The Office – “Casual Day”

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“Casual Day”

April 30th, 2009

Alan Sepinwall posted a link on Twitter to a piece at NPR’s Monkey See Blog about The Office Season Five that I would tend to agree with. In the article, Linda Holmes makes the argument that on a character level this season has been one of the show’s strongest, especially for Michael. Considering that we started the season with Holly, and then eventually moved onto the Michael Scott Paper Company, this has been a big year for the show’s lead character, and a year that has almost never been defined by sheer comedy.

I don’t know if Holmes had seen tonight’s episode when she wrote the piece, but it’s a fine justification of her central thesis: it was almost as if the episode was Michael trying to fall into his former broad comedy and rather selfish attitude but the show around him demonstrating that it isn’t willing to let it happen. As the Michael Scott Paper Company and Dunder Mifflin merge together, tensions are certainly high, but letting the more laidback “Casual Friday” element of the storyline play out alongside the more legitimate tension of the reunion really made this half hour stand out.

I’m not quite sure if I’m in a position to call it the best season ever, but it’s certainly making a strong case for it with only two episodes left.

As soon as Michael comes back to the Office flanked by his Michael Scott Paper Company cohorts and jumping from a giant paper circle with a question mark on it, it is clear that this “New” Michael Scott is in many ways the old Michael Scott, desperate for attention and in this instance desperate for an apology from those who, unlike Pam, didn’t follow him on his crazy escapade. It’s classic Michael, which is something we haven’t seen a lot of all season, and it was played for some solid humour: Michael trying to bait everyone to apologize was not some grand gesture but rather a small character beat, and the way that Michael nonchalantly let Pam and Ryan keep the M.S.P.C. clients was consistently with the high value Michael places on loyalty.

But the season has been defined by a more nuanced Michael Scott, one who isn’t just valuing one thing at any particular time, rotating out as the series deems fit; instead, he’s been in conflict between love and loyalty to the company, or his employment and his personal pride. He’s often as his best in such situations: “The Deposition” was perhaps Season Four’s finest non-finale hour because it forced Michael to decide between his love for Jan’s chesticles and his trust in Dunder Mifflin, and that dynamic just works for the character. So when it was clear that Michael wasn’t taking everyone into account in this scenario, busy making “Memories” posters for the M.S.P.C., it seemed like a regression.

The episode, written by Anthony Q. Farrell and directed by Brent Forrester, dealt with this swiftly when, while being confronted by the rest of the sales team about losing all of their clients to Pam and Ryan, Michael manages to drive Phyllis to the point of tears. She throws his own words back in his face, and notes that in leaving them and pilfering their clients he was hurting what was supposed to be his family, and that if anything he is the one who owes them an apology on a personal level. It throws Michael for a loop, as he thinks up 100 perspectives in which this is really all his fault, and certainly none where it is the fault of the salespeople. No, Michael never quite pieces together the idea that these people couldn’t all abandon their jobs for his paper company that only avoided crashing and burning through the luck of the buyout’s timing, but he does realize that these people are his family, and that the M.S.P.C. was but a tangent in the big scheme of things.

It’s really well-played by Steve Carell, and while he still doesn’t want to give them their clients to avoid angering Ryan and Pam, and still doesn’t realize that the apology is still somewhat secondary, he is quite heartfelt in his apology in the secret warehouse fort. It’s hard to fault Michael for being the same character he’s always been, but the show is always strongest when they acknowledge that he is capable of being altered, and that more than one value can remain in his mind at a single time. Phyllis crying may have been a bit manipulative on the show’s part, but it totally threw me, and while Dwight’s craziness made for a good counter-point I really empathized with the sales team on this one.

In the end, Michael makes the tough decision to bump Ryan from the sales team and to leave Pam with the rest of the M.S.P.C. accounts which weren’t pilfered from Dunder Mifflin, which feels like the right move: as Holmes noted in her article, Pam’s involvement in M.S.P.C. made up for her earlier art school failure (referenced here in the charming scene between Michael and Jim which I’ll get to in a second) in giving her some purpose, and it would seem unfair to the poor girl if the rug had been pulled out from under her again. Ryan, meanwhile, remains an entertaining character to see fail, so who are we to complain.

I guess I’d call Jim the sort of wandering character this week, kind of part of the A-plot but also turning into his own sort of C-plot with Creed. His involvement in the A-Plot was great, especially the aforementioned scene with Michael where he notes his bias (jokingly, towards Ryan) and gets goaded by Michael into pointing out Pam’s shrill voice only so Michael can give an outright hilarious impression that was just ridiculous. The C-plot, meanwhile, was just an excuse to let Creed Bratton loose: who can argue with him wanting to set Jim up with his daughter while thinking he was gay, or being a veritable chess genius of sorts. It was a nice way to keep Jim from being caught in the middle of the A-story, and let the other characters take center stage.

The B-Plot was never substance-driven, as the eponymous event was mostly just a bunch of various gags, but I thought they were quite charming: Angela’s disgust over Oscar’s toes (“It’s like he just got off the boat”), everyone’s disgust at Meredith’s dress (“Meredith, your boob fell out!”), and eventually Toby feeling so put out over all of it that he cancels the day all together. I like that Michael never really got involved – he had enough on his plate in the episode, and letting it play out independent of him felt like the right choice.

As did the whole episode, really – just a really smart transition episode to bring things back to an equilibrium, and one which continues some of the key themes that have made the season so strong thus far.

Cultural Learnings

  • Huge thanks to R.A. Porter for reminding me of my favourite joke in the episode: Michael, trying to choose between The Devil Wears Prada and Sophie’s Choice (the former which is already a great callback to the cold open where he takes on the persona of characters in movies he is watching), notes that “it is what you would call a classic difficult decision.” As someone who is known to throw around “Sophie’s Choice” (Head to Wikipedia to find out why this punchline is hilarious in case you didn’t get it) perhaps too often, I laughed a whole lot.
  • Similarly humorous: Dwight using urine as invisible ink. Does that even work? Do I even want to know the answer to that question?
  • We learned that Toby ended up in Scranton after exiting the Seminary to have sex with a girl who was from Scranton and who would eventually divorce him – sad Toby should be sad, but it’s almost always funny instead.
  • I enjoy that Meredith, in seeing a crowd of people heading to the warehouse, presumed dog fight.
  • Michael fake firing Pam at the end was funny, sure, but I loved his fake firing of Erin because of the sheer joy he got out of not taking Pam’s advice and the way that Erin took to the news: she was less concerned with whether Michael was serious (she’s gotten that memo), but was instead interesting in knowing if the people in the office really disliked her. She’s yet to really emerge as a character, but I thought that was a nice small moment.
  • And for those who claim the show is TOO focused on character, I both disagree and send you in the direction of the hilarious cold open which essentially boils down to Kevin wallowing in a pool of Chili. Simple, but effective.
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