Monthly Archives: December 2016

Overthinking the Office Part 6: Dawn of Sabre

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Unbreakable Erin Hannon

The Michael Scott Paper Company arc accomplished a few key things. Not so much for Michael Scott, he ended up right back where he started. Sure there were some ruffled feathers to smooth over in Casual Friady, but by Café Disco all is back to normal. (Leading to one of his more depressing lines as he eats lunch in his office… “I guess they got what they want. I am eating alone. Might as well be dinner.”) No, it was important for other reasons… with his post-Basterds return to the series, BJ Novak properly debuted trend-chasing, phone-addicted, Silicon Valley-wannabe Douche Ryan, and Pam finally escaped the receptionist desk to become a salesperson. And in so doing, she opened the door for the new receptionist, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon.

I mentioned this last time, but in season five she’s basically “the new receptionist” and “the girl Andy likes.” Season six is when the writers began to fully realize what a weapon they had in Ellie Kemper. And they found the perfect way to carve her out a new and fresh role in the ensemble… enthusiasm. Sheer, unbridled, enthusiasm. When we meet the bulk of the cast, they’ve already endured up to four years of Michael’s cringe-inducing management style and Dwight as authoritative second banana. It’s mostly just sighs, eye rolls, and the occasional “Excuse me?” from Stanley when we join in. Erin? She buys into it. Into all of it. In her eyes, Michael is the greatest boss she’s ever had or could have, and all of Dwight’s demands make total sense.

We get the first taste of this in Café Disco, when Dwight gets suspicious about a map to a courthouse he finds, and in the process of leaping to conclusions demands to see Erin’s birth certificate. Whereas Pam or Meredith would have just given him a bemused or irritated look and ignored the demand, Erin says “Sure!” and practically dives for her purse. In season six, she truly believes that spinning Michael in his chair until he’s dizzy is an important and valuable creative exercise. With a frequent beaming smile and an unabashed glee, she greets every scheme and encounter with sheer enthusiasm that the more wearied staff could never manage. (Well, except Creed.)

And she nails it. Ellie Kemper is the poster child and greatest argument for the broader, less grounded show The Office became after season three. Erin wouldn’t have really worked in the gloomier, more cringe-driven Office of season two, with its failed Secret Santas and constant threat of downsizing. In season six, she thrives. Even if she does still have to serve as romantic interest for Andy. But as her character grew and developed, she made that work as well.

That said… if she’s not enough of a breath of fresh air for you, there is another option early in the season.

The First Off-ramp

A lot of shows would end with an episode like the two-part Niagara. (And it is/was designed as a two-parter, not an hour-long.) Jim and a pregnant Pam decide to get married at Niagara Falls, in the hopes that a destination wedding would scare away some of their co-workers. Hopes that Michael dashes by giving the entire office a long weekend to make the trip.

Not every wedding on this show gets the level of reverence that Jim and Pam’s does. Phyllis’ Wedding may have gotten an entire episode devoted to it, but it ultimately wasn’t even about Phyllis, it was about Jim and Pam and Roy and Karen, and Michael’s need to remain central to the attention. Jim and Pam’s wedding, though… yes, there are shenanigans. Michael fails to book a room, assuming he was so vital to the process that would be taken care of; Dwight successfully hooks up with a bridesmaid, triggering a triangle with Angela late in the season; Kevin leaves his shoes out to be polished only to have them destroyed by the hotel (“It became a safety issue,” explains the manager); Andy tears his scrotum trying to dance his way into Erin’s heart (or other regions). Jim and Pam are hell of late for the ceremony (for surprisingly adorable reasons) and Michael shanghais it to recreate a viral video, but…

If the end result doesn’t make you tear up a little you’re a robot. It’s a little cheesy but a lot touching and would have been a perfect “Happy ever after” for Jim and Pam if this is where the show ended.

But it didn’t. Stick around for the rest of the season for the birth of their first child. And to see Pam’s reaction when she finds out Michael hooked up with her mother after the wedding.

See, what’s weird is that his courtship of the recently divorced Helene Beesly is almost Michael’s second healthiest relationship… they actually get along, Helene seems very smitten, and the birthday lunch he plans for her could sway the strongest objections to them as a couple. But the silver medal still goes to Carol in season three, because all that seems to go wrong there is Michael getting way too excited and way too serious way too fast and in all the wrong ways, whereas here… he legit thinks this is his path to officially becoming a part of Pam’s family the way he pictures her as part of his, to the point where he’s stunned that this actually damages their relatrionship. And given the hints we’ve seen over the years, it’s clear Michael has a bit of a crush on Pam, and maybe getting with a relative is his “next best thing.”

So it doesn’t start in the best place and it ends a little ugly, but it’s worth watching to see Pam hit the moment where no power in the ‘verse can conceal her contempt for Michael.

Also you are going to want to stick around for season seven, and our first big farewell. I don’t super advise taking this particular off-ramp.

The Rise of Sabre and of Darryl

Dunder Mifflin as an overall company has been circling the drain since we met them. At least two branches have closed in the last three years, maybe more. Dunder Mifflin Infinity was a full blown boondoggle. Scranton only kept the lights on in the early seasons because Dwight and Michael have “Sales skills” written into the parts of their brains where normal people have “empathy” and “knowledge of appropriate interpersonal behaviour.” This was bound to catch up to the company eventually, and in season six, it does. After a few episodes of mounting tension surrounding Dunder Mifflin’s failing fortunes, the annual Christmas episode ends with the revelation that while the corporate office are all imminently out of work, the regional branches have been saved from the bankruptcy ax by a buyout from Florida printer company Sabre. And thus as David Wallace fades into the background (he takes season seven off, but isn’t gone for good), two new faces come to Scranton.

Kathy Bates is the showy one, arriving in the back half of the year as Sabre founder/CEO Jo Bennett, flanked by her giant dogs. Jo is the perfect antidote to the reluctant laissez-faire attitude David Wallace brought as Michael’s boss, yet without the humourless sternness of Charles Miner or the rage and self-destruction of Jan. What Kathy Bates brings to the role is a fun Florida charm blended with a steely disposition. Jo Bennett is not a boss Michael can charm, fool, or intimidate. And there’s no “over her head” to go to. He tries to resist Sabre’s policies at first, but Jo is unflinching, and after a look at how unemployment is treating David Wallace, rebellion against the new owners exits his mind.

(Side note… I mentioned last time how “Scranton is special” was important to upcoming arcs. This is one of them. Scranton had to be the top branch in the company, or else why would the new CEO visit so often?)

Our second new arrival, and ultimately the more significant one, is Zach Woods as Gabe Lewis, branch liaison to corporate. While Jo is an occasional Special Guest Star, Gabe swiftly becomes a full part of the ensemble. Gabe… Gabe is fun in a few familiar ways. In theory they report to him, as he’s the voice of corporate, but his attempts to wield authority don’t exactly go well. He commands slightly less respect than Dwight and has about as much confidence as Toby. He’s a new form of twitchy awkward, but a fun one.

