April 22nd, 2010
If there were a single quality that defines The Office at its most enjoyable, it is “earnest.” When the show starts heading into the territory of cruel, it is able to survive so long as it remains earnest about it. The show can feature embarrassing and often cringe-worthy moments, and it can have characters do things which are ultimately south of decent, but so long as there is a sense of earnestness in their actions, or their intentions, or even their realizations regarding their behaviour, I’m generally okay with it. When the show goes for earnest without bothering with cruel, it is at its emotional best; when it uses earnest to temper the cruelty, it’s pretty solid.
“Secretary’s Day” ultimately falls into the latter category, but in a season which has been on the inconsistent side I’d say that’s nonetheless a good step for the show. There’s some solid negotiation of the new corporate engagement and some fun office dynamics mixed in with an earnest (and dramatically complex) Erin/Andy story, which is the sort of dynamism that has been missing from the show as of late.
There’s plenty of potential for “Secretary’s Day” to fall into a dark place: while Kevin as Cookie Monster is really funny it’s also a little bit insensitive, and while Michael’s inability to handle Erin’s peppiness makes sense it sort of brings out the most unpleasant side of Michael’s character. However, Mindy Kaling had a very clear sense of what these particular stories were supposed to accomplish, as neither were about the unpleasantness of it all. Kevin’s story was as much about Gabe (and a returning Pam) readjusting to Office life as it was about the joke itself, and Erin’s awkwardness with Michael ended up a nice deconstruction of her earnestness which honestly portrays the naivete which defines the character while still allowing the audience to sympathize with her position, a tightrope nicely walked by Ellie Kemper.
Erin isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed: she’s very earnest, and very adorable, but she still doesn’t understand a word that Pam is saying to her at the end of the episode, and she still falls for Michael’s terribly lame gags at episode’s end. However, it’s not as if she isn’t intelligent, but rather that she just sort of wants to live life without worrying about fully comprehending her situation: she’s not the kind of person who stops and asks questions about Michael’s ridiculous demands, nor is she the kind of person who would go around the office asking people about whether Andy had been engaged before. And so, similarly, she’s not the kind of person who would sit down and rationalize her way through Andy and Angela’s relationship, which results in an immature, but honest, response.
While Michael was a little bit impatient with her early in the episode, perhaps going a bit further than we had been given evidence of in earlier episodes, he eventually was her “rock” of sorts. The last time we had Michael and Erin together was during the Michael’s Kids episode, and there her innocence allowed us to see someone else get sucked into the the romantic and hopeful notion which drove Michael to continue on with the project. Here, Michael immediately knows that his matter-of-fact reveal about Andy (which it’s hard to believe didn’t come up before, but it’s not like the show has been acknowledging it or anything), and he immediately shifts into a defensive position to try to smooth things over. While cruel Michael isn’t something I have much patience for, self-aware Michael is a soft spot of mine, so I was glad to see that emerge and would agree with Andy that Erin being happy on Secretary’s Day (even if through Michael’s friendship rather than his love) is satisfying enough.
As for the Kevin and Cookie Monster story, it didn’t boil down to just the joke: as Alan Sepinwall pointed out, it’s now hard to listen to Kevin without thinking about Cookie Monster, but the story didn’t try to do different variations on that. Instead, it became one of the most useful storylines to come out of the Sabre story. Sure, Zach Woods hasn’t gotten any material as Gabe, but I actually think the idea of an awkward middle manager left behind to supervise is a far more interesting character than Kathy Bates’ Jo ever was, and I liked how he tried to insert himself into office politics to show his authority but very quickly realized he was in over his head, both in terms of Erin’s outburst and with Jim and Pam putting one over on him. As an initiation into the show, it worked really well, and I wish we could have done away with Jo altogether and stuck with the kid all along.
The show isn’t really swinging for the fences with material like this, but I think that’s for the best: by creating stories with more “funny” elements which ultimately become about something more interesting and more important in the long run, the show betters sets itself up for the rest of the season.
- I enjoyed the tag because it reminded us that Michael and Kevin share a sense of humour – it was actually weird that Michael didn’t really weigh in on that story very much, or at least it seems weird until you remember that Steve Carell directed the episode (very well).
- Could have done without Meredith stealing the breast pump: like Kevin trying to make Pam lactate before the break, I think these lactation jokes are either far funnier in the room or just not funny to begin with.
- I liked a lot of the Gabe material here, but having him like MadTV is just unfair – it’s one thing to make fun of someone, and it’s another thing to tie that rope around their neck.
- “C is for Suspension” was definitely my biggest laugh of the episode.