Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Office: "Secretary's Day"

In "Secretary's Day", The Office offers up what is easily the best episode of its beleaguered sixth season so far. Here, not one but two recent additions to the ensemble come into their own in big ways. That Ellie Kemper's moppet receptionist Erin could hold an arc all her own is no shocker; what's surprising here is the emergence of Zach Woods' Sabre suit Gabe as a formidable antagonist and lightning bolt for mockery. For a show that's felt wayward for so long now, it's nice to see the new characters developing in ways interesting and funny but also thematically important. The catch is that, if this season has taught us anything, that lesson is to doubt that the creators have anything decent or lasting in mind for their new tricks.

It's easy to confuse the fact that Gabe is a zero with the fact of his role on the show in the first place being worth not much more. The entire Sabre arc is an unbearable misfire, the worst result of which has been the seeming departure of Dunder Mifflin CFO David Foster Wallace, replaced by a mugging Kathy Bates and a terrible cameo from Christian Slater.

But now, left behind to hold court in Scranton while his more-famous boss cavorts down in Tallahassee, Gabe's powerlessness is beginning to reveal itself as interesting.

The Office has always walked a fine line between shit-talking and misanthropy; for an ensemble as closely knit as this, the characters sure do all seem to hate each other. The show is at its worst when, for example, Michael veers away from sympathetic into the realm of the asshole (see this season's "Date Mike" incident). In general, what with all the tearing down of every co-worker in the office (Kelly is an idiot, Toby is pathetic, Kevin is fat, Oscar is gay, Meredith is ugly, Creed is crazy, Ryan is a narcissist, Dwight is a megalomaniac, Angela is a prude), the show succeeds when we believe in these sorry people's ability to co-exist despite their differences.

Dwight, more often than not, is too much of a buffoon to pose any real threat to the show's major protagonists1 (Jim, Michael, and to a lesser extent, Andy2). The show is relentlessly beholden to the status quo: one of the running gags of the series is that these characters are all so mired in their positions (professional, social) that any real threats will be nullified before too long. The Michael Scott Paper Company got bought out by Dunder Mifflin, Dunder Mifflin got bought out by Sabre, Ryan got arrested for defrauding the DM stockholders and somehow regained his low-man position at the Scranton branch.

Gabe is the newest antagonist, the personification of a completely lame corporation that swooped in to buy Dunder Mifflin solely to manipulate the already-in-place sales infrastructure. In "Secretary's Day", he ends up with his tail between his legs having suspended Jim and Pam only to learn he's not allowed to do that and inadvertently gave them an extra couple of vacation days. This results in Kevin using to him to regain the dignity he lost in the cold open by making a cruel impersonation of Gabe's stuttering managementspeak.

What this reveals is that Sabre will likely prove yet another false governor, and if Gabe is the person that the corporation has marooned to watch over the branch, it will likely result in the Scranton operation going completely off course. The scenario of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton wheels coming off at the impotence and apathy of their new owners would, one might hope, result in sublimely zany antics. And if Gabe is the dweeb frantically running around trying in vain to quell the uprising, I'll be happy to watch.

Already, with less concrete responsibility than they've had in a while, the Scranton workers are primed for some good drama (another thing that's been sorely lacking this season3).

At a business lunch enforced by Andy in his crusade to make this the best Secretary's Day ever, Michael lets it slip that Andy was previously engaged to Angela. This is a source for conflict I hadn't seen coming, and yet it makes perfect sense that Erin would lose her shit over this. She's a pillar of naive innocence; her line that "in the foster house, my hair was my room" might be the best single character moment of the season. Living with her 'brother' and coming off an undercooked will-they-won't-they arc, Erin is a perfect match for Andrew Bernard because of their equal immaturity. I don't think this has been explicitly stated, but it's easy to imagine that hers with Andy was Erin's very first kiss, period. This relationship is uncharted territory and for Andy to have been previously engaged suddenly makes him seem dangerously deceptive.

A criticism of The Office originated by my brother-in-arms A.A. Dowd4 is that it plays season-worthy stories to their completion in a matter of episodes if we're lucky and in a single episode if we're not, as in the role reversal earlier this year in "Manager and Salesman". If the show has any series-long arc at all, it's in Jim's slow transformation into Michael, which has been touched upon more than once but never so directly as it was there. But, by the end of the episode, they'd switched places again and restored an infuriating status quo that we'd managed to avoid through most of the season with Jim acting as co-manager. Continuing at this rate, it's likely that Erin's forgiveness of Andy is right around the corner, though at the very least "Secretary's Day" managed to end before this, making it the first episode in a while that's had me looking forward to what happens next.

