Season 5 Mid-Season Arc: The Michael Scott Paper Company

Remember when I said that despite the first signs of a drop in quality I was going to keep going with season 5 because it was still carried by strong performances and still had plenty of opportunity for humor?

Well, I did the right thing because WOW, this was one of the best multiple-episode storylines the show has ever attempted. The really impressive thing about it? You know pretty much exactly how it’s going to end, but I was still really invested in the plotline anyway.

This was better drama than comedy. That is sometimes a sign that a comedy is going into decline (as was the case with “MASH”), but I don’t think that’s fair here. None of the plots were played completely serious. They just had a lot of moments and scenes with excellent dramatic tension.

The story started in “New Boss”. The episode is interesting and plays with a few things we know about Dunder Mifflin. When Idris Elba’s character walks in, he doesn’t actually do anything particularly terrible. In fact, he seems to be extremely competent. But he stomps all over Michael’s way of doing business, and on the day of Michael’s fifteenth anniversary at the company. Worst of all, he cancels his party, making Michael understandably upset.

David Wallace, the corporate boss, does his best to smooth things over, promising Michael that he will have his party and he will attend personally, but in a stunning piece of acting by Carrell, Michael refuses the olive branch. His “I quit” was a jaw-droppingly powerful line, and it showed some actual character growth by Michael, who would normally be moved by such petty demonstrations of friendship.

What makes this episode so interesting is that, as we’ve repeatedly been told this season, Michael’s Scranton branch is actually doing extremely well – the only branch in the company doing so well, in fact. Idris Elba seems competent, but there’s really no reason to be changing the way Scranton works. To the contrary, they’re the one branch you really want to leave alone. So in one very real way Michael is right about Idris Elba’s forced intrusion into Scranton: It’s probably a mistake.

The episodes further into this arc remained strong. In another shocking moment in the next episode, Pam decides to join Michael in his new quest to start the “Michael Scott Paper Company”, an obviously doomed attempt by Michael to rival Dunder-Mifflin’s business. This sterling episode, “Two Weeks”, is also the first time we’re really sold on Michael over Elba’s character. He acts like a domineering prick to Michael, not content to stuff him in a corner for four more days but calling security on him and having him forcibly convicted, then cutting him off when he tries to give his last good-byes to the office. It’s a real dick move that loses a lot of sympathy we may have previously had for him.

I loved the way the show handled the other Dunder-Mifflin employees’ reaction to his leaving. Celebrations and happiness would have been over the top, and more importantly wouldn’t have fit with the show tonally; as discussed previously, nobody really hated Michael. Not everybody adored him, but all of them tolerated him and there was a hint of sadness at his removal as well.

Elba is technically the more competent boss, but he also doesn’t know his employees at all and refuses to give them any leeway. Michael may have given them too MUCH leeway (or, again, maybe not, as the branch was performing remarkably well), but Elba keeps the place close to completely silent, and he gives the receptionist job temporarily to Kevin (who can hardly string two words together) and the “productivity czar” position to the apathetic “Working-here-until-I-die” Stanley.

I’ll gloss over a lot of the details in the comical building of the Michael Scott Paper company, except to say that Michael and Pam’s budding relationship was quite nice to see and the re-introduction of a now blonde-haired Ryan was a welcome addition. Suffice to say that, against all odds and logic, the Scott paper supply company managed to steal ten clients from under Dunder-Mifflin’s nose.

Granted, they did it by charging so little that they didn’t have enough money to sustain the business, but…still. This gets the attention of Wallace and Idris Elba (amusingly, Wallace is the only guy Elba’s character seems to be afraid of), who invite Michael, Pam, and Ryan into a meeting to discuss buying them out.

This is the section I wanted to talk about, because of the really interesting way it handled Michael’s character. I was struck by how confident and competent Michael actually was in the negotiations. In fact, he looks damn close to brilliant, calling Wallace’s initial bluff and forcing him to make a 60,000 dollar offer to the fledgling, dying company (!!!).

Of particular note in this scene is the great moment where Michael realizes why Wallace is suddenly so desperate to negotiate: Within just a few months, his job is on the line. So, Michael concludes, he doesn’t need to beat Dunder-Mifflin. He just needs to last out Wallace. It’s the point in the sale where Michael goes from looking awkward to barely competent into a genuine force to be reckoned with, and both Wallace and Elba’s character look at him with new respect.

