Tuned In

Office Watch: Paper Chase

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Spoilers for last night’s Office coming up after the jump: 

The thing we like to say about workplaces, when it comes to sitcoms like The Office, is that they’re surrogate families. Well, that’s true metaphorically, to an extent. But it’s not really true. When it comes down to it, coworkers are, well, people you work with. Period. 

Throughout The Office, Michael Scott has thrown himself into office life as a substitute for the home life he doesn’t have. But what he really wants, we see over and over again, is a family family—hence his neediness and bad decisions involving Jan and Holly. In “Prince Family Paper,” Michael finds an office that really is a family—a kindly man working with his son, a little girl doing her homework at a desk—and he is required, for the good of his not-really-a-family employer, to destroy it. (Or “slightly destroy” it, as he puts it.) 

This is the second episode in a row in which we’ve seen Michael becoming a success at work. But success at work often has the result of making Michael less happy, because it comes with reminders that—as when Wallace transferred Holly away—it really is business, and not personal. Steve Carrell made Michael’s slowly dawning discomfort with what he was doing palpable and touching. Dwight, meanwhile, was perfect for this assignment, because of what we know about his family background: coming from a big brood, drilled with Teutonic survival rules from an early age, his idea of family is an overcrowded nest of open-mouthed baby birds, competing for limited resources. 

I loved the British Office, but one thing that gives the American version additional complexity is that it’s willing to entertain the idea that the things that make Michael annoying—his need to be liked, his view of himself as entertainer/best friend—is also part of what makes him good at his job. Last week, David Wallace tried to get Michael to identify what made his branch more successful than the others; he couldn’t do it, but it might well be the same decency that he had to suppress to “succeed” this week. 

Meanwhile, the Hilary Swank B-plot brought most of the ha-ha funny this week. (My favorite moment: the look on Kevin’s face when he realized he wasn’t allowed full Internet access.) Like so many similar Office B-plots—in which the employees throw themselves into some obsession to get through the day—it worked not just because the premise was funny but because each person responded to the debate in a way that reflected their character. So, what say you: hot or not?