At the risk of getting very repetitive we’ll quickly revisit our season long question: Which Michael Scott did we see in the latest Office installment, “Scott’s Tots?” Well-meaning but confused and ill-prepared Michael or malicious, self-absorbed, cripplingly myopic Michael? Well, as usual, and probably as it should be, we were served some of both. But, as we’ll see, we at least ended with the more preferable of the two.
I didn’t mind this episode, but it also didn’t seem especially funny. Whereas I was in a social environment when I initially viewed “Mafia” from earlier this season, and even laughed heartily at it, I knew very quickly that episode wasn’t that humorous, at least not that good. On other hand, I watched “Scott’s Tots” alone at 2 in the morning which, I admit, could have been a detriment (I did, however, enjoy some leftover birthday ice cream cake, so, despite the hour, I still managed to fulfill my Office watching pre-requisite of either ice cream or NY pizza (and when I say NY Pizza I don’t mean “NY Pizza,” the moniker that every pizza place outside of NY throws onto its marquee in hopes of tricking the consumer into thinking their product is comparable to the thin, crispy, cheesy, heavenly Big Apple standard, and not what it really is, an inferior copy. Rule of thumb: if some pizza joint beyond the tri-state area bills their product as “NY Pizza,” you’re probably going to be disappointed. Also, unless they serve slices, it’s not NY Pizza. And now back to our regularly scheduled blogging)); perhaps I wouldn’t feel so ambivalent about it had I watched before midnight with a crowd. Still, my intuition says that it would have been the same. Not particularly hilarious, but, actually, a nice little episode, and the kind of more authentic offering that has been sorely needed of late.
It sounds rather absurd to say an episode in which we find out that 10 years ago Michael Scott promised a class of third graders that he’d pay for their college tuition is actually one of the more believable plots this season, but, incredibly, it’s the truth. Knowing what we know of Michael Scott, that his inflated sense of self-worth is matched only by his distorted understanding of the world (plus his undying need to be adored), this turns out to be a decision that we could understand, at least more than we could believe that Michael could completely embarrass his company in front of its shareholders and not face any retribution. Indeed, Vulture agrees, “telling a class of third graders he’ll pay for their college because he happens to be in a good mood and thinks he’ll be a millionaire someday is precisely something Michael would do.” Money, we know, is something that Michael has virtually no concept of, despite his record as an effective salesman (see Oscar explaining the branch surplus in terms of a lemonade stand, or, similarly, Oscar proving Michael with the most basic bullet points concerning Dunder Mifflin’s recent financial failures, or Michael’s ill-advised purchase of his condo). Early in season 4 (during the series low-point) in the episode “Money” we even see Michael moonlight as a telemarketer in order to fend off his increasing debt. Clearly, Michael would have no place in the accounting department (although, if someone like Michael was in charge he might get placed there, as we found out late in the episode that Kevin originally applied for a job in the warehouse, only to be placed in Accounting instead, because Michael had a “feeling”). However, beyond Michael’s evident ineptitude with money, I think his reckless promise to the kids was less a result of his misguided financial prognostication and more a symptom of his real major crutch, his yearning to be admired, revered, loved.
If Michael fancies himself as a friend first, a boss second and entertainer third, number four would have to be “well-respected and universally well-liked man of the community” (or, I guess, the first three are all indicative of a greater desire embodied by the fourth). Indeed, he basically admits this explicitly in the season two episode “The Fight,” saying, “I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” And we saw this again this year when Michael dated Pam’s Mom, his overriding desire to be loved obscured the truth that a) he should not be dating his employee’s mother, and b) Mrs. Beasely is too old for him. But of all the moments and quotes from The Office past, this story most reminded me of “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” when we discovered a young Michael’s sad appearance on a local children’s show, depressing a puppet by disclosing his life’s dream to “have 100 kids, so I can have 100 friends, and no one can say ‘no’ to being my friend.” By promising to foot the college bills for a class of students Michael didn’t quite acquire 100 friends, but he certainly gains the admiration and friendship of the dozen or so “Scott’s Tots.” This is why Michael’s confession that he will not be able to supply their tuition is so crushing; not so much because he his dashing these kids’ dreams, but because he will be losing his friends, these kids who so reverently refer to him as “Mr. Scott.”