And at the same time that Gabe joins the ensemble, something clicked in the writers’ room, and they asked themselves… why isn’t Darryl in every episode? Okay, sure, drug problems last year, but he’s doing better, so why isn’t there more Darryl? Let’s have more Darryl. A promotion from Jo brings Darryl out of the warehouse and into the new office that had been built for Jim (I’ll get back to that), and from there, he’s more of a constant… and delightful… presence.

Flipping the Wrong Dynamic

Prior to Sabre’s arrival, The Office tried something out. We’d seen Jim go from not caring about his job at all to taking being second-in-command surprisingly seriously, and at the start of the year, he makes a move second season Jim could never have expected… he lobbies for his own command. Jim seems to have liked being the boss a little, because he suggests to David that Michael be promoted to New York and Jim take over the Scranton branch. Michael, not knowing the plan, manages to compromise it, and to avoid losing Jim entirely, the two of them end up as co-managers. And sure that’s weird and it causes a few clashes as Michael’s management style finds itself at odds with Jim’s deliberate and ongoing attempts to move the office past it, but that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.

I want to talk about what this does to Jim’s dynamic with Dwight.

Back in season three we saw how Jim’s eagerness to prank Dwight goes down the more seriously he takes his job. As fellow salesmen, blowing off work to prank Dwight was Jim’s greatest non-Pam-related joy. As official assistant manager, he felt the urge to prank was something he should rise above. As co-manager, it’s gone completely. Jim’s new responsibilities make him attempt to live in peace with his former nemesis.

Dwight, on the other hand, sees Jim’s promotion as Jim stealing what should rightfully be Dwight’s, and is not prepared to take his enemy’s ascension lying down.

And it’s… it’s not great.

See, Jim’s pranks are certainly mean (all pranks are at least a little mean, save for “guten pranks,” which are years away), but they’re also slightly playful. As worst he’s trying to annoy Dwight a little. When Dwight schemes against Jim, it’s beyond mean. It’s cruel and sometimes uncomfortably violent (not this year but it’s coming). He wants to destroy Jim. And when he comes close to succeeding, sorry, I do not see the comedy.

At first Dwight’s plots are fun and largely inept. Which makes sense I mean, Dwight didn’t fall for all of Jim’s pranks over the years because he’s actually good at this stuff, so it makes sense that one of his opening gambits is to buy everyone bagels so that they’ll owe him a favour, which he will cash in to get Jim fired. It’s the exact sort of sinister but critically flawed scheme I’d expect from Dwight, one that can be undone by Andy’s stubborn refusal to let a favour go unrepaid. But in one episode, Dwight hatches a scheme that manages to turn most of the staff against Jim and comes within a hair’s breadth of hitting the target. If not for David Wallace’s fondness for Jim and Dunder Mifflin’s bigger problems, he might have pulled it off, ousted Jim, and then no doubt learned that corporate had no interest in giving Dwight the co-manager position instead. But that last part never occurred to him, because of course it didn’t.

That episode, by the way? Oh, it is notorious. But not because of Dwight nearly getting Jim fired. I’ll elaborate.

Scott’s Tots

I would just tackle this under “Skippables” but this one is special.

Damn near everything out there has an internet fandom, but I discovered a special branch for Office fans: the subreddit CannotWatchScottsTots. An online forum for people who habitually rewatch The Office (like myself) but skip Scott’s Tots every time (like myself in most cases). Nearly three and a half thousand people subscribe to it. Over three thousand habitual Office binge-watchers who can’t bring themselves to rewatch this one episode. (There is a counter-group, r/CanWatchScottsTots, but there’s only nine of them.)

It’s not Dwight, though. That’s mostly just me. Hell, maybe some people enjoy his surprisingly spot-on impersonations of certain co-workers in the final stages of his sinister plot.

No, it’s Michael. The title of Scott’s Tots refers to a group of black students he made a promise to ten years ago. When they were in grade two, he visited their class, and said that if they graduated from high school, he would pay their way through college.

It is, without question, the worst thing he’s ever done. And this is only a handful of episodes after he told everyone in the office that Stanley was having an affair just because spreading rumours got him attention.

It’s also a very Michael thing to do, because it was based on the idea that any day now Michael would sell his screenplay for Threat Level Midnight or get noticed by Drew Carey at improv class or something that was going to bring him the fame, fortune, and love that he was sure was right around the corner. But now graduation’s coming, and instead of a millionaire he’s a middle manager with a debilitating spending problem (Probably? We haven’t checked in on that since season four…). So while Dwight’s plot to get Jim fired reaches its climax, Michael is across town slowly, painfully informing a class of inner city youths that they are not getting free rides to college.

So the question is, why is this worse than the level of cringe this show is famous for? One of the cringiest episodes they’ve done, Dinner Party, is also known as one of the best, so why is this one so hated? Again, I feel the answer should be Dwight’s evil plot against Jim suddenly becoming impossibly, uncharacteristically successful, but no, that’s somehow not it. It’s the fact that this cringe is aimed at innocent school kids. They didn’t do anything wrong, and Michael’s need to be adored has actually damaged their lives.

And to make things worse, they couldn’t even just let him stew in this one. Like most “Michael acts poorly” episodes, they had to throw in the last-minute redemptive moment. In this case, Erin (because of course he brought Erin, no other staffer would have his back right now) tells him that thanks to his empty promise, the graduation rate for Scott’s Tots is up from the average. Sure, all those graduates have massively uncertain futures since they now have no idea where their tuition is coming from, but heaven forbid Michael end the episode feeling bad.

Lord. This one is just a slog.

Stray Thoughts

  • Yes, Andy is an underperforming salesman crushing on the receptionist. But they are not the new Jim and Pam. Nobody can be Jim and Pam, not even Angela and Dwight. But more to the point, while they do kind of work, their primary obstacle to getting together this season is mutual incompetence at hooking up, and their frequent mishaps are played for comedy as often as pathos. Also, Andy, come on… you got her the 12 Days of Christmas for Secret Santa? As some of us have tried to make clear, those gifts are monster behaviour.
  • I really didn’t spend much time on the co-manager plot. It was fun watching Jim be an authority for a while, and his attempts to normalize branch management against Michael’s wishes, but I was fine with Jo resetting the status quo after the Sabre buy-out. Especially since Dwight’s evil plan wore thin after Scott’s Tots.
  • The birth of baby Cece Halpert also brought us what I believe to be the first reference to the Scranton Strangler. Don’t worry, the show doesn’t become a crime procedural, but the Scranton Strangler has a key background role to play in the coming season.
  • Also getting its first reference? Ryan’s new venture, WUPHF, a mass-messaging system that, depending on your perspective, is either somewhat useful or hugely invasive.

Key Episodes

“The Meeting” kicks off the co-manager arc, and “Manager and Salemen” brings it to a close with a wonderful appearance by Jo.

