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 Friday, 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 authoritarian 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.

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