Splitsider

Monday, March 18th, 2013

'The Farm': Why 'The Office's Backdoor Pilot Didn't Work

Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in and looks at the shows that didn’t make it past their first episode and saved us all a ton of grief.

After nine seasons of The Office, a spinoff seemed inevitable. The show’s overwhelming success and incredibly popular characters were too good to lose, especially for the flailing peacock. Of the show’s original cast, few characters rose higher than Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute. As Michael Scott’s loyal assistant to the regional manager, Dwight was violent, sociopathic, archaic, and strangely likable.

Like Dwight, Wilson was loyal to The Office. As Steve Carell launched into the superstardom and Ed Helms joined comedy’s most successful wolf pack, besides a few lower profile roles, Rainn stayed at his desk and did his work. So after nearly a decade of hard work, it only seemed fair to give The Office’s second most popular character his own show, right?

For the better part of a year, we’d hear updates on The Farm, a spinoff series in which Dwight, his cousin Mose, and the rest of the Schrutes ran a bed and breakfast on their infamous beet farm. But the show was not meant to be; NBC passed on the pilot, which was later recut and inserted into the final season.

The vivisected version of “The Farm” plays like a substandard episode of The Office, complete with a particularly bland Todd Packer B-plot. Dwight returns home for his Aunt Shirley’s funeral, reunites with his pot-farming brother Jeb and estranged sister Fannie, and inherits his Aunt's farm, if he can convince his siblings to stick around and help run it.

“The Farm” is far from the worst episode of The Office (it's remarkably watchable considering how many scenes are missing), but it does improperly subvert many of Dwight's characteristics, as well as the foundations of Fannie and Jeb. For years, Dwight has been a bit of an antagonist. If Jim Halpert is an audience surrogate, Dwight is his foil, breaking the social conventions of modern society. Other than his romance with Angela, he never does much to look sympathetic or redeemable. In “The Farm,” however, Paul Lieberstein asks Dwight to be the unifying Schrute. The likable hero we’ve never seen.

However, in the first third of this episode, Dwight isn’t much of a hero and doesn’t pose as one. He spends the cold opening throwing dirt in the face of his coworkers and tests his aunt’s death by littering her corpse with shotgun shells. As the episode continues, he undergoes an unearned transformation. When his aunt offers the farm to him and his siblings, Dwight takes a deep breath and accepts. He immediately forgets about his life in Scranton, disregarding the last eight years of loyalty to Dunder Mifflin, and joins the farm without much conflict or thought. Jeb and Fannie follow suit, despite having no business being there. Jeb runs a successful marijuana farm in California, which affords him with the money to buy a convertible and drive it into his aunt’s open grave, while Fannie is a single mother, who supposedly abandoned country life decades prior. Just as Dwight leaves his life at Dunder Mifflin, Jeb and Fannie stick around without much motivation.

It’s hard to fault longtime writer, director, and former showrunner Paul Lieberstein, writer and director of the episode, for “The Farm”’s shortcomings. "The Farm" has lost many of its elements since it was cut from 60-minute pilot to a twelve minute story arc, leaving bizarre loose ends, awkward character introductions, and a wealth of plot holes. It’s messy and rushed, a fractured version of its complete self that fails to achieve the goals it sets.

The episode is about reclaiming your birthright, but aside from Dwight, no one gets the opportunity to express this. The Office has long been great at showing off the natural talents of even the most incompetent characters. Michael Scott proves his salesmanship every now and then, but for all the crow beaks, traditions, and backwards epigrams, only Dwight seems to fit the family name. These other Schrutes just don't feel like Schrutes. Jeb eats some soil and Fannie’s son needs a role model, but no one ever gets the chance to show that they belonged on the farm, and all The Decemberists songs in the world aren't going to prove otherwise.

Matt Schimkowitz is a writer, TV-watcher, and noted washboard player. Find more writing about canceled TV shows and other irrelevant nonsense on the twitter and blogosphere, respectively.

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  • jarod

    It's unfortunate that something couldn't come together for at least a season, or attempt at season. The cast was/is good enough that I'd watch based on that alone.

  • http://twitter.com/zacharylittle Zachary Little

    I didn't think that episode was particularly "watchable." Shotgun gag aside, that was a grinding ordeal. I don't know why I do this to myself, week after week (OK, well, this is NBC scheduling we're talking about so I should say "I don't know why I do this to myself once every three weeks and occasionally twice back to back in one week and then not again for two months").

  • BustaMimes

    I thought it was strange that Angela wasn't invited to the funeral even though the prior episode was about her helping Dwight take care of Aunt Shirley. She also didn't seem to have any reaction to hearing about Aunt Shirley's death.

  • Jack Little

    Dwight's allegiance to DM had consistently and obviously shriveled throughout the years as DM consistently and obviously slighted and screwed him over. It became apparent early on that his allegiance was always more to Michael Scott than DM. Any allegiance to DM was purely for power 95% of the time. Not to paper, not to DM and at best only to the familiar.

    So, his moving to The Farm made perfect sense. It's still a power play for him and his character throughout the years has known that DM is a dead end. He's just been having trouble reconciling that. His love life is dead in the city, his two best friends which are sadly Pam and Jim are obviously heading out. He has nothing left in the city. Absolutely nothing.

    Sorry, it just grinds my gears when people act like the premise is asinine. It isn't. The execution was. Much like everything after Steve Carell left. (and a lot up to it, but at least that departure was done well, relatively speaking).

    It was just poor writing that made Angela matter longer than she should have. Much like the STUPID Ed Helms crap post Steve Carell. My god, they get you to barely care about him and then DESTROY that character all over again making him a total unlikeable annoyance. Plus the TORTURED "romance" of Andy and Erin. RAGE! So stupid.

    But I digress. The Farm would have been perfect if it was half a season after Michael Scott left DM. PERFECT. Perfect timing story arc, and you still cared about the characters enough to care about a spin-off in the first place. You were getting bored of them but it wasn't enraging and stupid yet.

    Now… everyone just wants these characters put out of their misery because the show's writers have done an AWFUL job at making the show anything but a train wreck.

  • Lindsay Crystal

    I would have watched every episode of the farm!