Obviously don’t skip Niagara. We talked about this.

The Lover, for Jim and Pam’s priceless reactions to Michael’s new girlfriend.

And plotwise, certainly Secret Santa, Sabre, The Delivery, St. Patrick’s Day, Happy Hour, The Cover-up, and Whistleblower.

Skippables

Believe it or not, there is an episode more skippable than Scott’s Tots. I know, I’m surprised to be saying it. But there is, and it’s The Banker. Scott’s Tots is unpleasant, but The Banker is worse in a key way. See, Sabre has sent a banker to look over the company pre-takeover, which the staff uses as an excuse to look back at past shenanigans.

So it’s a clip show.

And there ain’t nothing more skippable than a clip show.

Notable Guest Stars?

We covered Kathy Bates. Todd Packer makes a return appearance after three seasons away in St. Patrick’s Day. Anna Camp is one of Pam’s bridesmaids. Mike Starr is an insurance salesman mistaken for a mobster by the office’s… less rational employees in Mafia. Nelson Franklin is the new IT guy, having previously appeared as a recruiter for a graphic design company, the guy who gets Pam thinking about art school in New York. You might not know who that is, but to me, he’s Comeau, the Guy Who Knows Everyone from Scott Pilgrim Vs the World.

And most significant, Christian Slater hosts Sabre’s confusing orientation video.

Next time… get ready to say a big, tearful goodbye.

Overthinking the Office Part 5: Love and Betrayal

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

Outgrowing Your Premise

PREMISE!

Haven’t broken these guys out in a while.

Not every aspect of a show’s premise is designed to last if the show keeps going. For instance, Jeff Winger was always going to graduate from Greendale after season four of Community. The interns on Scrubs couldn’t stay interns forever. In fact, not even for two seasons. “High school is Hell” is the central premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they still had to find a way to move past it (we can argue how successfully they managed that another time). In the case of The Office, it’s the threat of downsizing.

From the pilot until Branch Closing, the staff of Dunder Mifflin lived under the constant threat of downsizing. It’s established in the very first episode that the corporate office is planning to merge Scranton and Stamford, and only a last second betrayal from Stamford’s Josh Porter saves the Scranton people. And while Dunder Mifflin’s financial woes are far from over, as we’ll learn down the road, something changes for Scranton in season five. Suddenly, instead of being the second lowest performing branch under Jan’s control (as mentioned in Casino Night), Scranton is the most profitable branch Dunder Mifflin has.

It makes sense… they absorbed Stamford, Dwight is the company’s top salesman (even beating the website), they couldn’t possibly stay the low sellers forever. But it creates a whole new power dynamic. One that is entirely necessary for where they want to push the show. Everything that happens in future seasons hinges on the idea that this branch is special, this is the branch worth following, worth being close to. I mean, one could argue that the writers just occasionally forget that there are other branches, but I think higher of them than that. No, I think it’s that the stories they start telling require this new dynamic. Starting with…

The Big Break-up

No, it’s not Jim and Pam. In fact, by the end of the first episode (hour-long, yet again), they’re engaged. Sure, they open the season by sending Pam to New York for art school, and sure, Mad Men’s Rich Sommer is there and has a bit of a thing for her, but as I said last time… now that they’re together, the producers are unwilling to fully commit to actually threatening their relationship. So Rich Sommer never has a chance. Pam was always going to come home to Scranton, despite a last-second twist of her failing one of her courses. So no, they don’t break up Pam and Jim, not even a little. They go for the other relationship that seems too strong to fail.

Michael and Dunder Mifflin itself.

Late in the season, events conspire to make Michael quit his job and found the Michael Scott Paper Company. To a casual observer, it might seem that it’s all about Michael’s new boss (introduced, fittingly, in New Boss), Charles Miner, played by the great Idris Elba, our second veteran of The Wire. But no, the seeds were planted much, much earlier. Charles plays a role, but it’s mostly about Holly Flax and David Wallace.

We talked about Holly last time. How she was, and remains, Michael’s perfect match. The first woman Michael dates where it actually goes well. How clear is it that Holly is something special? For the first and only time, the Documentarians don’t take the summer off.

Yes, sure, the real reason for the Documentarians almost never filming between June and August is the standard network television hiatus, but nearly every season premiere involves talking head interviews where the characters catch the Documentarians (and through them, us) up on what’s been happening, so in-universe they clearly take the summer off. They wouldn’t need Michael, Pam, Oscar, or Toby to fill them in on what’s been going on the last three months if they had footage. But in Weight Loss, they’re in for the long haul, as the episode takes place over two months.

Are we to believe that they stick around for the summer because they’re really interested in the Dunder Mifflin– you know what, I’m going to start writing DM and y’all are just going to get what I’m saying. Where was I? Right. Are they really that interested in the DM weight loss challenge? More than being present for Jim’s last days in Scranton, Ryan’s ascent to VP, or Jim and Pam starting to date? When those things happened, the crew took their scheduled break. And they weren’t missing something that big again. So they make sure they’re around at least once per week for the whole summer because they don’t want to miss anything between Michael and Holly.

Now let’s talk about David Wallace. Michael’s boss’ boss when we meet him, David Wallace must be everyone’s dream boss. He’s pleasant, friendly, generous, and so, so forgiving. Even before we find out DM Scranton is head of the pack, he seems to ultimately forgive all the ridiculous behaviour he witnesses from Michael and Dwight. Not always easily… there are some angry talks in Stress Relief, but Dwight doesn’t get fired, and man did they have cause. And in The Deposition, when the DM attorneys tried to make him say Michael wasn’t a serious candidate for Jan’s job, he resisted as long as he could before only replying “What do you want me to say, he’s a nice guy.” But he does have a limit.

Michael and Holly hadn’t been together long when David found out about their relationship. They’d known each other for months, Michael was already deeply in love, and Holly was seriously twitterpated, but it they’d only gone on three actual dates. But when David finds out one of his managers is in a relationship with the branch HR rep, he swiftly transfers Holly to Nashua, New Hampshire. And there our troubles begin.

David tries to make things better. He sends Michael on a business trip to exotic Winnipeg (in Ca-NAH-dah, as Michael pronounces it, trying to make everything seem as cool, fancy, and exotic as he can). But when the trip doesn’t go well (the sale works out fine, but Michael has a less-than-great hookup with a concierge, which he mistakes for concubine, since big words are not his strong suit), Michael ends up lashing out about Holly. And from there, David begins to feel the strain of managing Michael directly. A series of ridiculous incidents test David’s patience, and he erects a wall between himself and Michael: a wall named Charles Miner.