Will we be allowed to watch this play out over a longer period of time? The only fresh element left in the show right now, Erin has fast become a favorite among steadfast Office fans. It's already been more than apparent that the writing team is willing to play into this, but "Secretary's Day" is her first true spotlight. And it's actually pretty daring of that same team to risk shifting audience sympathies onto her in this way, as Andy has been the series underdog ever since he got out of anger management.

And what of that stint in mandatory anger management? Until recently, I would never have thought The Office would be the kind of show to allow inconsistencies in its characters, and now I have to hold out hope that this will come back to haunt him. He has so often appeared to be a ticking time bomb; even as I root for Andy, I think that at some point he just has to blow. If there's no tragedy left for the boringly perfect Jim and Pam, perhaps we can mine some from Andy and Erin.

It occurs to me that in talking about the show I want The Office to be, I end up sounding like I'm rooting against the ensemble of characters I've grown to love over the past five years. But this is because that's the show it is. Pam's artistic ambitions have been left by the wayside, as have Jim's intimations of rock stardom or, more realistically, moving to Philadelphia to work for the Inquirer5. There was a time that the real 'win' for Jim and Pam was not each other so much as it was getting out of Scranton, and at this point, they've both issued abortive attempts at doing just that. Now with a house and a baby to their name, the only honest, satisfying ending to the series has to be a tragic one, at least for them - the tragedy, at least, will be working at Dunder Mifflin for the rest of their lives and raising a family. The Office owes it to us to reveal the muddy water running beneath their domestic bliss. If the life of Jim and Pam together is perfect, then that's boring, and I'm still watching because I maintain that they aren't perfectly happy. If, however, NBC runs the show into the ground with endless machinations to keep these oblivious jokesters recycled in their jobs, that would be the true tragedy for a show that was once so unflinchingly honest a portrait of the American workplace and the American condition.

1.) See the early third season classic "The Coup", in which Dwight goes behind Michael's back to Jan and makes a not-illegitimate claim that he could run the office better, only to have Jan immediately phone Michael and tell him to gain some control over his employees. The episode ends, as they so often do, with Dwight being put to shame and humiliation in front of a giddy audience of co-workers. [back]

2.) Of course, Dwight did play a more-or-less villainous role in his love triangle with Andy and Angela - but the boys' ultimate reconciliation in response to Angela's treachery only reaffirmed how soft of heart they each are. To be fair, Dwight should really be included on the Protagonist List - this is why his war with Jim is so interesting. [back]

3.) I don't want to knock on Jim and Pam - to this day, the novelty of seeing them happy together has not quite worn off. But we can do better than an accidental baby swap, right? Right? [back]

4.) Dowd's perfect series wrap-up, hypothesized during Pam's pregnancy: "Pam has a miscarriage, Jim and Pam get divorced, Pam goes back to Roy, Michael retires and Jim takes his job." If the writers were at all interested in being true to their show they would come up with something like this. [back]

5.) A beautiful irony that Jim's job security has always been so low because he works for a company that pledges "Endless Paper for a Paperless World" and yet his quiet dream was to be a newspaper man. Jim is old school. [back]


  1. I agree that the Angela engagement made a good bombshell for Erin, and one I didn't see coming. "My hair was my room" was a pretty horrifying moment, really. I felt as though Michael Scott grew more disinterested than has been his established character (especially where a pretty girl is concerned) but "I'll have what she's having" kind of saved it from being *too* depressing for my taste.

  2. After an abundance of sweet, the show could use some savory.

    "My hair was my room" is an A+ line, but we must also give some credit to Kemper for knocking that scene out of the park, turning a panic attack into something relatable and even adorable.

    I don't have the same problem with Michael here that you do. He doesn't get *mean*; he tries to diffuse the situation rather than react in kind.

    Erin is pretty (duh) but she's not his type at all. He has a specific type and he's ignored pretty girls before when they didn't fit into it. His description of her as "kind of a rube" is quintessential Michael because while he's obviously not one to talk, he's also suprising with a keen observation. Michael has a slave fetish: he'll never notice a woman so easily influenced as Erin.

  3. I absolutely agree about the savory and the sweet.

    What pretty girl has Michael ignored in the past?

  4. Good one, I forgot about that. I'll have to go back and rewatch the episode.