“Secret Santa” x 2
December 10th, 2009
It’s not often that two episodes airing back to back have the same title, so it’s a convenient excuse to blog 30 Rock and The Office together tonight.
Christmas is a holiday that has always been a highlight for The Office (“Christmas Party” is one of its finest hour-long episodes), but to be honest I’ve found that 30 Rock is kind of really bad at it. I don’t know what it is, but Christmas seems to be a holiday that just doesn’t work for the show, primarily because its wackiness doesn’t have that sense of heart that The Office taps into during this, the most magical time of the year.
So, accordingly, the best parts of both episodes entitled “Secret Santa” are those which feel like they’re bringing everyone together in celebration of the season’s message of hope and togetherness, and the worst parts of both episodes are those where that spirit is either ignored or crushed beneath a smothering of unpleasantness.
The problem with The Office’s “Secret Santa” is that it has an unfortunate pattern of things going totally wrong before things eventually become far better, which would perhaps be fine if it didn’t require Michael Scott to be a complete tool. “Phyllis’ Wedding” remains a low point for the show in terms of Michael’s behaviour, but “Scott’s Tots” has been placed on that same level of cringeworthy and I just don’t get it. Here, Michael acts like a tool out of purely discriminatory and selfish reasons, whereas his scholarship program was a fundamentally great idea that he simply couldn’t follow through on. While some have argued that ruined lives made “Scott’s Tots” less funny, I don’t want Michael being a terrible person to be funny: I want it to be as sad as it really is, not played for pure comedy as it was here (as Michael becomes first a heckling Santa, then a heckling Jesus, and eventually his normal self).
I get what they were going for, in that Michael digs into the depths of his terrible behaviour before realizing that the company needs him to be something more, and that he should help bring them together to help create the Christmas miracle of branches like Scranton being the only thing about Dunder Mifflin that works well (whereas the new buyers are clearing house at the executive level, meaning Michael and Jim are about to get new bosses). But they don’t need for Michael to become such a despicable person to sell this story, and while Steve Carell in an inside-our Santa suit heckling Secret Santa gifts as a vengeful god is a funny conclusion it’s too harsh. “Christmas Party” worked because Michael was depressed, giving us a reason to understand his need to mark one of the women to know which was his, but here Michael was just “being Michael,” and I hate that the default is the jerk we saw on display here.
The episode was salvaged by the sweetness elsewhere, as Pam, Andy and Erin are really proving to be the heart of this show right now. Sure, the other supporting characters had their moments (Kevin on Michael’s lap, Creed wondering what happens to evil people, Angela applauding Jesus, all of the Secret Santa gift exchanges), but I thought Pam’s effort to push the only two gay men she knows together was all sorts of adorable in the way that a fake pregnant Jenna Fischer sells so very, very well. I also really enjoyed the idea that Andy’s attempt at romanticism ran into problems before he could get to the good days of Christmas, and thought that the ending (with the twelve drummers drumming) was the sort of sweet touch that makes it seem like the episode was far more pleasant than it actually was. I like those kinds of moments a lot, and when even Dwight (acknowledging he’s tired) gives up his diabolical scheme I guess I wish Michael had been able to give up being a complete dick.
As for 30 Rock, as noted they’re not as good at Christmas episodes in general, and the Kenneth and the Writers story was proof of this. The story never clicked, as the made up religion (Verdukianism) was uninteresting and felt like one of those lame C-plots that just never even pretended it was interesting. I like Jack McBrayer a lot, but when you craft a storyline where Tracy Jordan is the voice of reason I don’t entirely know what you’re trying to accomplish. If the conclusion of the episode had brought all of the plots together in some sort of epic event, and suddenly Kenneth’s crisis of faith had played a substantial role, perhaps it would have been worth it, but it just never went anywhere or contributed anything to the episode.
The A-plot, with Jack reconnecting with a high school crush (Nancy Donovan, played by Julianne Moore), suffered less due to its connection with Christmas and more due to it being a Jack romance storyline not involving Edie Falco. I was admittedly surprised by how much comedy the show managed to get out of Julianne Moore remaining attractive even with the ridiculous Boston accent, but the jokes just weren’t there, and the “Har Har Old People Don’t Understand Social Networking” jokes were only enjoyable because we got our largest dose of Cirie (who always slays me) in quite some time. When she eventually returns to say goodbye, it didn’t feel meaningful enough to really matter, and while I like Moore I just didn’t feel like the show had anything to make the storyline work like they had with CiCi’s political ties. The satire just feels like it’s in a wrong place, or non-existant.
That said, I thought that the B-Story worked well enough, as the returning Cheyenne Jackson (who meta-acknowledged his two-episode absence) got to show off his singing chops and then not show off his singing chops in order to ruin Pete Hornberger’s Christmas Vengeance. It was a simply little story, but I liked what we saw of Jenna in the story, and that it didn’t undercut her emotional story or violate Danny’s innocence (although he does finally know what sarcasm sounds like). And the runner of Liz (who valiantly kept her terrible haircut from last week, in a nice touch) and Jack getting each other presents allowed Tina Fey to have a considerably lighter workload (probably by design, considering how heavily she was featured last week) and also made for a sweet but twisted ending as Liz’s bomb threat brings Jack and Nancy together and she eventually rides off into the night with some old guy from CHiPS.
Both episodes present somewhat twisted definitions of what represents a Christmas Miracle (Michael celebrating the office’s jobs being saved while David Wallace is jobless and on speaker phone, and Kenneth celebrating his God taking vengeance on sinners), which is something that I like – not every Christmas episode should be like last night’s Modern Family, which has its big happy ending. However, I wanted them to either take these twist further, or find a more elegant way to get to that twist, and I thought both sort of stumbled overall.
- Seriously, Tina Fey gets major props for having the guts to keep that haircut.
- I’ve been watching Season 2 of 30 Rock on DVD, so I am both into the CiCi arc (which was really well done) and just finished Jenna’s fat arc (which is the best thing the show has ever done for her). It’s amazing how strong this pre-strike stretch is for the series, so “Secret Santa” might have been a really great Season 4 episode as far as I know considering my recent exposure to the show at its finest.
- Michael’s lack of intelligence can sometimes go too far, but I really enjoyed “he can heal leopards” even if Michael calling David Wallace to tell him that was the epitome of idiotic.
- I loved all of the Secret Santa exchanges on The Office (Ryan has clearly not read The Kite Runner), but without question Kelly’s excitement over an Edward poster was the best.