It would be easy to assume that it’s Charles’ management style, with his austerity measures and mirthless attitude (Charles is surprisingly similar to Elba’s Wire character, business-minded drug dealer Stringer Bell). One could easily jump to the conclusion that Charles cancelling Michael’s 15th anniversary party was what drove Michael away from the company he loves. But no. Pay attention, and you see that the fuse was lit the second Holly was transferred. David took Michael’s true love away, handed the reigns to a steel executive (“You’re not from paper!?” asks an incredulous Michael), and stopped taking Michael’s calls, all on the eve of Michael’s 15th anniversary serving the company. Fifteen years of service, only to have the company break his heart and treat him like an inconvenience. You need all of that together to make Michael declare war on his family.

When the Illusion of Change Fails

The first third of season five also heavily features the escalation of the Dwight-Angela-Andy love triangle. Angela and Andy’s wedding is looming, but in the fourth season finale, hours after accepting his proposal, she started banging Dwight again. Andy eventually finds out, he and Dwight have a duel in the parking lot, but partway through realise they’re fighting over a woman who betrayed them both, and both leave her.

Here’s my problem with this turn of events. And it’s not Angela and Dwight being broken up again.

Angela defines herself as the hyper-Christian moral center of the office. And I know, self-deception, I knowI’m the one who keeps bringing it up, so if she was simply judging others while secretly failing to live by her own morals, that would be fine. But as soon as the entire office learns that she’s been banging Dwight literally the entire time she’s been engaged to Andy, there should be no going back from that. Her every single attempt to judge people for acting “loose” or “whorish” should be crushed by the reminder that she cheated on Andy with Dwight.

Angela’s main target is Pam (well, also Meredith, but Meredith is basically immune to criticism). How she dresses, being “nosy,” how she’s the “office mattress” for dating both Roy and Jim, and down the road, getting pregnant outside of wedlock. Other than the dress code thing, Angela has done or will do all of those things, only worse. But Pam never once calls her out on it. Not one “You’re right, Angela, I did date Roy before Jim. Was that wrong? Should I have been sleeping with both of them at the same time like you were with Dwight and Andy? Is that the Christian way?” Is Pam just too nice? She’s certainly willing to call Ryan out on his shit this season. Does she consider Angela too close a friend? For the love of Buddha and all his wacky nephews, how could that be true?

No. Angela cheats on one co-worker with another, and it should destroy her reputation forever, and it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. She goes back to same old Angela, and over five years, exactly four people call her out on it… the Documentarians, in an early season talking head; Kevin, the episode after everyone finds out; Dwight’s best friend Rolf in the season finale; and then not again until season nine, almost four years later. I just can’t, for the life of me, understand why anyone (least of all Pam) lets her get away with being judgmental when she can be shut down with one “Try not to secretly screw Dwight on your way back to your desk.”

Ugh. Stupid.

Perpetually Cut

Let’s talk about Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. They’d been playing recurring characters Gino and Leo, grunt workers for Vance Refrigeration, since season two. They jumped in Michael’s elevator and tried to take over the shot (Leo just yelling “Ass” over and over). They got in a fight in the bullpen while delivering Phyllis’ many, many Valentine’s Day presents from Bob Vance. When Dwight interrogated the entire office about a joint he found in the parking lot, it turned out to be Gino and Leo’s. But if you’re only watching on Netflix, or if you only watched the show when it aired, you’d never know any of that. Because their scenes were habitually cut for time.

So it was a little strange when I realized that these characters, who almost exclusively existed in deleted scenes, were suddenly back in season five, like they’d always been there, in scenes that actually made it to air. Okay, sure, it turns out that Eisenberg and Stupinsky were both producers (like Ryan, Kelly, Toby, and Cousin Mose), so they weren’t hard to track down. But it’s still odd, and slightly miraculous, that they finally got their days in the sun three years later.

Stray thoughts

Ryan vanishes for a while mid-season, as BJ Novak had to go film Inglourious Basterds. He wins Kelly back before he leaves, though, and Craig Robinson proves how under-used he’s been so far in Darryl’s reaction to Kelly breaking up with him (via Ryan writing a text on her phone): a reply of “Cool” followed by a jaunty stroll to his truck with a spring in his step and a silent but obvious song in his heart.

Darryl is also missing for a lot of season five, because Craig Robinson had some drug charges right before the season started filming. Sad. But he’s doing better now.

Steve Carell makes Michael’s reaction to Toby’s return priceless.

Key Episodes

The entire Holly arc, from Weight Loss through to Employee Transfer. Never skip a Holly Flax episode.

The entire Michael Scott Paper Company arc, from Charles’ arrival in New Boss through to its epilogue in Casual Day. First of all, it’s the keynote arc of the whole season, and signals a new stage in Pam’s career. Second, it debuts a new character who becomes not only vitally important to the back half of the series, but a sheer delight: Kimmy Schmidt herself, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon. We’ll talk about her more next time, because it takes them a little while to realize what a powerful comic weapon they’ve acquired and how best to use it. Like how it took the Community writers a half dozen episodes to figure out how best to write for Donald Glover.

Stress Relief. In their hour-long (they got better at these after early season four) post-Superbowl episode, Michael decides to throw the Roast of Michael Scott to cheer up the office, and you don’t want to miss that.

Skippables

I’m not crazy about the “Charles doesn’t care for Jim” subplot during the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, but I already named that whole thing as key episodes, so…

Notable Guest Stars?

I mentioned Rich Sommer, Amy Ryan, and Idris Elba already. Two veterans of The Wire: one as Michael’s greatest love, one as his newest nemesis. That’s neat.

For the post-Superbowl episode, Jack Black and Cloris Leachman play themselves playing the lead roles in a movie about a man’s affair with his fiancee’s grandmother. (As Andy explains, it was supposed to be the fiancee’s mother, but when Nicole Kidman dropped out they rewrote the part for Cloris Leachman). Jessica Alba is also there as the jilted fiancee, but don’t blink, you’ll miss her.

David Denman makes his first of three return appearances as Roy, following his exit mid-season three, when Jim goes for a drink with the warehouse staff. Rashida Jones makes her second of three returns as Karen Filippelli when Michael, as head of the newly crowned most profitable branch, goes on the road to share his management secrets. It goes about as well as you’d expect. And Melora Hardin makes an appearance as Jan before quietly shuffling out of the ensemble after Michael realizes he feels no connection to her sperm bank baby.

Dwight’s best friend Rolf is also the voice of Dr. Venture on Venture Brothers, if that’s something you care about.

Next time… Scranton’s success does not mean all is well at Dunder Mifflin, Jim steps up, and the episode hard core fans avoid the most.

Overthinking the Office Part 4: Love is a Battlefield

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

Supersized, strike-shortened

In season four, The Office gave in to one of the pit traps of success: overindulgence. After two exceptional seasons of comedy and heartache, they came out of the gate with a series of hour-long episodes, each meant to be split into two halves for syndication purposes. The problem was, not all of them had quite enough story to fill two chapters. Some work out okay: Fun Run, in which Michael organizes a charity run to cure rabies so that people will stop mocking him for running over Meredith with his car (it only makes sense to him and justifying it ruins the fun), only drags when Michael spends two minutes trying to invent a god to pray to in order to lift the curse he’s decided to blame for the whole “running over Meredith” thing. “Dunder Mifflin Infinity,” in which Michael acts out against changes to the company, is less successful. “Launch Party” and “Money” feel the most like separate episodes wedged together, but their individual halves work okay.

