Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Did The Office Screw Up the Florida Arc?

When the episode “Special Project” ended, I was excited about the future of The Office for the first time all season. It felt like things were actually going to start happening, rather than the show's spending nearly half the season trying to convince us that new regional manager Andy Bernard needed to win over his co-workers. (He didn’t have to; they already liked him – I don’t want to think about the painful “Gettysburg” ever again.) To refresh your memory: in “Special Project,” which aired February 9, Andy tells Dwight that he needs to pick a team to go down to Tallahassee, Florida with him, to help launch a Sabre retail store. The selectees: Jim, Stanley, Ryan, Erin, and new girl Cathy, who, as revealed in the episode’s tag, is shown to have a major crush on Jim, and is actively trying to break up his marriage with Pam.

It came out of the blue, and many people, myself included, were hoping for something reminiscent of the Michael Scott Paper Company arc that gave the show new life a few years back. Well, in short: it was no Michael Scott Paper Company. In fact, now that it's mostly finished (the last episode ended with Andy rushing down to Florida to win Erin, but everyone else is back), I can't help but feel disappointed in the end results. Here are five reasons why The Office didn't take as much advantage of the Florida story as they could have.

1. Ultimately, Did Anything Happen?

The biggest reveal out of the Florida arc is that Dwight was named Vice President. OK. Fine, whatever. He’s going to get a spin-off soon, and The Office needs to find a satisfying way to transition him to his next show. There are two things that bug me here, though: 1) The thing that brought him to Florida was a TERRIBLE IDEA, and 2) He let someone else take the fall for him. The aforementioned TERRIBLE IDEA was to open a chain of Sabre retail stores that would sell the Pyramid and other Sabre-licensed projects, all of which are seemingly designed to be inferior to Apple’s. (It’s worth noting that the idea was originally commissioned by Jo Bennett, but we didn’t know that until later, and Dwight was still the one taking charge.) Robert California had every intention of firing the VP behind the idea (which itself didn’t make much sense – why shut down an entire project after a successful in-store opening, even if the gadgets were garbage? Sabre, as a company, is terribly managed). But while Jim stops Dwight from entering the conference room where California is waiting to hand him a pink slip, Todd Packer steps into the VP role – and is abruptly canned. Packer’s a shitty human being, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to take the blame for Dwight’s innovation of sorts. That’s more a plot peeve, though; what really bugs me is that Dwight returns to Scranton at episode’s end, seemingly without his Vice President gig anymore. (I think? It’s actually a little vague, but that’s a whole other issue.) So, what did we learn from the Florida arc? Dwight became VP, put his weight behind a bad idea, Dwight let the VP power go to his head (not unlike when he was named Interim Regional Manager in season seven’s “Dwight K. Schrute, (Acting) Manager”), Dwight got fired, and Dwight returned back to Scranton, a broken man. Again.

2. Cathy’s Cheating Heart

There’s a great essay waiting to be read about Jim Halpert, one which can’t be written until after The Office ends (or Jim dies, if Dwight snaps). Has any protagonist gone from universally beloved to generally hated as sharply as Jim has over these past few seasons? But I digress. Cathy trying to sleep with Jim was the thing that I was most excited about in the post-“Special Project" episodes. It’s not that I wanted her to (I love Pam and hate cheaters), but at least it was something DIFFERENT, and difference is something The Office dearly needs after nearly 200 episodes. The scenes with Cathy in Jim’s room were effective, and I like the way Jim brought in Dwight to save him (which ends with the adorable tag of the two of them eating ice cream together in bed – the biggest development to come out of Florida might be their relationship, and how they need each other to function; Jim would be bored without Dwight, and Dwight needs someone to constantly test him. That’s one of the reasons why I’m not looking forward to the spin-off). But it felt like the writers could have gone further. Do you really set up an arc about Jim, whose relationship with Pam was the thing everyone talked about when they talked about The Office for its first four seasons, potentially cheating on his wife, with Replacement Pam (Cathy), and only give it 10 minutes of screen-time? Let's say they did kiss: it wouldn’t have been such a terrible plot development. It would have added some drama to the show, and assuming the news came out, it would have allowed Jenna Fischer to actually do something again – she’s arguably the show’s best actress, but hasn’t been able to show off her chops in forever, even before Baby #2. Plus, there's also the issue of Cathy being written as a bad person because she went after a married man, while Jim was the hero for going after an engaged woman. Like I said, there's going to be a great essay someday.

3. Too Much Time and Effort Spent on Andy and Erin

Erin is my favorite character on The Office right now. If NBC gave her a spin-off instead of Dwight, I would totally watch it. Her hipster dancing in front of a bunch of homeless people is one of the greatest things ever (only a slight exaggeration). I also enjoy Andy, though his character was a lot stronger when he was a salesman; his particular style of exaggerated comedy works better in the background, rather than in the foreground. That being said: when it comes to Andy and Erin, and their will they/won’t they relationship, I just don’t care as much as I used to. Let’s say, for instance, in Thursday’s episode, Andy makes his way down to Florida, and the two share an emotional kiss. Would you really care? Or, more accurately: would you care as much as the first time they kissed, back in season six’s “New Leads”? Or care as much as the first time The Office did this same plot, with Jim and Pam? (Plus, there’s another potential romantic relationship with Daryl and Val.) Either put them together (yes), or don't (no) — just make a decision finally.

4. Don’t Go Back to Scranton

It’s not often that in an Office episode with two locations, the Scranton story is the B-plot. But it was routinely so throughout the Florida arc, and it just showed how much the show is struggling without Michael Scott. In “Test the Store,” just as the Sabre store opening story was gaining momentum, the show cut back to Scranton, where the remaining Dunder Mifflin employees were in the conference room receiving self-defense classes from Toby after a young girl punched Andy in the face. This was bothersome not only because it felt way too similar to “The Injury,” when Michael burned his foot on the George Foreman grill, but also because it further proved that the Nard Dog can’t command a room the way his predecessor could. I suppose this says more about the show in general than it does about the Florida arc, but it was especially transparent these past few weeks.

5. The Arc Only Felt “Successful” Because It Manipulated Us to Feel That Way

I mentioned above how idiotic the Sabre Store idea was. It was a dumb idea. Well, by the end of “Last Day in Florida,” everyone, led by Robert California's finally seeing through the bullshit, realizes the same thing, and the project is shut down. That gives some sense of closure to the story, and the viewer is supposed to feel relieved that things are going to go back to normal and Sabre has regained its business logic. BUT: the only reason we felt relief was because the whole idea was so preposterous. It’s a story-telling trick, like a movie making us root for the girl to pick the normal guy because the other guy is such an obvious jerk to her.

Things weren’t all bad in the Florida stories, though: Erin and Florida Stanley were revelatory; Kevin got to rap about cookies; Ryan fleeing the Pyramid presentation was a nice character touch; Jim and Dwight had a nice bonding moment in the hallway; and again, Florida Stanley, who kept a slice of pizza in his Pyramid case. It's just disappointing that the show could have done more, and didn't.

Josh Kurp didn't discuss Nellie much, because he was distracted by the Goat of Dover.

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  • laura jayne martin@twitter

    This is great. I was thinking that they were going to bring it up again later in Scranton. Either: Pam would find out about the night in Florida when nothing happened, but through some misunderstanding think something happened, or Cathy would try again more at a later date. Maybe you're right though and it is over–if so I'm sad because it was interesting. His slide down the bed to sit on the floor was one of my favourite moments from the recent episodes.

    • laura jayne martin@twitter

      @laura jayne martin@twitter Sorry, I was talking about section #2 Cathy's cheating heart. Wow.

  • Slutface

    I still think Cathy could come back to haunt Jim. She took a shower in his room and could easily just let it "slip" around Pam in the lunchroom one day.

    I laughed at the line of Jenna Fischer being the best actress on the show. I think she's consistently the weakest. The other ladies blow her away in any scene.

  • Megh Wright

    Personally I agree about Jenna Fischer, she's brought us some of the show's most fragile and heartfelt moments. She really doesn't get a whole lot to work with these days, at least nothing that compares to the older seasons.

    Either way I agree with all of this Kurp. Even if things were to happen or the Cathy drama were to unfold, it'd be an opportunity used way too late if you ask me. It has felt a bit too contrived this year, even though there are some great little moments that don't really help or hurt the bigger picture.

  • akivaddict

    So accurate! I agree that the show could have done more with this arc’s shake-up prospects.

    But I will commend them for keeping it subtle and fairly Office-authentic; and not going into the Brady’s-Vacation-to-Hawaii-mode. (That’s hard to avoid when searching for freshness as a triple-digit episodic series, and this could have been as bad as the Conner's in Disney World …they *were* in Florida, people!)

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    If there is one thing The Office did well in its prime, is that it made outlandish characters seem "no so psychopathic." Basically, everything about the Florida trip is believable, while very little of the Michael Scott Paper Co. was. Dwight leaving the hospital after surgery worked, but the rest was kind of ho-hum.

  • BonzoGal

    I agree with most of this, but disagree with the premise of Robert California "finally seeing through the bullshit." He saw through the bullshit of Sabre a looong time ago. He knew the store would be a ridiculous failure, but if he told Jo that to her face she'd can him. Instead her idea gets implemented, it's a failure, and Robert gets the credit for stopping the whole mess early on.

    Sabre IS managed poorly, just as the HQ of Dunder Mifflin was. It reminds me of when Ricky Gervais said in an interview that people told him The Office was unrealistic because someone like David Brent would be fired right away. His response was that people who said that had obviously never worked in an office. There are ALWAYS people in the workplace who keep their jobs despite being mediocre at best. I think there are companies like that too– you wonder how they manage to stay in business with the load of bumblers at the top.

    So while this arc wasn't the best, getting to see the loser side of the "parent company" is hilarious to all of us cube-farmers.

  • Anthony Coro

    I agree with most of this–overall, it made for some of the highlights of this fairly uneven season, but it felt like a diversion designed purely to further the "will they-won't they" Erin/Andy dynamic. And honestly, while I like both characters, that arc has gone on for-freakin'-ever and it's such a retread of the Jim/Pam story that

    And while I'm all about creating some sort of conflict with Jim and Pam, I think the writers knew that fans wouldn't stand for any sort of adultery so the whole Cathy thing was bound to fizzle out from the start.

    Also, this has nothing to do with the Florida arc, but as of last week's episode, Meredith is no longer my least favorite character. Kevin has been absolutely unbearable since season 3 but that pathetic cookie storyline was just too much. The show has definitely gotten broader and more over-the-top over the years, but I hate how Brian Baumgartner transformed Kevin from a nuanced character who was slow and easily amused but also tender and warm, into a completely dimwitted man-boy with no self-awareness. And it wasn't really even gradual; at some point in season 4 or so, it just became "Oh yeah, by the way, Kevin is an imbecile now."

    • Anthony Coro

      @Anthony Coro It's such a retread of the Jim/Pam story that I couldn't even finish my thought. Oops.

  • Buster Abbott@facebook

    It's maybe not a good sign for the show's long-term Catherine Tate plans that her character was so forgettable that it didn't even warrant a mention in this recap of the Florida arc.

    Couldn't care less about either Andy/Erin or Darryl/Val. I think I actively dislike the former more simply because we've had three seasons of it now and their 'will they or won't they?' fell victim to all the stupid contrivances we praised the show for avoiding with Jim and Pam getting together. Also, Andy's current girlfriend is by all appearances a great person so Andy is coming off like a d-bag by pining for Erin.

  • John Musco@facebook

    I won't consider the arc to be over until tonight's episode. Pam still has to react to Cathy or Jim needs to struggle with telling her what happened, we need some resolution to Ryan's failure at the presentation, and we don't know the manner in which Dwight and Jim are functioning together now.

    I feel like this article is being a bit presumptuous – and with good reason. It's not crazy to think that network executive logic will prevail and they will take the safe route now that (A) they weren't able to pin their ratings hopes on the box office luck that Ed Helms has been having and (B) they probably can't get Steve Carell back.

    But The Office has surprised me before and I think they can turn this all into an opportunity. I'd be happy to treat this season as a pallet cleanser with better things on the horizon.

    For the record, I don't think the Dwight spinoff will get past being a pilot.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogoldstein Pablo Goldstein

    I like the idea of this as a feature. For example, I thought the Parks and Rec writers screwed up tremendously by shutting down 720 Entertainment storyline. The way they ended it, it might as well have been the b-plot in a random episode.

  • J

    Okay so I know this is way after this season- but I just found this.

    I disagree with your opinions on Jim and the Cathy/Jim debacle. I really don't think he "went after her" in any way. Sure he is seen laughing with her one time. But he makes it a point to avoid her. In "Pool Party" he tries to leave to get home to Pam- if he was going after Cathy I'd like he would want to hang out with her outside of work. In addition, I don't think he did anything wrong in his room. He constantly looked uncomfortable, sat on the floor the minute she got there, and repeatedly reminded her he was married. In a deleted scene from this episode, he states he thinks she is "crazy" and she is seen saying she still thinks she has a chance- she is clearly a bad person because she is hell bent on breaking them up even after he has told her no. She also says in a deleted scene shes worried she will be fired when Pam returns (subsequently she is) but she has a rich friend shes going to marry. I'm GLAD they didn't kiss as I get why the writers did it. Jim and Pam are one of the most loved couples on a tv show. And honestly, one of the few reasons people stick watch is for the main cast of Jim, Pam, and Dwight.

    I don't think Jim is "HATED". Yes, everyone can agree his character has changed- so has Pam's. i hate new Pam compared to before her first baby. But they state in season 9 opener they are just showing how they've all changed. Jim is goofy to the point it's stupid sometimes, yes, and he's lost his initial charm. But part of the reason we rooted for him was because he and Pam weren't together. Now they are – happily, married with kids and there's not much they can do with him- hence him and Pam leaving in Season 9. Disappointed in his story yes, but using the term hated is way too much and inaccurate.

  • Jack

    I don't even see how you could come to any of the conclusions that you did. Are you even a real Office fan? Obviously not. Erin is a minuscule and slightly annoying character, how could you ever wish a spin off upon her instead of Dwight or Jim, two concrete characters who have been there since the beginning? Furthermore, what in the world could compel you to think that Jim is a hated character… Jim is by far one of the most loved characters on any television network. He goes above and beyond to make Pam happy, and has done so for nine seasons. Also, what do you mean nothing happened in the Pyramid arc? The whole show is based on practically nothing, it's just the every day antics of an business office and its workers. Do you expect someone to be murdered or something vastly climatic to happen in every episode? No. The writers did a fine job creating every episode of all nine seasons, and although the show did certainly change after the leave of Michael Scott, it in no way declined in quality.