As The Office enters the meat of its bold vacation to Florida in a clear bid to rejuvenate its wayward eighth season, the energy is there but the format is strained. “Tallahassee” is the fastest, most dense episode of the series in ages but it suffers a bit by flitting between the Florida team and the Scranton office. Stuffing all of this content into 22 minutes results in one complete plot arc, one under-explored bit and a liberal sprinkling of background jokes with a favorable hit-to-miss ratio.
The Scranton scenes are fun but pale in comparison to the comic mass of the Florida scenes. With Erin away, the reception desk is left unattended. Pam, naturally, resists resuming her purgatorial role as the mousy secretary, so in a clever power inversion Andy takes over. The strength of that initial setup is thanks to Kelly shouting at Pam and Andy to make up their minds. It adds a much-needed tension to what is clearly a foregone conclusion. Sure, there’s plenty of pathos to the idea of Pam slipping back into her old life and maybe we’ll see that surface next week, but the joke of the inept branch manager turning into a superstar receptionist is too tempting to pass up. The little touches in the plot are nice, like Andy’s fancy pen bouquet and the fact that everyone starts to find his jokes and songs amusing now that he’s not trying to be an authority figure. The resolution is a little weak, though. After beaming all day behind the desk, Andy finds himself the subject of a mini-intervention from Pam and Darryl. They try to save him from the drudgery of the lowest position in the office, but their motivation is nonexistent and the whole thing stinks of a rushed conclusion. If this had occurred in an earlier episode without having to cut to Florida so often, things likely would have had more time to build.
As for the action in Florida, it’s especially Dwight-centric despite a double guest star docket with David Koechner returning as unkillable salesman Todd Packer and Catherine Tate reprising her role as Nellie Bertram, the enthusiastically incompetent manager candidate from the end of Season 7. Nellie used her connection to Sabre’s ex-CEO Jo to carve out a job for herself as the mastermind behind the admittedly terrible idea of a Sabre retail store. I appreciate the nuance of that continuity as much as I enjoy Tate’s delivery of absurd management-speak. Her opening monologue alone is worth the price of admission. But Nellie isn’t exactly a surrogate Michael Scott. She isn’t given enough to do to serve as the shifting center of the Florida story. Dwight continues to be the prime cartoon, monopolizing the episode with his insistence on powering through a stress-induced case of appendicitis in a bid to grab a most likely meaningless vice presidency of Sabre’s retail division. This gives Rainn Wilson a chance to bring out some physical comedy, but that’s far from the best content in “Tallahassee”.
Therein lies my biggest concern for this Florida experiment. With all the talk on various red carpets and blogs about a Dwight spin-off series, I worry that this potentially exciting twist in The Office Season 8 is merely a dry run for said series. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Office episodes that give top billing to Dwight, as they tend to be loud, outlandish and completely clashing with the understated absurdity that makes the rest of the show funny. Wilson can be more interesting than the weird-for-its-own-sake material this show gives him, but putting so much of the Florida plot on Dwight means we’ll be spending less time in the plum territory of a hilariously desperate corporate retreat. There’s a lot of funny on the margins, from Jim’s sudden admiration of “Florida Stanley” to Erin’s spark of dedication to the prospect of Kathy actually getting some characterization. Making this whole exercise a Dwight vehicle would be a mistake, a missed opportunity to revitalize a flagging show.
But there are several more episodes left in the Florida arc. Next week looks like it’ll put Dwight in competition with Packer (which is inevitable), but there’s also some promise of the looming Jim and Kathy plot. We’ll also be checking in with Scranton again, which means the episode should be stretched thinner than a Fruit Roll-Up. I like the density of this setup and the show is funnier than it’s been all season, but it won’t be long before these nylon scripts start to run.