What makes this wave of double-sized episodes even more award, though, is that thanks to the 2007 Writers’ Strike (scourge of drama and comedy alike, killer of the incredible Pushing Daisies), these four episodes make up nearly half of season four’s runtime. That’s a lot of space taken up by four stories that have good bits (including our first visit to Schrute Farms) but sometimes struggle to stretch their A-plots out to 40 minutes.

The strike also means this is the second season with no Christmas episode. Which is a shame, since it was last year’s Christmas episode, Benihana Christmas, that made them think hour long episodes were a good idea.

The Rise and Fall of Ryan Howard

Season three ended with a three-way battle between Michael, Jim, and Karen for what turned out to be Jan’s job. Jim turned it down to return to Scranton for Pam. Karen doesn’t get it, but disappears shortly after (then turns up shortly after the hour-longs as the new branch manager in Utica). Michael was turned down, but upon hearing he wasn’t getting the job, asks to be withdrawn from consideration, because being turned down wouldn’t fit in his personal narrative. So who’s Michael’s new boss? Former temp Ryan Howard.

Ryan started as the rational outsider, the newcomer who, being less acclimated, could be tormented by the peculiarities of his new co-workers. As a temp in seasons one and two, as a salesman in season three, and as Kelly’s boyfriend, his sole bit was being trapped in a weird situation and trying to find an exit. But that bit has an expiration date. So it was time to try something new with Ryan: a complete power flip.

In season four Ryan goes from the lowest rung on the ladder to vice-president, and boss of the man who used him as a lackey for three years. Michael does some mystifying mental gymnastics to convince himself that the best pals/mentor-mentee relationship he’s always imagined still exists (or ever did), but Ryan fights him on it. It begins with simple power plays like making him sit with the other employees during a meeting, but hits its peak in Survivor Man, when Ryan invites every branch manager on a wilderness retreat, but not only doesn’t invite Michael… he invites Toby.

You can’t tell me he didn’t know what he was doing there.

Ryan’s big project, his vice-presidential baby, is Dunder Mifflin Infinity, the new sales website. It’s a good idea to begin with, despite Michael’s initial protests against Ryan changing the way business was done. It does pose some problems for the sales staff, though, as easy on-line ordering threatens their commissions (and usefulness), leading to Dwight having an entertaining man-vs-machine sales duel against the website. But when Ryan tries to turn it into the next Facebook, it becomes infested with child predators (somehow?) and identity thieves, and his desperate measures to save his baby and prove he deserves his Wunderkind label bring his meteoric rise to a shattering thud.

Does that track? Rise and thud? I mean the “fall” is kind of implied by the “thud,” isn’t it?

Along the way Ryan acquires an entourage of people shorter than him, gets hooked on drugs, tries to push Jim out of the company for speaking ill of DM:I to David Wallace, and finds the new Ryan Howard we’ll be spending seasons five to eight with. Ryan becomes determined to recapture his glory months as Dunder Mifflin’s youngest VP. He truly believes that he has the potential to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but his season four failure makes him extremely anxious under any sort of pressure, and the nature of DM:I’s problems (thinking a paper company could be the new, cool social network) show that his ideas are often beyond the reach of his actual talents, whatever those may be. Beyond season four, he’s always searching for a new look, a new hook, a new way to prove to the world and himself that he is the bleeding-edge tech visionary he sees himself as.

Self-delusion, remember? Always comes back to that.

Coming together, falling apart

As I implied earlier, the big-cheer moment of season three’s finale was Jim coming back to Scranton and asking Pam out on their first real date. The first half of Fun Run keeps us in suspense as to how it went, or tries to… they each claim to be single (both to their co-workers and to the Documentarians, fresh off their summer break), but Kevin for one is not buying it, and is determined to prove that they are totally hooking up. Which the Documentarians swiftly do at the halfway point.

Producers from The Office went on to create and write for Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99, equally-if-not-more funny comedies that share a few common traits, but the relevant one just now is how they treat their most adorable couples. Leslie and Ben, Peralta and Santiago, Jim and Pam… they never get together easily, there are always obstacles, but when they have a couple that they and we know work, once they’re together, they stay together. See, when you’re good at your sitcom-writing job, you can make a power couple work just as well as a will-they-won’t-they maybe-couple. Even better, because they don’t wear thin as easily. So instead of going Ross-Rachel (a cautionary tale/definition of “diminishing returns”) and trying in vain to recapture the earlier magic by splitting them up and teasing a reunion, they find a new magic in letting us actually enjoy Jim and Pam’s love.

Besides, why split those two up when they have so many other couples to mess with for relationship drama?

Kelly and Ryan: The first thing Ryan did after accepting his promotion was break up with Kelly, moving their relationship from “She’s clingy, he’s awkward about it” to the first stage of the beautiful, horrible, addictive train wreck that could only blossom once Ryan began his journey from everyman to hipster douche. In the wake of being dumped, Kelly pulls out all of her “love is a battlefield” tricks on him, from “coincidentally” wearing something low-cut and lots of make-up for his first post-promotion visit to Scranton, to lying about being pregnant to score a date, to starting a relationship with Darrel and making sure to flaunt it in front of him.

“It’s like she only wants to hook up when Ryan comes around,” he later explains. “It’s gotten to the point where I get excited every time I see that little dude walk through the door.”

There’s not much to say about that couple, save for pointing out that Kelly’s drama queen games and attitude don’t work on Darrel, who’s built up a thick skin for upstairs-worker nonsense in his years of dealing with Michael. Also, while the writers were beginning to understand what a comedy weapon they had in Craig Robinson, Darrel doesn’t become a full member of the main ensemble until season six, so we don’t see him and Kelly together that often. As a couple, they really only exist as a plot point for the ongoing Ryan/Kelly drama.

Michael and Jan: Jan’s meltdown at the end of season three has not made for a happy relationship with Michael, not that either of them will admit it at first. Jan’s self-destructive spiral is far from over, and things come to an explosive end in Dinner Party. But that’s okay, because Michael has better things on the horizon. We’ll come back to that.

But first, let’s look at the worst relationship The Office ever produced.

Beyond toxic

Dwight and Angela work as a couple because they share the same unflinching sternness, the uncompromising commitment to repression as a lifestyle. But where “D” and “Monkey” go wrong is in another trait they share… see, they’re not cold and robotic about everything. They have their interests. But if something falls outside their narrow range of passions, their lack of interest or empathy borders on a psychopathy. Dwight is deeply passionate about beets, Battlestar Galactica, and bear safety, to name examples, and Angela’s lack of interest in any of that doesn’t cause problems, but Angela loves her cats. Her many, many cats. And Dwight, being a farmer and also being Dwight, has no use for any animal that doesn’t provide some form of utility. So when Angela asks Dwight to give the oldest of her cats, Sprinkles, her many, many medications, Dwight does the only thing that makes sense to him. He attempts to humanely put Sprinkles to sleep, but since this has nothing to do with farming or paper sales (his only true talents, whatever he believes), he bungles it and Sprinkles dies a slower, more agonizing death than he planned.

