America sure does love The Office now, huh?
Like, more than it ever did when it was on from 2005 to 2013. This old man remembers how the show fought to stay on air year after year as a “critical darling” – what they call you when critics outnumber actual viewers.
But now the kids love it! They watch it over and over, even more so as pandemic comfort food. Netflix sure is going to miss it when it leaves that streaming platform at the end of 2020.
I have the entire run of the show on home video. (Yeah, home video still exists, you damn streamers.) I have seen most of it a few times during lazy weekends, but I had stayed away from the trendy rewatch of the past few years.
And then castmates Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey debuted Office Ladies, the official rewatch podcast, in October 2019.
Thanks to them, I am taking the rewatch plunge, one episode a week. I’d much rather rewatch with two castmates who lived it as integral members of the show, than listen to a pair of typical podcast randos. Sorry, podcast randos.
Office Ladies is a fun slice of polite, middle-aged white ladies from the Midwest and South. I delight in hearing their stories each week.
I also go into many of their episodes wondering how well this specimen of 2000s “cringe comedy” would hold up. Like, I don’t watch too much old South Park for this very reason.
The Office holds up very well. Maybe even better than I remember, as I approach age 40 and can see the show from the perspectives of nearly everyone at Dunder Mifflin regarding stage of life.
Some of the cringey stuff, though, is even more cringey. Values change, and some stuff that felt fringe then are dead center now. That can be good, such as LGBTQ rights. That can be bad, such as white supremacists.
Regarding the podcast, I wondered how Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey would handle the race, gender and gay jokes in the show. Rather than getting deeper into those jokes and the shifts from 2006 to 2020, Fischer and Kinsey tend to keep it light and quickly move past such moments.
But they couldn’t do that with “The Convict,” in which Michael (with assists from Jan and others at Dunder Mifflin) eventually chase away Martin, an accountant who was hired through an ex-offender program who also is a Black person.
In that early scene of Michael on a call with Jan, with Angela, Pam and Kevin present, we get some great jokes about the reformed convict also being the one Black guy who came in from the Stamford merger. Michael says, “Why did the convict have to be a Black guy? It is such a stereotype. I just wish that Josh had made a more progressive choice. Like a white guy … who went to prison for … polluting a black guy’s lake.”
When Kevin wonders what Martin went to prison for, Michael matter-of-factly says, “In our society, a black man can be arrested for almost anything.”
This podcast episode was recorded in June. With real emotion, Fischer and Kinsey said on the podcast that watching “The Convict” felt different now in light of the George Floyd police killing, Black Lives Matter going mainstream, and everything since.
But did they really get into how? They hung on this line as Michael “getting it.”
Jenna Fischer: Yeah. I mean, we were rewatching this episode in the middle of a civil rights movement in our country. People are literally in the streets protesting this very fact of black people being arrested for just about anything, but not just that, being killed. So. Yeah. This, this line hit me hard and, and I have to say, I expected Michael to make a joke here, but he doesn’t.
Angela Kinsey: No, he doesn’t.
Jenna Fischer: And I’m so glad that he doesn’t.
Angela Kinsey: I know. Me, too. Well, you know, I think Jenna as the viewer, we’re always expecting Michael to play it up for the cameras. Right? He thinks he’s like an entertainer and, anyway, but he doesn’t in this moment. He’s just truthful and sincere. And I think it made the line that much more powerful.
Powerful? There’s a difference between “powerful” and, as the kids say, “it hits different.”
Fischer and Kinsey single out that line but drop what follows from that scene. They’re correct that Michael’s statement is sincere, but this is Michael Scott. Something ignorant is bound to be right around the corner.
Michael continues, letting the punchline fall: “He was probably at a sporting event and … saw some people pushing each other, and he intervened.” Is that from some movie Michael saw, or what he remembered about Allen Iverson? Michael’s bigotry and ignorance dovetailed with an actual fact about Black Americans’ existence, for once. That’s not commendable, really?
Michael does then tell Pam, Kevin and Angela to keep quiet about Martin’s past because “people will draw unfair conclusions about Martin and or Black people.” Steve Carell performs it with an urgent tone. It’s kinda wild that Fischer and Kinsey forget about that line, which was more powerful, in my opinion.
However, is Michael Scott now a racial progress hero? No way! This is the same guy who mocked Kelly’s Indian heritage on “Diversity Day” and repeats a bunch of nonsense phrases Darryl pranked him into learning as authentic Black slang from the ’hood.
Michael’s ignorantly sincere seriousness increases the comic weight to his later actions, which do alienate Martin. Michael, being Michael, gets angry about his workers joking that Martin’s country-club prison stay for insider trading sounds nicer than Dunder Mifflin.
Because of that, we get the all-timer “Prison Mike” school assembly-style scene. All of this done in the name of what he thinks is progressive.
