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Week-to-Week: Returning to "Tallahassee" and Abaddonn
Revisiting old coverage and revealing our next coverage of old shows
Welcome to Week-to-Week, our mostly weekly newsletter about television and popular culture. We’re in the midst of our Fall Subscription Drive, and yearly subscriptions to all of our episodic reviews is 20% off through the end of September. Find out more about our fall schedule here.
If you’re new to the newsletter, and thus to my history as a television critic, then you might have been surprised like my friends and colleagues when they started emailing me early this year excited that I had been mentioned on an episode of Office Ladies, the Earwolf podcast where Office stars and real-life friends Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey break down each episode of the show.
But for those who’ve been following along for a while, this is only the latest chapter in an ongoing saga stemming from my coverage of The Office’s seventh and eighth seasons at The A.V. Club. It was my first assignment for the site, and I had no way of knowing that over a decade later I’d still be revisiting the experience of filing reviews knowing that not a single soul was going to be happy with them.
Much as my appearance in Andy Greene’s book-length oral history inspired much reflection (in the form of this dialogue with my editor at the time, Emily St. James), the Office Ladies’ ongoing investment in my reviews has similarly consumed my mind a bit (you can listen to them read the email I sent them about it here). It’s not only my academic interest in the very function of these celebrity recap podcasts, and how their use of my reviews offers an intuitive way to address criticism of the show’s later seasons without having to mount that criticism themselves (although I do have a lot of thoughts about that which I will share eventually). And it’s not just a base-level narcissism fed by fans of the podcast reaching out suggesting I should be a guest on the podcast, or the one intrepid Redditor who updates the weekly discussion posts on the podcast’s subreddit with my review score for that episode even if Fischer and Kinsey don’t mention it (shoutout to c0ry_N).
It’s also made me wonder if I’d actually feel differently about the episodes if I revisited them independent of the chaos that was writing for The A.V. Club at its peak. As she finished up covering Better Call Saul here at Episodic Medium, fellow A.V. Club alum Donna Bowman wrote about how the sheer intensity of the discourse that followed each review became overwhelming as she finished out Breaking Bad’s run and moved onto its prequel series, and how refreshing it is to have the best parts of that discourse without the chaos here in this newsletter. However, much as I agree, I also relished the debate, and spent more time in the comment sections than I did writing the review some (read: most) weeks.
But when you enter into an episode of TV with this mindset, it absolutely warps your perspective on what you’re about to experience. There’s an adrenaline attached to watching something knowing that you need to have an opinion of it almost immediately, and that you’re on an SEO-imposed clock to articulate that opinion as quickly as possible. And I have no doubt it created reactions that would be difficult for an average viewer to replicate, or necessarily understand, no matter how many words I used to try to describe them.
As I said, either in a final reflection when the Office Ladies reach the end of my time writing about the show or some other venue, I do have more to say about my time writing about The Office. But I’ve been looking for an opportunity to put myself in the shoes of the podcast’s listeners and just revisit an episode alongside Fischer and Kinsey without any of the stakes attached to it, and “Tallahassee” is an ideal candidate. Unbeknownst to me, Fischer reported in this week’s podcast that it represents the largest gulf between the show’s fans and my critical perspective—it is season eight’s highest-ranked episode on fan site Office Tally, and tied as my lowest-rated episode of season eight with a C-. And so I figured I could take some time out of my day to sit down, pull up the Peacock subscription I keep meaning to cancel, and see if Past Myles was on the wrong side of history.
The short answer is no—revisiting “Tallahassee,” I still don’t think it’s a particularly successful episode of The Office. I’ve never been a huge fan of the broader swings of Dwight as a character, and so hinging so much of the episode on his refusal to seek proper medical attention for appendicitis proves to be a one-note joke. And because only a few other cast members made the trip to Florida, there isn’t the same opportunity for stories like this one to connect to numerous supporting players, embracing the deep bench of the workplace. Splitting up the cast shakes things up, but it also restricts what each story can do, and it doesn’t help that one of the Florida slots is taken up by the absolute dead end that was Cathy, who was about to be unceremoniously written off after her heavily choreographed pass at Jim. Also, as the Office Ladies discovered when first encountering my reviews during the character’s last appearance, I just do not enjoy Todd Packer, and so David Koechner’s return here is basically primed to turn me against an episode.
I’d also argue “Tallahassee” suffers from the inverse of the problem I had with it on the night it aired. It’s the start of the “Florida” story arc, which followed in the footsteps of similar shifts wherein the cast were split across multiple locations (see: Michael Scott Paper Company, Jim’s time in Stanford). Back in 2012, this meant that I was reacting in real time based on the potential for the storyline, and realizing that the appeal of Catherine Tate’s reintroduced Nellie Bertram would be balanced by an extended arc of Todd Packer was…deflating. But now, the opposite problem is true, as I know how the Florida arc ended, and I can say definitively that this episode offered early evidence of the writers’ struggle to give Tate’s character a real chance to integrate into the ensemble, and was too focused on Dwight’s illness to get into the dynamics between Jim and Dwight that would be the Florida arc’s best quality.