Vulture also posited that this was an especially depressing episode. But that’s what actually made it somewhat of an improvement, as its depressing quality was a result of sticking to the true nature of its characters. That was Michael Scott, and that is the horrible, uncomfortable, sad position that he put himself explicitly in. His heart is often in the right place, but his brain has been on a perennial two hour lunch break at Capello’s. That’s who he is, and that’s probably never going to change, and, yes, that’s kind of depressing. But that’s what this show has been about, being stuck in a dead-end job in a dead-end town. Some people might get out, but Michael will not be one of them, even if he does fancy himself the King of New York, visiting his favorite authentic NY ‘za place (and you thought that whole NY pizza digression was completely unrelated).
But, while this episode might be predicated on Michael’s inevitable inability to get out of his own way, it did end with a feeling of hope, even if it came from Michael himself. In what was probably the best, sweetest closing since the wedding we were given a rather touching exchange between Michael and Erin, the new secretary who Michael spent all episode inveighing against, labeling her a poor Pam surrogate. But Erin, however misguided, wasn’t deterred, and pointed out to Michael that his (empty) promise to those third graders prompted them to work hard and graduate, that, even though Michael couldn’t pay their tuition, without him those kids might not have gotten to college at all. It’s a very slim silver lining, but it’s a slim silver lining nonetheless. And Michael, buoyed by Erin’s support, reverses course and lets her know that he thinks she is doing a good job, and that he also has a “feeling” about her. While Michael may never become the millionaire he hoped, and have the 100, or even 21, kids he wanted, there’s still hope for him to find his small niche. And, even though Michael is thinking about Erin’s potential in Dunder Mifflin, for someone like her the world is open wide. And, no matter what, no matter how many lives Michael ruins, he won’t stop dreaming. And there’s something comforting in that.
Back in the office we witnessed another elaborate scheme perpetrated by Dwight in hopes of getting Jim fired. After Dwight’s feigned uproar over the raises in “The Promotion” and his gift of the surveillance mallard, the Dwight conniving to get Jim canned storyline is wearing a little thin. Especially since the trap in which Dwight ensares Jim , engineering a new employee of the month program that Jim will unfairly win, is a situation that could easily be explained and rectified. In its history The Office has done a commendable job of avoiding the typical Friends-like sitcom trope of a miscommunication that leads to further machinations and miscommunications, ultimately resulting in “side-splitting hilarity.” No, for all the characters and silliness in The Office, they usually manage to keep the situations real and allow the characters to behave in a fitting, authentic matter, i.e. explaining a simple misunderstanding calmly and effectively. This is especially valid for Jim, who has always been the voice of reason, the individual who can circumvent Michael’s circular logic. So then, to see Jim fall prey to Dwight’s plan, and then twist in the wind as the rest of the staff bellow their dissatisfaction, and then humble himself before David Wallace, feels somewhat disingenuous. The show has always set Jim up as someone who has skills that far exceed the demands of Dunder Mifflin and Scranton. Simply, he seemed destined for bigger and better things. And it appeared that this promotion was designed to show Jim that he should not be wasting his time trying to get ahead in a near-extinct, bankrupt company, and instead should focus his immense talents elsewhere. If, then, the real point of his ascendancy is to illustrate that Jim wasn’t suited for a managerial position, that he’s not special like we all thought he was, well, then that is depressing.
Final note on the credit sequence, in which Ryan and Dwight agree to join forces to take down Jim: typically these final add-ons don’t play into the overall narrative, and often appear anachronistically (for example, the final scene in “Shareholder Meeting” showed Dwight posing a question to the board, even though at the end of the episode he sped away in the limo), so how serious should we take this Schrute-Howard alliance? My sense is that, even though their handshake appeared on what is often the vestigial portion of the show, their pact will come into play. And as Jim handily dealt with Ryan last week (banishing him to a supply closet), hopefully we’ll see the same confidence and swift action when he takes on this combined threat.
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Hey, Mr. Scott, whatcha gonna do???