Of course Angela can’t forgive this. She loves her cats more than any human she has ever known, and Dwight murdered one of them. It can’t erase her love for “D” (oh dear lord that’s way too sexual I regret typing that so much), nothing can, but nor can she be with him. So their weirdly adorable, highly secretive love suffers a blow it will take most of the season to recover from. Worse, it opens the door for the least healthy, most toxic relationship the show ever produced.

Sure, Pam and Roy were less of a romance than Pam surrendering to convenience over passion, and sure, Michael and Jan’s relationship is a slow-motion train crash of emotional abuse fueled by delusion and self-destruction, but they’re both fairy tale romances next to Angela and Andy.

In an attempt to make it clear that Dwight’s attempts at reconciliation are unwelcome and futile, Angela publicly lets Pam know that she is both single and prepared to mingle, something Andy takes as an invitation to swoop in. His first attempts fail, but between a kind of adorable acapella rendition of “Take a Chance On Me” with help from his old college buddies on three speaker phones and a gift of a cat (the exact same cat Dwight tried to give her to make up for destroying Sprinkles, which is salt in Dwight’s wounds… also how is “destroy” the word we use for cat euthanasia, that is dark), Andy wins a date with her.

Seriously, that song move was pretty baller. If life hadn’t beaten the notion of using sitcom shenanigans as dating strategies out of me at a young age, I’d have considered using it myself. Andy has some game when he puts his mind to it. But that is the last moment in which there is anything sweet, romantic, or remotely healthy

But why? Why, though? Why does any of it happen? There is never a moment in their entire relationship when Angela demonstrates any sort of affection for Andy. His every romantic or playful gesture simply revolts her. And she’s suddenly way more repressed and Christian about, shall we say, physical intimacy than she ever was with Dwight. They never really explain why that is, why she was super fine with premarital sex when Dwight was involved but won’t even kiss Andy for the first few months. Because she’s actually dating him publicly, maybe? And so the relationship has to match to the morality standards she pretends to live by and attempts to inflict on everyone around her? Or maybe just because she simply isn’t actually into Andy at all and it takes a few months of dating before being kissed by him becomes tolerable.

Honestly that Andy and Angela become a couple at all is confusing, and the fact that they stay a couple as long as they do is beyond baffling, because the genesis of their relationship comes down to one thing. Andy admits in season seven that he’s bad at meeting people. His passion for yachting, acapella, and casually mentioning he attended Cornell don’t open a lot of dating doors, I guess. He dates three women in his seven years on the show, and two of them are co-workers (the third was a probable fix-up by Darrel). So it seems to me that Andy only went after Angela because she’s the most attractive single woman in his eyeline 40 hours per week. If Kelly didn’t work in the annex, he’d probably have gone after her instead, and he’d have been better off for it.

From there it can only be stubbornness. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what either of them could possibly be getting out of this relationship, but Andy has been somehow conditioned to never give up or admit defeat (“Andy Bernard doesn’t lose contests. He wins them. Or quits them because they’re unfair.”), and breaking up with Angela because they’re an awful, awful match would be conceding that he made a mistake. So when Jim orchestrates a perfectly romantic moment in the season finale in order to propose to Pam, Andy ends up stealing his thunder by publicly proposing to Angela on a complete whim. Which she accepts to avoid awkwardness, I suppose. But then demonstrates her true feelings by immediately starting to bang Dwight again.

It always comes back to self-delusion. In this case, Andy’s delusion that if he keeps acting the part of someone in a blissful, fairy tale romance, it might eventually become one, despite the total lack of spark. Frankly, it’s clear that the writers had no interest in selling this relationship, because it wasn’t supposed to work. You’re not supposed to root for them to succeed or even care about Andy. From a story perspective, this relationship wasn’t even about Andy. Andy was only there to be a roadblock for Dwight and Angela. Hence Andy unknowingly twisting the screws by making Dwight his confidant for how the relationship is going, thinking that they’ve gone from rivals to friends, unaware that the rivarly has entered a whole new level.

We’ll come back to this arc and its failure as character growth next time.

Key Episodes

The Deposition and Dinner Party. Jan’s lawsuit against Dunder Mifflin was supposed to turn their teetering-on-bankruptcy lives around, but when Michael is deposed, Dunder Mifflin fights back, and their every secret gets dragged out into the light. And worse for Michael, Toby’s there. This paves the way for The Office’s very own Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Dinner Party. After months of effort, Michael finally manages to hoodwink Jim and Pam into coming over for dinner, along with Angela and Andy. Which gives all four of them, plus party crashers Dwight and his former babysitter, front row seats to the detonation of Michael and Jan’s relationship.

And “Goodbye Toby,” for reasons I’ll get into below.

Skippables

“Dunder Mifflin Infinity” does kick off Ryan’s plotline for the year, but it’s the weakest hourlong by far. And has one of Michael’s least-earned feelings of triumph.

Notable Guest Stars?

When Toby decides to move to Costa Rica after getting slightly too friendly with Pam (on whom he’s had a crush for, I don’t even know, at least a year and a half), corporate sends a new HR rep… our first veteran of The Wire, Amy Ryan as Holly Flax.

Holly Flax is, in simple terms, Michael’s dream girl. He falls for her the minute he speaks to her, she actually finds him funny, they are a perfect match. The day where Andy and Angela’s hopelessly terrible relationship unaccountably reaches the next level also put the pieces in play for one of the show’s best love stories… But well, that’s next season.

Obscure Characters Superhero Shows Should Use

Superheroes and comic books are big on both the big and small screens these days, but despite the Marvel empire being built on “Everything’s connected” and DC not having sold all of its shiniest toys to Sony and Fox, there is still a weird Chinese wall between each company’s film and television divisions. DC, as we know, maintains separate film and TV universes and, in most cases, doesn’t allow overlap. Marvel claims to maintain one, consistent universe, spread across the Avengers-based films, Defenders-based Netflix shows, and redheaded stepchild Agents of SHIELD, but Brooklyn 99 and The New Girl cross over more often than any of those branches, limiting the characters the TV branches can use even beyond being banned from using the word “mutant.”

They have, however, found some clever workarounds.

Agents of SHIELD isn’t allowed to use anyone that’s been in a movie, or is a street-level hero in New York, or that Marvel might want to pitch elsewhere. But they have been having one of their better seasons by basing it around a surprisingly effective portrayal of Robbie Reyes, the least popular, least successful, and objectively least cool* version of Ghost Rider. Meanwhile, across the aisle, Arrow’s been having a similar resurgence of quality, and it’s obscure characters all the way down over in Star City. Wild Dog, Mr. Terrific, and Ragman have joined the team, and there have been episodes not only featuring but named after 80s D-listers Vigilante and Human Target (sadly not Mark Valley’s Human Target from the 2010 series getting a Constantine-style revival, but I’ll take any Human Target I can get).