There’s no question that returning to an episode like this one allows the brighter spots to shine through a bit easier. One-liners are more likely to connect when you’re not trying to write down every word to save for later, for example, so I definitely noticed how Erin—despite being trapped in a pretty dire will they-won’t they with Andy—was such a tremendous spotlight for Ellie Kemper even in episodes that weren’t clicking overall. But in retrospect, a huge part of my issue with the episode stemmed from the unearned pathos the writers tried to claim with a final scene of Andy missing Erin, as though it was remotely supported by their respective stories in the episode. Andy’s B-Story about the boss thriving as the fill-in receptionist was cute, but it featured some weirdly sexist behavior from Darryl and not nearly enough character development to sell me on a relationship that the show wasn’t ever going to make work the way they wanted it to.
Do I think “Tallahassee” maybe deserved better than a C-? Sure, and I said as much in my review of the following episode (as the Office Ladies pointed out in a breakdown of the discourse that involved a dramatic reading of the comment section). But even with some distance, there’s a simple truth at the heart of my time writing about The Office—I appreciated the show most when it dug into the emotional truths of its characters, and I don’t think this episode had the space necessary to connect the dots between Dwight’s behavior and any type of coherent character arc (despite Steve B’s protestation in the comment section). And this is something that some fans of the show were either less concerned with or had a different perspective on, which is perhaps a little easier for us to agree on when we’re not in the trenches of the comment war.
All in all, I don’t know if I’m convinced that returning to the show would dramatically shift my perspective on any given episode or the show overall, but it was a good opportunity to check in on Past Myles at a time when we’re digging into our recent past as part of our programming here at Episodic Medium. If you’ve been following along, you know that we reached our first threshold for our Subscription Drive, as we’ve brought in over 35 new yearly subscribers. And so I’m pleased to announce our next Episodic Classics selection, which happens to have debuted the same year as The Office aired its eighth season.
A decade before The White Lotus became an unexpected hit after being conceived as a COVID-friendly production, Mike White made another show for HBO: Enlightened. Few people watched it, though, despite the combination of Laura Dern, a murderer’s row of independent film directors, and the type of critical acclaim that mattered more in an era before Peak TV (but not enough to keep the show alive beyond a second season). It’s a show about work and mental health, and about the challenge of trying to get better in a world that doesn’t respect you, and its fiery protagonist Amy Jellicoe is the type of character that you want to revisit (or experience for the first time) to see how her war cry echoes in a new context.
And so when Dennis Perkins mentioned this as a show he’d be interested in covering for Episodic Classic coverage, I knew it was something that would be both a reason for fans to revisit a show that White Lotus’ success brought back into the conversation, and a push for those who have yet to find the time to dig the show out from underneath the sheer baggage of Peak TV backlogs to bring it to the top of the pile. Starting this Sunday, as HBO steps away from programming during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, we’ll take this opportunity to consider Amy, and Helen, and the rest of the cast of this short-lived but memorable half-hour drama (or comedy, a debate I expect we’ll get into in the comments).
Dennis’ reviews of Enlightened joins LaToya Ferguson’s coverage of The O.C., and if we hit our next benchmark of 70 new yearly subscribers we’ll expand our coverage further. I’m extending the special 20% rate on yearly subscriptions until the end of the month, so you have two extra weeks to decide if you want to make the commitment. Your support helps us extend our coverage, support our contributors, and ensure the longevity of this experiment, so if you think that 300+ TV reviews are worth your $40, there’s no better time to sign up than now.
Here’s some updated calendars to reflect some scheduling shifts as well as confirmed release dates, although we’re still waiting for a release date for The Curse:
Archives suggest I never wrote any reviews of Enlightened, but I did write this A.V. Club piece about its cinematography as part of an Emmy preview.
I liked this week’s Reservation Dogs, but I still contend that the season’s focus on cross-generational storytelling would have been even more effective with just a bit of scaffolding up front, especially in Graham Greene’s first appearance. It’s dramatically effective and dramaturgically suspect, keeping me from fully embracing the storytelling. If that changes by the time we hit the finale, I won’t be surprised, but I don’t feel like it would have weakened the story if the puzzle was clearer from the beginning of the season. Anyway, as I promised, we’ve been discussing the episodes
Apple TV+, as friend of the newsletter Meghan O’Keefe wrote about at Decider, is the one distributor really committed to programming during this strike-addled fall, announcing dates for one show we’re committed to covering (the fourth season of For All Mankind, which arrives November 10) and one that I’d thought we’d discuss covering in the spring but has moved into a fall slot (Godzillaverse epic Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which starts November 17). Will have to wait to see screeners to see if the latter is worthy of coverage, but as ever I always want to hear what people are looking forward to.
I don’t know that I’m necessarily motivated to finish out the season, but I was looking for a show to watch with my grad students to talk about different approaches to television criticism/analysis and chose the opening episode of The Other Black Girl, an Onyx Collective series on Hulu. Overall, I kind of wish the stylistic flourishes designed to push the show into horror territory were a bit more pervasive, but it’s definitely a propulsive starting point. It also, to the subject of this newsletter, features Brian Baumgartner in a role that reminded me that there’s just no way for me to separate the supporting cast of The Office from their characters. It’s just never happening.
I talked with Andy Greene about all seasons of the show, saying many positive things, but the first time I show up in his book is to complain about the Andy/Erin relationship, and…fair.