Also of note here is an excellent example of why Elba’s character doesn’t quite know how to handle Scranton the way Michael does. Dwight has been acting completely ridiculous the entire meeting (threatening to destroy Michael’s office via bees?), and this causes Elba’s character dismiss him when he finally comes up with the concrete, usable fact that Michael’s company is probably going to fail within the month. Michael, used to dealing with the craziness of Dwight, would never have let such an insight slip by him just because Dwight acted like an idiot earlier (though, granted, his self-absorption could have lead him to rejecting Dwight for other reasons entirely).

And there is one last moment where Michael gets to look astonishingly competent, when he rejects the 60,000 deal and instead negotiates his way back into their old jobs at Dunder-Mifflin. The whole scene is remarkable, the acting by all involved excellent and the writing funny and dramatic at the same time.

What a great series of episodes, capped by a throwback to Michael’s expulsion from the office when Michael cuts off Elba’s character mid-sentence and shoves him out the door.

I’m going into the last episode of season 5 next, and the show has definitely turned the season around into something really strong. Kudos to the creative team for the excellent story arc.

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From the office of Cane Caldo: Ironic Disdain and “The Office”

Friend of the blog Cane Caldo has a post up where he makes a pretty good case that show drives its humor from ironic disdain of the world and its characters.

It’s a strong case, and he makes some good points. I encourage you all to read the post. That said, I don’t think I agree, or not completely.

In season one, when the show tried to be a carbon copy of the British version of the show (which, by the way, Cane’s argument DEFINITELY applies to), I probably would have agreed. But from season two on, I’m not so sure.

First, let’s talk about Jim. I love the character, but Jim is a dick. No question about that. That said, I think it might be going too far to say that Pam SHOULD marry Roy. “The Office” does a pretty good job selling the shy Pam and boorish Roy’s (and he was boorish) essential incompatibility. Or at least, Fisher does. I’m not sure if the writers could have sold it to me without Fisher’s excellent performance. But I don’t know if it’s enough to say they SHOULD have gotten married just because he works harder and is less of a jerk than Jim. As Dalrock has pointed out, telling women to settle for somebody they’re not really happy with is not generally a good idea.

To move further on: The reason I don’t totally agree with Cane is because I like the characters too much.

Cane says this:

The Office seduces members of the audience into disdaining everyone; that respect, joy, and love are only illusions in a world composed of selfish pursuit. It is of a piece with the works of The Office’s cynical and atheist creator Ricky Gervais. We–the audience–are the Roys, Michaels, Dwights, Phyllis’, and Merediths of the world. But like Michael Scott we pretend that the Jims of the world are our friends; that like Jims we too are in on the joke. The truth is we are all the joke to Gervais.

The problem is that I think the show spends too much time building up fondness for these characters for this to be really true.

Consider the turning point of the series, the classic episode “The Dundies”. Michael, for the first time, is not shown to be a bad man. He desperately wants to be liked and he’s tremendously un-self aware, but he’s ultimately sincere and doesn’t mean any harm. And the entire office still shows up to the show. I forget who said it – perhaps Oscar? – but one character described it as a birthday party where only the kid enjoys it but you show up anyway to keep him happy. This shows a certain grudging fondness for their boss.

And Pam sees what’s happening and tries to cheer him up with a real moment of good will and fondness for her boss.

And this isn’t the first time stuff like this happens. In one episode Pam has an art show that almost nobody shows up at, but when Michael does show up in a rare moment where he seems to be saying something not just to be liked but because he means it Michael offers to buy the painting from Pam and tells her he’s proud of her, moving him to tears. In moments like this, we’re meant to sympathize with both characters and even like Michael Scott; there’s no hint there that we’re supposed to have any sort of disdain for them.

And the show continues this theme of making fun of the characters while keeping them sympathetic, even likeable.

There’s a great parallel to the British Office that really underscores the difference in attitude between the two shows. Both series had downsizing storylines. In the British version, David Brent, the British boss, gets promoted and leaves his employees to the wolves, but fails the physical (heh), and when he comes back he pretends he refused the job to save them.