So I say, keep on keeping on with this trend. DC and Marvel each have hundreds of characters to draw on, so why let the big names being embargoed slow you down?

Assuming Marvel Netflix is limited to street-level crime fighters, that Agents of SHIELD can’t touch anyone who could possibly have their own show or movie, and the DCW-verse has to stay away from Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, and Shazam (though they got Superman this year, so who knows), here’s some characters they should be considering bringing to the small/streaming screen, and some casting thoughts, because welcome to my brain. Hey, I have to live in here.

*No, not because he’s Latino, because he doesn’t even have a motorcycle. You can’t be the coolest Ghost Rider without a flaming-wheeled motorcycle.

For Supergirl: Mary Marvel

mary-marvel

Who’s that?

Maybe you’re familiar with the original Captain Marvel, known for yelling “Shazam!” to get his powers. Ten year old Billy Batson was gifted powers by the wizard Shazam. By yelling his name, Billy became an adult with powers just shy of Superman’s. Also without the vision or breath powers. Lately, they’ve stopped calling him “Captain Marvel” (having grown tired of competing with the many, many Marvel characters with that name) and just started calling him “Shazam” (given that most people call him “the Shazam guy” as it is).

Now, Shazam does have a movie in the works, and even though the only thing I know about it is that Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is playing his nemesis Black Adam, they probably wouldn’t let a different Billy Batson come to Star, Central, or National City. Which is a shame because every day that DC isn’t casting one of the Stranger Things kids as Billy is an opportunity wasted.

But there is another.

Every iteration of Captain Marvel/Shazam begins with Billy, yes, but before long the power of Shazam is being shared by a team. And the first person on that extended list? His long-lost twin (or more recently foster) sister, Mary.

Of all the superhero shows, none have embraced bright, cheerful optimism like Supergirl. But no DC character has, historically, been as bright, innocent, or hopeful as the Marvels, being children given adult bodies with the powers of gods. So I can’t help but think there’s a fun opportunity to have Supergirl need to deal with someone whose unbreakable cheer (and strength) outshines even her own. And while Billy Batson’s probably on lockdown, Supergirl the show has a history of ducking around embargoes by using less known siblings: no Lois Lane, but her sister Lucy; no Lex Luthor, but his sister Lena and mother Lillian are lurking around National City. Having the DEO need to make a road trip to Fawcett City and encountering Mary Marvel would fit right in.

Hell, given her name, you could even fit in a meta-commentary on how, thanks to Zack Snyder, there’s a perception that DC is all grim and dark and broody while Marvel is bright and fun and colourful. Sure, you’re not going to be able to launch a defense of the film branch easily, but still… Oh! Or have Winn or newly gay Alex get a bit of crush on Mary Marvel, only to find out that she’s actually a neonate girl and man was that dream he/she had last night inappropriate in hindsight… Man, this could be such a good episode and they’re probably not going to do it and why do I do this to myself…

Who to cast?

Millie Bobby Brown and Adrianne Palicki.

marys-marvel

If you’re going to do the Marvel Family, you’ve got to do it right. That means big, imposing, adult for the hero, and small child for the alter ego. Adrianne Palicki certainly has the imposing, ass-kicking credentials, although a complicated relationship with DC. She got the lead in a Wonder Woman pilot from David E. Kelley, who proved that he’s much better at writing lawyers than Amazon warrior princesses and thus the infamously bad show wasn’t picked up. She then entered the superhero world as Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse on Agents of SHIELD. But since she was written off the show for a spinoff that, again, didn’t get picked up, she might be willing to jump back to the DC side.

But you can’t skimp on mild-mannered Mary Batson, either, and remember what I said about how perfect any of the Stranger Things kids would be as Billy? Millie Bobby Brown captured the internet’s attention as Eleven for a reason. Mille and Adrianne both have good experience as badass, powerful women, and would make a fun duo as Mary Marvel’s various halves.

Maybe if I yell “SHAZAM!” enough I’ll turn into a staff writer on Supergirl and can make this happen…

For the Defenders (et al): Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu

shang-chi

Who’s that?

It’s kind of all there in the name. A master martial artist who rebelled against his evil father and decided to use his skills for good. He did a turn as an Avenger a roster shake-up or two ago, easily standing as an equal to Captain America, Thor, Spider-man and the others. Also, of all the superheroes based exclusively on “Super good at real-world martial arts” (Karate Kid, Judomaster, Richard Dragon, sort of but not quite Iron Fist), at least this guy’s actually Asian.

See, the Marvel Netflix shows have a problem with Asian representation. A lot of shows do, a lot of western media does, but it’s a little extra notable when every single Asian character in the Defenders franchise is attached to one of two doomsday ninja cults. Sure, yes, having the Asian guy be a martial artist, you’re steering into stereotype. But their bar is currently set low enough that there aren’t many directions to go but up here.

Also, he once used Pym particles to become giant and kung fu-fight a dragon.

There's not much cooler than ninja kicking a dragon in the face.

There’s not much cooler than ninja kicking a dragon in the face.

More people show know about this guy. Oh, and did I happen to mention that his evil father was old-school pulp villain Fu Manchu? How much to I want to see Fu Manchu and Luke Cage go round and round? A lot.

Who to cast?

I would say Mark Dacascos, but Agents of SHIELD already used him as Discount Magneto and they do hate to double-dip… so let’s say Remy Hii.

remyhii1

Remy Hii’s familiar to Netflix as Marco Polo’s Prince Jingim, Kublai Khan’s son and heir. So not only is he familiar to the network, he’s also used to action scenes and the weapons (other than fists and feet) Shang-Chi would be packing. And he wouldn’t be fighting a foreign language (Steven Chow), being over 50 (Steven Chow again), or being someone I haven’t heard of. I am not currently up-to-date on Chinese film stars, I’m sure I’m sorry, let’s move on.

For The Flash: Firehawk

firehawk

Who’s this?

Lorraine Reilly was a senator’s daughter who was fighting a crush on hero Firestorm when she was kidnapped by one of his nemeses, Henry Hewitt, later known as Tokamak, who attempted to imbue her with Firestorm’s powers to use her as a weapon against both her father and Firestorm. He was largely successful, but Lorraine broke free of his control and became a hero in her own right. Although never to the same level as her male counterpart, because comics and sexism and all of that.

