Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute on NBC's The Office.
The Office struggled mightily with the episodes surrounding the departure of manager Michael Scott (and actor Steve Carell). There were great moments, particularly in Michael's relationship with his girlfriend Holly and in his colleagues' rallying to say goodbye, but there were a lot of bad moments, too. A guest arc from Will Ferrell was both distracting and limply written.
But last night was the first post-Ferrell episode without Carell; in other words, the first episode carried by the rest of the cast without the man who was the lead. And this installment, "Dwight K. Schrute, Acting Manager," restored faith that not only can the show get back on its feet after this sloppy transition, it may be able to survive without Carell.
Dwight's ascension to acting manager returned The Office instantly to the dynamic it relied upon originally, in which a motley band of frustrated office workers rebel against the often silly requirements of their jobs. Dwight's ka-chunking time clock, staggered lunch breaks, and video-enforced "honor system" on the coffee pot all felt like vintage Office moments — moments that faded as the edges were sanded off Michael's personality and most of the employees grew more tolerant of him.
Michael's evolution over the seasons was probably necessary and it was often satisfying. But it removed a lot of the tension of the original premise, because it made everyone's jobs seem substantially less despair-inducing.
Last night, Dwight brought back the despair, and with it, the rebellion. Seeing him blackmailed by his co-workers as they threatened to reveal to the boss (played by Kathy Bates) that his gun had gone off at the office was darkly satisfying, from Kevin's insistence on a hilariously executed back rub to Angela's demand for "Pet Day" with no dogs allowed.
And, of course, it allowed Jim to mess with Dwight again, a slice of the show that's been missing in action for quite a while, and which hasn't seemed so satisfying as Dwight, too, became a softer and nicer character. Having Dwight abuse his power so grandly gave Jim a reason to go back to poking him, as he did when he put up flyers advertising the formation of "The Fist." If anything, Jim might have come off much too mean, if not for the good-hearted coda. (I do wish we'd seen even more of Dwight's coerced response to Jim coughing.)
There were other good notes as well, particularly one of the first episodes to use the very funny Zach Woods effectively as poor Gabe, who hilariously muscled Andy (Ed Helms) into promising not to get back together with Erin (Ellie Kemper). That storyline has been inconsistent, but last night, it worked.
It's a good episode, and it bodes well for the show's ability to survive Carell's exit. It's still early, but there's hope.