In the American version, the same thing happens, but with one important difference: It’s the boss of the other branch who quits and throws his employees out, not Michael. Jim sums up why we like Michael when he says “Say what you will about Michael Scott, but he would never do THAT.”

And it’s true. Michael, for his part, travels down to the house of the company CEO and camps out in the foolish hope that he can somehow talk him out of downsizing Scranton. Michael is selfish and childish, but he’s no David Brent.

So I don’t think we’re supposed to have ironic disdain for the characters. We’re meant to laugh at them, and to recognize their flaws, but the show builds up too much goodwill between the characters and audience for me to really admit that the message of the show is that real, genuine emotion and love don’t exist. To the contrary, time and time again the characters prove that, despite some asshole-ish things that they do, they really DO believe in friendship and love.

Another scene underscoring this is the season 4 premiere. When Michael hits Meredith with his car, he organizes a race to cure rabies in an effort to atone for his actions (look, it makes sense in context). This is obviously a dumb and ultimately selfish act of self-delusion meant to absolve him from guilt, but there’s a real moment in there where Michael seems to genuinely believe that he needs to finish the race for Meredith.

This could be taken the way Cane says, that we’re supposed to believe that apologies and forgiveness are inherently fake, but I think this is undercut when Meredith hears about this and is genuinely touched, and so decides to forgive Michael herself. She recognizes that beneath his stupidity and selfishness the guilt and desire for reconciliation is real.

So, there’s my case. What do you “Office” fans think? Am I right, or is Cane?

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The Office: Season 5

Okay, I lied. I’m about half way through. But I think I’m far enough to speak a little about it.

So, bluntly: This is the first time that I actually felt the quality drop in the show a bit.

Just a bit! The show is still good. But this time I think it’s clearly not quite on the level of seasons 2 through 4 (with the exception of the semi-classic “Diversity Day” season one wasn’t very good).

And yes, I’d put 4 up there with seasons 2 and 3. MAYBE there was a slight drop-off, but it was definitely slight, and as far as I’m concerned the two part punch of the gut-wrenching “Deposition” and grimly hysterical”Dinner Party” might be the show’s all time high point. So season 4 was not the drop off point for me.

Season 5 has still been consistently good, and occasionally great. Something feels off about it. Bullet points:

  • The more I think of it, the more I’m inclined to say that the Jim and Pam storyline is the big issue. I’m on the record as saying that was one of my favorite parts of the show in “The Office’s” real heyday, but this season made it way too easy. There really should be more conflict. If I were the writers, I wouldn’t have gotten the duo together yet, and instead done it like the British “Office” and made it happen in the finale. I wouldn’t want a Ross/Rachel thing (ugh, that was terrible) where it goes on again/off again, but the duo’s pre-couple dynamic was really great, and something seems to be missing.
  • Come to think of it, it might even be a good idea to get the duo together but introduce some other important conflict, like a legitimately good reason to hide it from the rest of the group, or a good reason to delay the marriage that actually causes some tension. Just something to make it less of a straight line slanting upward.
  • On the other hand, the issue may be Pam. She got her nice moments in the two-parter “The Lecture Circuit” (by the way, how IS Scranton doing so well? Considering what we see of them each week I’m not even sure how that’s possible. Michael’s a good delegator, maybe?), but overall the new, assertive Pam really loses some of her charm. I liked shy Pam more.
  • All of this said, there were moments of brilliance nested in there as well. The cold open for “Stress Relief”, where Dwight fakes a fire, might have replaced Prison Mike as my all-time favorite scene in the show. So many great bits in that scene – Oscar trying to escape through the ceiling and falling through, Angela throwing her cat up with him,, Kevin stealing all of the candy from the vending machine, Jim using the copier as a battering ram to break the door down…absolutely brilliant comedy.
  • Steve Carrell continues to be sterling, somehow managing to portrays Michael’s selfishness and childishness concurrently with his genuine love for his employees and his burning desire to be liked while keeping the characterization consistent. The roast scene in “Stress Relief” is a real highlight for him. Carrell is a master at conveying emotion through body language. He’s a terrific physical actor.
  • “Weight Loss” was another great episode. “To me, you are all gigantic losers!”. Ha!
  • Another great moment: Jim pretending to be “Mr. Buttlicker” in the episode customer survey. Man, that was funny.

