78. "Business School," The Office (US) (2007)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Last night I happened to see The Artist, the newest take on the tale of a silent-movie star who can't adapt to the arrival of talkies, and here's an Office episode in which Michael Scott goes through a similar struggle. Michael does not have the charm of a George Valentin or the pathos of Norma Desmond (he's usually a closer fit for Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain), but he may be more sympathetic here than in any other episode, as the paper merchant stands athwart the Digital Age yelling "Stop!"
Not that I require my sitcom protagonists to be likeable. I just haven't always liked Steve Carell's portrayal of Michael Scott, as I wrote when he departed the show last year:
The series seems too taken with the sketch-comedy and improvisational skills of Carell, and his scenes frequently turn into "let's see how far he can take this" moments that contribute to wild inconsistencies in his character. His worst moments in stupidity and insensitivity, such as believing in the existence of a literal gaydar machine and the cruel way he treats Pam's mother, are passed off as part of his social awkwardness and neediness (as is traditional with Narcissists, as I wrote in an earlier post). But I could never get past the feeling that the writers were just throwing challenges at Carell.
Michael: I'd like to start today by inspiring you. May I borrow someone's textbook please? (student hands him book) Thank you. What have we here? Ooh, "economics." Very, very interesting. (begins tearing pages out and throwing them on the floor) You cannot learn from books. Replace these pages with life lessons, and then (struggling to rip out the final pages) you will have a book that is worth its weight in gold. (hands "book" back to student) I know these are expensive, but the lesson is priceless. Good. All right. I think you're inspired.
Michael is quite pleased with his presentation (in contrast, Gervais's character seems more self-aware when he's floundering, but he plows ahead in the belief that he's one quip away from winning over the audience). But his obliviousness is punctured by the' questions of the students, who have been prepped by Ryan's declaration that Dunder Mifflin is doomed.
Student: But how can you compete against a company with the resources of a nationwide chain?
Michael: David will always beat Goliath.
Student: But there's five Goliaths: there's Staples, Office Max...
Michael: Yeah, yeah, well, you know who else is facing five Goliaths? America: Al Qaeda, global warming, sex predators... mercury poisoning...
Fortunately, this isn't one of the episodes where a miffed Michael gets more and more childish. Instead, he has to wrap up the "B" story, about receptionist Pam's drawings (on paper!) at an art school exhibition. What he does here explains why Pam has a soft spot for her frequently infuriating boss for the rest of Carrell's time on the show.
The "C" plot is also memorable, about a loose bat in the office — which gives the episode's director, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, the opportunity for some Transylvanian playfulness. All in all, one of the series's most consistently enjoyable outings.
The Office is streaming on Netflix but not on YouTube, so here's some Lina Lamont: