exactly it’s failing today more often than it’s succeeding. Jim, stepping in for Ryan, gives an all-flash, no-substance presentation to a small audience of customers and tech bloggers at Sabre’s test store. In it, the company’s new flagship product, the woefully conceived tablet The Pyramid, flashes a series of images that conspicuously don’t fit on the triangular screen. Only pyramid-shaped things (like actual pyramids) fill the screen exactly, while every other image has to tessellate awkwardly to avoid projecting empty space. It’s a clever sight gag driving home just how misguided and doomed to fail The Pyramid and Sabre are, but it’s also a reflection of the show around it. The Office is great when it does the one thing it’s any good at these days, which is deliver understated, human comedy through its talented ensemble. Everything else it tries to do just doesn’t fit, but instead of abandoning these bad concepts the show fills the screen with comic incongruity. We at home are left to focus on what’s missing.
“Test The Store” tried to turn the dramatic arcs of Dwight and Ryan into twin engines driving the plot, but it forgot to give us any reason to care about either of these things. I’ll admit that Ryan’s sudden existential crisis has a glimmer of something interesting, though it comes completely out of nowhere. Ryan hasn’t had a significant story since his disgraced tenure as a Dunder-Mifflin executive and the character has spent the past few seasons as little more than a source of hipster punchlines. There’s no reason viewers should really care what happens in his troubled head, but still that plot takes up a lot of screen time and ends inconclusively as if we’re supposed to be curious about the new chapter in Ryan’s life that starts the moment he gets on a bus to go visit his mother.
Of course, I could just dismiss this whole thing as an excuse to force Jim to do Ryan’s presentation even though he really doesn’t want to and the content ends up being extremely specific to Ryan’s life. Funny? At times, just not all that interesting since we don’t really have a reason to care much about Jim anymore, either. “Test The Store” fluctuated between embarrassing Jim for laughs (which has been his main thrust on the show for at least one whole season now) and pretending that he’s still the main character. Long ago, The Office U.S. edition had something in common with the U.K. original. It had a likable audience stand-in who was aware of and exasperated by the mix of insanity and inanity in his workplace. That show would have taken this episode and focused on the pointlessness of the Sabre store and the myopic devotion of Dwight and Nellie to its success. The show we have today didn’t seem to know whether to mock the plot or invest it with gravitas.
Which brings me to the biggest nagging question of the entire Florida arc: Why should we care about Dwight getting the promotion? Every single episode has relied on Dwight’s pursuit of the pointless VP of Special Projects position but none have given us a reason to want him to succeed or fail. Will either outcome change the show at all? Is anyone invested in Dwight as a character to the point that his aspirations matter? The character is designed to be an alien. We can’t push for him the way we once pushed for Jim and Pam because he’s too unreal. We also can’t push for him like we pushed for Michael Scott because, unlike Michael, Dwight’s goals are rarely noble and he has no innocence in him.
The Office fills its relatively short run time with a lot of things that just don’t fit anymore, if they ever fit in the first place. It doesn’t know where its heart is anymore and, most tragically, it doesn’t have a bead on what’s funny anymore. As much hope as I’ve had with the Florida episodes, the good stuff isn’t enough to overcome the inconsistency. The show is struggling to find a new voice and justify its ratings, which are dropping but still high enough to qualify it as a hit on NBC. Like Ryan running back to his mother, The Office going to Florida seems to be a desperate attempt to find its way. Unfortunately, like the utterly forgettable Scranton plot this week, the show is really just taking up space.