Halfway mark season grade…I don’t like grades. They’re weirdly difficult to handle – my go-to example is that I would originally have marked season one of “Justified” an A- and season 5 a B+, except that I thought season 5 was better. So call this “Thumbs up and heartily recommended, if not the show in its absolute prime.”

Also, things can still improve or get worse. I’m only halfway through the season. So let’s see.

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Making Things More Personal

Here is a nice reminder that all of this involves real people on both sides doing real things.

Instead of summarizing Mr. Wright’s post I’ll quote the important part:

At the reception just before the Awards Ceremony itself, my lovely and talented wife, who writes for Tor books under her maiden name of L Jagi Lamplighter, and who had been consistently a voice of reason and moderation during the whole silly kerfluffle, approached Mr. Patrick Nielsen Hayden at the party to extent to him the olive branch of peace and reconciliation.

Before she could finish her sentence, however, Mr. Hayden erupted into a swearing and cursing, and he shouted and bellowed at the tiny and cheerful woman I married.

To give you an idea of the person he yelled at, here is an example of Mrs. Wright’s nonfiction:

So, next time you feel the urge to bridge the endless gap—and maybe talk to that crazy lunatic on the other side who used to be a bosom buddy—try this simple trick:

Pick the lines the other person says that upset you the most. Ignore them. Just pretend that they are not there. Pretend that they are static. Noise.

Because, chances are, that to him, it is just noise.

And you’ve been missing the signal, tuning it out, all along.

Then, listen closely to whatever he seems to think is the most important part–even if it sounds like mad nonsense to you. NOT, mind you, what he says at loudest volume—that is likely to be noise, too—the part he speaks about fervently or with reasoning.

From there, you can often find a bridge, a common point of agreement—because at the very least, you now know what the important issues actually are. To use my first example: you are speaking kindness to kindness or threat to threat.

Even if you can’t agree, at least you will be talking signal to signal, instead of noise to noise.

It’s difficult, but after a few tries, you’ll be a champion Great Divide bridger in no time.

Give it a try.

Yeah. THIS is the person he yelled at and cursed at, then stormed off. Not, mind you, Mr. Wright, the person he actually had the issue with. His wife, whose only intention when approaching him was to offer an olive branch of reconciliation.

So, let me tell you why I say this is making things more personal: I’ve spoken with Mrs. Wright.

Not in person, but through private e-mail conversations, as in, not in group chats or mass emails to large groups of evil. We spoke on a direct, one to one basis. Here is what happened:

After my co-editor and I came up with the idea to put together an anthology of theological robot stories, we needed to decide who we wanted to ask to write for us. I had two people in mind immediately, and as we brainstormed other possible authors to ask it occurred to us to try to get in touch with Mrs. Wright. She was one of the first authors to get back to us.

At this time, both my co-editor and I had absolutely no idea how to go about making an anthology. We explained to Mrs. Wright our central conceit, she accepted our offer, then questioned our payment method.

Without going into financial details, our original payment idea was to fund it as if it was a magazine – each author would be given a certain amount of money per story, paid in advance. It was Mrs. Wright who first gently pointed out to me that this is generally not how anthologies work, then gave us examples of more typical payment methods.

She then invited us to ask her more questions about making anthologies, she having been involved in the editing process of several. She answered several questions and even, when necessary, went out of her way to get other editors in on the discussion to help answer our questions. Eventually, when she asked us who the publisher was going to be and we answered “Don’t know”, she personally introduced us to the editor of a publishing house who has since been working with us throughout the process.

She did all of this for us for no good reason except that that’s the kind of person she is. We had never met her, spoken to her, interacted with her, or done anything but regularly read her nice blog and some of her fiction; she possibly remembered me as the guy who got into the long argument with her husband that involved me leaving his blog in a huff.

The story that she later submitted to us was, of course, fantastic, and throughout the making of the anthology Mrs. Wright has been nothing but an absolute delight to work with, polite, enthusiastic about the project, easy to work with, and very helpful.

So when I read this, my first reaction was real anger. Everything I’ve heard from everybody who has spoken with Mrs. Wright has matched up with my assessment of her. This was an uncalled for, unprovoked attack on a person whose intent was to make a peace offering, and about as kind of a person as I’ve ever talked to.