Flash already introduced Henry Hewitt in season two (specifically, and fittingly enough, in “The Fury of Firestorm”), already had him turn dark, named him Tokamak, and gave him a fixation on Firestorm’s power set and a grudge against Team STAR Labs. Why not have him try to get some delayed payback by trying to make his own Firestorm? And before you ask “Why have two people with those powers,” Strawman I’m making up, think how many speedsters are on that show right now. Flash, Kid Flash, Reverse Flash, Zoom, Jesse Quick, Savitar… Now consider how many people in Star City, good or evil, have decided that a bow and arrow is their weapon of choice. Actually, don’t bother. The answer is eight. Eight people, not including League of Assassins flunkies, said “Eh, nuts to guns, I’m-a use a bow.” Two Firestorms won’t hurt anything.

So given that a) they already know how to do the effects, and b) Firestorm and the Flash go way back, that’s why they introduced him on that show in the first place, and c) Firestorm is tied up protecting the timestream on Legends of Tomorrow, why not bring Firehawk to Central City? Give Flash someone to team up with who doesn’t star on a different show or live in a different universe.

Who to cast?

You know who’s killing it lately as a woman who has to break free of her maker’s programming? Evan Rachel Wood.

evan-rachel

Dolores is a “host” in Westworld permanently assigned to one of the uglier narrative loops. (Although the finale may suggest why.) As such, she’s also one of the first to attempt to rise above it, and Evan Rachel Wood fully captured her transition from damsel to badass. As a bonus, depending on things go in tonight’s season finale, she may have a steady gig on Westworld for a while, and cable series have different shooting schedules than network, so she’d in theory (and what more does this discussion require than “In theory” have availability for sweeps month Firehawking without danger of getting booked on whatever the next Chicagobased procedural soap drama is.

I mean she might choose to do movies like previous Firestorm Robbie Amell did, but hey, I can hope. Mostly. Sort of. I remember the basic mechanisms of how to– shut up.

For Agents of SHIELD: Abigail Brand, Agent of SWORD

brand

Who’s that?

In his run on Astonishing X-Men, Joss Whedon (who created Agents of SHIELD, which would be handy) introduced a subdivision of SHIELD: SWORD (Sentient World Observation and Response Department), who monitor extraterrestrial races and threats to protect the Earth from invasion. Abigail Brand, half alien herself, is its head.

Marvel and ABC recently announced plans for a new Inhumans TV series. This makes sense, since it was Isaac Perlmutter, head of Marvel Entertainment, who wanted to adapt the Inhumans, and not Kevin Feige, head of the now-separate Marvel Films. Despite the fact that Inhumans have been a major part of Agents of SHIELD for three seasons now (the focus might currently be on Ghost Rider, but the back half of the season is shaping up to again be Inhumans-centric), the new show has been said to be focused on the classic characters such as Black Bolt and Medusa, and will not be a spinoff of Agents of SHIELD. I see two ways this could play out.

First, this could be the first Marvel property to actually acknowledge, and even crossover with Agents of SHIELD. It’s free of the TV/movie division drama, unlike the Avengers; it would be on the same network, unlike Marvel Netflix; it would (probably) be set in the present day, unlike Agent Carter. All the barriers that thus far exist to keep Agents of SHIELD in its own little lonely box would be, in theory, gone. And between Avengers, Defenders, the ratings spike that happens every time the CW shows crossover, and the absolute lack of a ratings bump that happens when Agents of SHIELD does a shoe-horned, one-way, desperate-plea-for-attention excuse for a movie tie-in episode, the network has to know that having Coulson and Daisy/Quake come face to face with Inhuman royalty is the way to go.

Second… they could not know that and not only continue to neglect SHIELD (which they might be considering cancelling once it hits a syndication-friendly 100 episodes), but demand they stop doing Inhuman stuff.

In the first case, SHIELD already established that the Kree, who created the Inhumans, were concerned that they were active again. SWORD would be the perfect way to bring Coulson and Black Bolt together to deal with impending Kree actions. In the second case, Agents of SHIELD would need a new playground, since they’d be kicked out of their current one. In which case, since SWORD and SHIELD have a patently obvious link… it is all there in their names… SWORD could be the new thing for their fifth (and if Marvel won’t let a second ABC show acknowledge them, almost definitely last) season.

Who to cast?

Once upon a time, rumours circulated that Joss Whedon was looking to cast one of his frequent fliers, Felicia Day, in the role for the Avengers movie.

felicia

Obviously that didn’t happen, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. Felicia Day has the exact geek appeal that Agents of SHIELD and the DCW-verse look for in casting choices. Also she’s familiar with the showrunners from her work on their older Joss-backed projects, Dr. Horrible and Dollhouse. It would be fun to see her take on a more badassed role.

For The DCW-verse in general: Ambush Bug

ambush_bug

Who’s that?

Created by Keith Giffen, Ambush Bug started as a comic relief villain for Superman, only to decide he’d rather be a (largely incompetent) hero, and eventually became popular enough to star in a sequence of miniseries and specials over the next two decades, all from Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming, the definitive Ambush Bug creative team. One of his signature traits became DC in-jokes and satire of DC itself (and some Marvel).

You know that whole “breaking the fourth wall, being aware he’s a comic/movie character” thing Deadpool does that everyone loves? Ambush Bug was doing it nearly a decade earlier. Let me posit something to you… the DCW-verse is in its fifth year. Arrow just celebrated its 100th episode. We’re nearing the point where a show can start to get away with the occasional self-referential humour episode. (Some might argue Arrow’s 100th started this off with the opening speech-referencing exchange “My name is Oliver Queen—“ “We know who you are.” “Everyone knows who you are!”) Supernatural’s done a handful of those over the last few years, and they’re all great.

Ambush Bug’s one power is the ability to teleport anywhere, even between universes. So Ambush Bug could visit all four of the DCW-verse shows for a fun, comic relief, non-crossover crossover. Or just for random episodes. You know, I can picture the DCW-style “My name is Oliver Queen/Barry Allen” opening now…

“My name is Irwin Schwab. That’s not the name I’m super famous for or anything, but—you know, I’m getting off track here. When a scientist of the planet Schwab sent his clothes from his supposedly doomed planet, hoping that his wardrobe would survive, only to have it intercepted by a giant radioactive space spider… I think? That’s what I heard, but I didn’t actually… I mean it sounds right… I found the bug-like suit, and gained the ability to teleport, ambushing people. So, Bug, Ambush, there’s something there, I feel. I discovered a universe full of repeating tropes and gloomy heroes, and now have made it my mission to help these teen soap multiverse heroes be someone else… something else. No, just that first one.”

“Ambush Bug! I am… Ambush Bug. Did I make that clear? Yes? Good.”

Who to cast?

This looks like a job for Danny Pudi.

pudi-danny

Ambush Bug is a little bit crazy and a lot of self-reference. And six seasons (and a movie? Not yet) of nailing quirks, pop culture, and meta-jokes on Community as Abed Nadir prove Danny Pudi’s got the chops to make Ambush Bug a fun addition to the DCW-verse instead of an annoyance only I enjoy.

Will any of these shows do any of this? I don’t know. Frankly I couldn’t have predicted any of the characters Arrow pulled out this year (maybe Prometheus). But they’d all be fun to see.