I’m gonna catch crap for this one. People often have their choice for the best episode of the US version of The Office and will defend it fiercely. As such, I have to clarify: This isn’t my favorite episode of The Office, and you will never hear me state which actually is my favorite episode. However, I think this episode the one that most distinguished the series and also managed to make some important points on modern America. This was the second episode of the series, but since the first one was basically lifted directly from the UK series that it’s based on, this was the first episode to unveil what this version of The Office was going to be like, and it took some bold steps… some of which it would later have to walk back a little.
The show focuses on a documentary crew watching over the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton Branch. As this was the first real episode of the show, there hadn’t been much in the way of character development: Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is the boss, Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is a very odd, uptight, and ambitious salesperson, Jim (John Krasinski) is a more laid-back and mischievous salesperson who often uses Dwight as a target of pranks, and Pam (Jenna Fischer) is a receptionist who is both overqualified for her job and the subject of Jim’s crush. Other characters who appear in the episode would get much more development later, and most of it would be amazing, but these four were the ones that were developed at this point.
The episode starts with Michael announcing that Corporate has sent a speaker for their “Diversity Day.” Meanwhile, the feud between Jim and Dwight keeps getting in the way of Jim completing an annual renewal that accounts for over a quarter of his yearly sales. That’s basically the perfect set-up to play with the A and B plots.
Watching Steve Carell in the show is amazing, but in this episode his performance is a treat. As Michael, he is the most glorious lack of self-awareness on film. He is not a stupid man, by some standards, but he so avoids most levels of introspection that he seems naive to the point of being insensitive. And that’s where this episode starts to get going. After the presentation by the corporate speaker for “Diversity Today,” Mr. Brown (who Michael refuses to call by his name, thinking that it’s racist), Michael is told that the presentation was required because of Michael’s own actions: Namely, retelling, nearly verbatim, Chris Rock’s 90s routine “Ni**as vs. Black People.”
Up until this point, Michael had actually been attempting to take control of the presentation, believing himself qualified to administer the program. Now that he has been told that he was reported to Corporate for racist actions, he is left with two choices: A) Undergo deep introspection and resolve to address his personal flaws or B) deny that he did anything wrong and go overboard trying to prove that he isn’t racist.
Michael picks A and the episode ends with him monologuing ab- oh come on, you know he picked B because it’s what everyone picks.
What follows is Michael doing a presentation called “Diversity Tomorrow,” with full sincerity, and it is beautiful. It is a bloody trainwreck made by Van Gogh, a work of art whose subject is so atrocious that only its magnificent execution keeps you from looking away. No description of what happens can give it the credit it is due. You just have to watch it. Ultimately, Michael keeps escalating things until finally one of his employees is forced to stop him.
Meanwhile, in the B plot, Jim finds out that Dwight has stolen his massive sale out from under his nose, devastating him and potentially ruining his entire year. However, the episode ends on a positive note, with Pam falling asleep on Jim’s shoulder, and Jim, despite his massive loss, noting that it was “not a bad day.”
This episode is as well-written as it is provocative. It addresses several pretty complex issues and manages to not be horribly preachy about it.
Is Michael racist? Well, he doesn’t think so, but throughout the episode he progressively says more and more objectively racist things in his quest to prove that he’s not. He argues that he knows about diversity because he’s 2/15ths Native American (this is not a typo). He asks one of his employees if he prefers a “less discriminatory term” than Mexican to describe his heritage, because of the “connotations.” He gets slapped in the face for repeatedly imitating an Indian salesperson asking people to try his “googi googi.” He believes they’re called “colored greens,” instead of “collard greens,” because he thinks they’re not eaten by “collard people.”
But, the thing is, Michael doesn’t usually treat people much differently based on their skin color once he gets to know them, and throughout the episode he isn’t really a “bad guy,” in the traditional sense. He respects Martin Luther King, Jr. If you asked him if he believes that people are defined by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, he would say yes, and he would mean it. He’s aware that both slavery and the holocaust were bad. In other words, he’s basically every middle-class northern white guy.
Here’s the thing: Everyone’s a little bit racist. There’s a whole song about it in a show that won a Tony for Best Musical.
And not in a way where you wouldn’t hire a black guy, or you wouldn’t want your daughter dating an Indian guy, but in the way that, if you’re honest, you tend to consider either your own race or, occasionally, the most dominant local race to be the “norm.” Not necessarily superior, just, normal. And that’s okay, because it’s something that basically nobody can help. But, you need to be aware that you’re doing it so that you don’t fly completely off the handle when it causes you to make a stupid assumption or unintentionally say something really inappropriate and you get called out on it.
This episode managed to address a big issue in a clever, funny, and ultimately, not that judgmental way. Not bad for what’s essentially episode one.
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NEXT – 36: Newhart
Michael Getting Slapped:
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