Fischer and Kinsey can’t even call out Angela Martin, whose severe, judgmental, closed-minded religiosity is a shorthand for her intolerance. Are you telling me that Angela’s fear of an ex-offender in the office isn’t further colored by Martin’s race? Typically those things go hand in hand.
“Angela needs to know what was the crime,” Fischer says. Kinsey replies, “Right. And she’s also very, you know, she’s not a very trusting person. She’s a very fear-based person. And she starts to spiral out.”
It bugged me again with the podcast episode for “A Benihana Christmas.” Fischer, Kinsey and writer Jen Cellotta discuss the plot point of Michael being unable to tell the two Benihana waitresses apart.
They tiptoe around the question of whether the joke was racist and should they have gone there.
Cellotta mentions “the Archie Bunker of it all” without saying the obvious: Michael Scott is a bigot. And, in my opinion, it’s OK that Michael is!
Why? Because, as a show built on the bedrock of realism, The Office couldn’t chronicle the lives of these white characters and not bring all their crap with them. Greg Daniels had just come off King of the Hill, which was the tale of Hank Hill struggling to maintain his core values amid shifting times. Ultimately, Hank learns that many of those values were built on inequitable premises or details.
Let me be clear: I think The Office did a much better job than a lot of 2000’s comedy that, in pursuit of pushing boundaries, wound up replicating and amplifying horrible things as the joke. The Office often waded into racism, homophobia, sexism and more through its characters in ways that included judgment of that behavior as bad. The humor, in those moments, was a collision of inappropriate and wrong, and to me it mostly punched up from the POV of viewers who also suffered through those moments in their own lives.
Michael’s niceness shouldn’t dull that fact, either. Bigots and racists also can be nice, kind people – depending on their people. And, in these times of racial reckoning, is it not yet clear that racism is also systemic and can be enforced by good people just following the rules? That it’s not a simple as a bunch of “bad guys” and “good guys”?
Writers and producers on The Office softened Michael over time to get viewers not necessarily on his side, but to root for him and laugh at him more. They cut back on his most odious behavior and appearance from season one. (For example, Carell stopped slicking his hair back, looking sweaty all the time, and wearing poorly fitting dress shirts.)
Michael’s bigotry, shortsightedness and overall ignorance was tied to his deep, sad need for attention, family and friendship. At his best, Michael was a childlike, loving dope with a big heart because of these qualities. At his worst, Michael is a childish, spiteful creep and coward. Over time in the second and third seasons, we got spoonfuls of both sides. He was made human.
Am I supposed to expect that Michael Gary Scott, in 2005, as a straight, cisgender white man in his 40s who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and never went anywhere, would not have any bigoted views on race, gender and sexuality? Especially if he thought he was progressive? That version of Michael Scott doesn’t sound like the realism Greg Daniels aimed for.
The writers of The Office found a way to not have Michael’s bigotries swallow the character whole or sour watching him for comedy, while not making those things so cartoonish that he’s unrelatable. He’s just average. Sadly, sadly average, on these matters.
Don’t cheat us on that, Fischer and Kinsey. These aspects of The Office, and the balance it was able to strike, enrich viewing and talking about the show. Especially when the show did stumble, such as the Benihana waitress subplot in “A Benihana Christmas.” It was uneasy enough when Andy and Michael pick up staffers from where they ate lunch, but it then fails to hit the uncertainty that Michael can’t tell the two waitresses apart because he’s drunk, racist, or both.
Don’t cheat listeners on how cruelly homophobic Angela Martin is toward Oscar in “Gay Witch Hunt.” because it makes her exposed hypocrisies play even stronger as the show goes on and she and Oscar forge an unlikely friendship.
Look at Stanley, always keeping his head down and earn his money. Sure, some of this is tied to Stanley being a curmudgeon of sorts, with Leslie David Baker’s honey-dipped sass giving all the “Mm-mm, I won’t go for that.”
However, I did not lose the thread, during the show’s original run, that Stanley’s attitude also was about not going along with Michael’s foolishness. How else is Stanley supposed to regard Michael, once a fellow salesman, who now gets to constantly fail as his boss without consequence, but sometimes is rewarded for it?
How many times, over years and years growing up, did I listen to my parents navigate their ways around clueless white managers and higher-ups, trying to stay out of the way? How often my mother and father both defused their “scary” demeanors, or played them up to get folks off their backs in the workplace? Just like my parents, Stanley stiff-arms Michael’s foolishness, doesn’t join the reindeer games, and keeps his head down.
Furthermore, little did I know how much I had inherited that idea of how to conduct my Black self at work – often to my detriment in the long run. In healthier work environments, I have let that go. But did I let that armor go more because of that healthier environment, or because I decided to drop the armor first and force the environment to bend toward me more? I don’t know.
At least Stanley and Michael get along on Pretzel Day.
We’ll see what Fischer and Kinsey have to say about Stanley and Michael when we get to Stanley’s most infamous, “I’ve had enough of this bullshit” moment in season four’s episode, “Did I Stutter?”