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The most recent episode of The Office, “The Farm”, was an uneven mess, answering the question of what a Dwight-centric spinoff would be like (answer: not good), and reminding us that that the show is best when the characters stay within the confines of Dunder-Mifflin. Thank goodness for the newest episode, “Promos”, which reminds us of why we once loved the show. “Promos” puts the action squarely back in the office (mostly), with the workers we’ve come to know and love plodding along in the unexciting, oftentimes excruciating world of paper sales. This episode offers some scenes on Dwight’s farm, but mercifully few of them, and luckily the side gags don’t get in the way of the main plot.
But first we have to get through the strangest opening ever, which is really saying something for this particular show. Apparently Phyllis has taken to listening to audio books on her IPod, and she’s currently, um, enjoying 50 Shades of Grey in the office. Her co-workers are understandably horrified, but Toby explains that she can’t be fired for being aroused. Seriously. Dwight dumps cold water on her, which solves the problem. Andy filches her IPod for his own use and looks quite happy to listen to the notorious erotic book. Cue more water. Wow, that whole thing was pretty dirty.
This episode offers not only the main plot but a rare two side plots, which makes this episode feel overstuffed, especially since neither subplot is really memorable nor particularly funny. The in-office action revolves around a promo for the upcoming Dunder-Mifflin documentary, airing in May. The co-workers are thrilled to see scenes from the past eight years, and this plot device is also a sentimental Valentine for devoted fans. We finally see Michael! And Ryan! And sweet scenes of Jim and Pam! Angela and Dwight! Andy’s banjo!
Unfortunately, two complications threaten to detail the office mates’ exuberance at their sudden “fame” (or as much fame as a person can have as the star of a documentary about a regional paper sales company). Andy discovers the world of YouTube comments, and basks in the glow of positive remarks about his looks. But his legendary temper flares when he discovers some less-than-flattering comments, and the old Angry Andy resurfaces. Ah, remember the old days when Andy was a loveable buffoon? How sad to see the eccentric guy with the sweet falsetto reduced to a straight-up villain.
And most importantly, the Dunder-Mifflin gang finally FINALLY discovers that the documentary filmmakers were filming them at rather inopportune times, such as Angela and Dwight sneaking off for a warehouse rendezvous despite her martial status, and Stanley’s myriad indiscretions. (His revelation leads to a rather hilarious conversation in which Stanley tells his wife that an unspecified TV repairman has let them know that they need to keep their TV off). Angela and Oscar worry about the repercussions to the Senator, which leads to the episode’s funniest moment: a two-person voicemail in which Oscar and Angela gaily confess to outing the Senator as gay and cheating on him on camera. Angela ends the call with a hilarious “Love you!”.
The Dunder-Mifflin folks send Pam on a reconnaissance mission to find out how much the filmmakers have gotten on camera, a task which she agrees to with some reluctance. The viewers understand just how uncomfortable when she goes to visit her friend – and fired cameraman – Brian. He’s living in a hovel looking quite pathetic, and the two make excruciating small talk. Pam makes the critical mistake of asking Brian if he thinks Jim has changed over time, a question that Brian thankfully doesn’t answer.
The only redeeming moment of this plot comes when we finally get to Pam’s concerns about Jim: he’s so wrapped up in his new job that she worries he isn’t the same guy he used to be. Other than that, Pam quickly gets to the point of her visit, asking about just how much he and the other filmmakers were recording, and Brian confesses that they’ve had virtually no privacy for eight years. She storms out in a huff, and hopefully that’s the last we’ve seen of the Brian subplot. This development never felt right, for two reasons: one, it feels like a totally tacked on roadblock to eventual Jim/Pam happiness, and we've had enough of those (Remember Roy? Katy? Pam's art school? Jim's move to Connecticut?); two, we've supposed to believe that Pam has become so attached to this man, who we've never seen before, that she'd confide it him rather than an actual friend. This doesn't ring true, so let's be done with it, okay?
Speaking of Jim…he and Daryl are attempting to secure a new client Ryan Howard (the Phillies baseball player, not the former temp/VP/salesman and sometimes boyfriend to Kelly), aka E-Fresh. E-Fresh has a ton of really bad commercial ideas (Thugs! Space! Baseball players who are also superheroes!). Jim and Daryl are forced to play along, but at least we get a few minutes of Jim gamely acting out the athlete's terrible dialogue. This subplot is largely uninteresting, but we get to see our business partners nod and smile stupidly when E-Fresh asks about getting the rights to Darth Vader for one of his awful commercials, so there’s that.
The second subplot concerns Dwight and, indirectly, his farm. His new girlfriend, Esther, may or may not be using him to co-lease her father’s tractor. We get to see Angela compare Esther to a horse, which is vaguely funny, and then it turns out Esther really does like Dwight, and she has a friend who might like Clark. Snooze. It’s pretty obvious Esther is a stumbling block to the inevitable Angela/Dwight pairing, and I wish they’d just get to it already.
Like so many episodes of The Office in recent years, “Promos” both works and it doesn’t. When the characters are allowed to utilize their trademark mix of overt sentimentality and snark, the episode feels like one from the first few seasons. But there’s no denying that these are older, changed characters (as Pam points out to Stanley after watching the documentary promos) and sometimes seeing them in the same old office, eating pretzels and sniping at each other, feels sad instead of amusing.
Notes & Quotes
-- Clark isn’t given much to do this episode, other than field the advances of Esther’s sister, but he does get in one amusing zinger when Pam is watching old footage of her and Jim during the Roy area. He is perplexed, asking, “You fell in love with that hair?”
-- During a brief conversation with Stanley, Pam remarks that some of them have changed since the early days. Stanley responds that all of them have changed, and then munches on a pretzel, reminding us that, infidelities aside, he is the same old Stanley.
-- Toby attempts to impress his pseudo-girlfriend, Nellie, with the plot of the novel he’s writing. Her response? “I don’t care.” Ouch.
-- Angela, snarking gleefully about the attractiveness of Dwight’s new girlfriend, cheerfully informs the cameras that some men are chubby chasers.
-- Nellie trolls Andy, posting unflattering comments about him online and then watching him lose his mind. Well done, sir.
-- Kevin, painfully clueless as always, expresses surprise that the Dunder-Mifflin employees are actually participants in a documentary. He thought they were zoo specimens in some sort of experiment.