What disgusting, dirty, despicably, cowardly thing it is to verbally accost a man’s wife when the man himself is in the room.

The long story short – I officially and fully support the Tor boycott, encourage all of you to do the same, and now consider myself an official Rabid Puppy supporter. When fools consider actions such as these acceptable, it’s time to tear the system down.

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Noah Ward is the Big Winner

Four wins for Noah Ward tonight.

Biggest disappointment: Not Noah Warding Best Novelette. The winner was “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”. One of the worst things I’ve ever struggled through. Really terrible.

Ah well. Four Noah Wards is still a pretty good result ultimately. Five would have been better and Puppy wins would have been best, but overall I’d call the night a success.

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Going FAR off Script

I will be submitting a haiku, or, more technically accurate, a senryu*, to a few publications. It is called “Metamorphosis” and is about the death of a loved one. It does not follow the 5-7-5 structure, because I like how it flows better with its separate syllable count. So there.

Payments are generally token, something like $1.50 to $10.00. But if nothing else if I can get an editor to accept it I’ve proven that I can work in multiple forms (Japanese poetry!!!) and that I’m not a single editor author.

So wish me luck.

*Just google it.

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Finished Season Three…

…And well into season 4. So, more “The Office” talk.

If you don’t like it, well, hey. My blog, man.

I’ll bullet point it:

  • I’m not fully sure why, but I’m actually really invested in the Jim/Pam stuff. I think it’s Jenna Fischer. Her smile is incredibly infectious. Just looking at it cheers me up. Extremely attractive, but she has the “girl next door” thing down pat. Her performance is very underrated.
  • Season three might have been slightly worse than season 2, but the whole season is worth it for Prison Mike. And the Ben Franklin episode.

    Seriously though, just watch the Prison Mike scene. I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed so much within four minutes. “You my friend would be da belle uv da ball”.

  • I like that the season finales end on high notes. I guess ending season 2 with Jim kissing Pam and season three ending with him asking her on a date are technically cliffhangers, but they’re definitely optimistic ones. I like that.
  • I’m a broken record by now, but Carrell is stunningly good as Michael. He takes a guy who should be thoroughly unlikeable in every way and somehow has you rooting for him. Truly a brilliant performance.
  • Looking at the comments sections of reviews is hilarious in retrospect. Season four so far has certainly been up to par with two and three. The people who were saying its darker had apparently never seen the episode “Halloween” or the episode where Michael almost jumps off the roof (hilariously, onto a bouncy castle, but still).
  • Another thing that puts “The Office” above and beyond other sitcoms is how it handles its few serious moments. I really think, so far anyway, that the balance is dead-on perfect. The few serious moments pack great punches – When Pam and Jim cheer Michael up at the Dundies, when Michael gives the kids his Halloween candy, when Jim awards Michael the gold medal in “Office Olympics” and, my two favorite, Michael complimenting Pam at her art show and Michael’s “Absolutely not” line in “The Deposition”. Wow. That one REALLY hit home.

    That, by the way, isn’t all of the serious moments. I think the reason they work so well is that, with very rare exceptions, the serious moments are tied up in completely ridiculous situations. Michael expressing solidarity with Jim on the booze cruise is touching, but the whole reason Michael is there is because he’s been tied to the railing after lying about the ship sinking. Even the pathos is inherently undercut with humor.

  • “The Office” does a good job convincing you that certain employees at Dunder-Mifflin (Dwight and Jim specifically) are actually quite good at their jobs when they decide to work, and they do a pretty good job showing people how, exactly, Michael got his position: He’s an outstanding salesman. The increasingly ridiculous scene at Chili’s in “The Client” is actually a really good explanation of how Michael got promoted. At one time he was a genuinely good, even great, employee.
  • I don’t care if it bothers some people. Jim’s pranks on Dwight are some of my favorite parts of the show. Faxes from “Future Dwight” are major highlights.
  • Favorite episodes: “The Client” and “Dinner Party”, which I haven’t gotten to in my binge-watch quite yet (next episode) but which I saw separately on TV. Absolutely hysterical, and incredibly dark. “The Office” at the top of its game.
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