The Office (Classic): “Safety Training”/“Product Recall”
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The Office (Classic): “Safety Training”/“Product Recall”

Risk and crisis management

“Safety Training” (season three, episode 20; originally aired 4/12/2007)

In the middle of “The Negotiation,” The Office crams its two most openly hostile relationships into the bench seat of a pickup truck. Michael Scott hates Toby Flenderson because the human-resources rep disrupts Michael’s efforts to run a “fun” workplace; Darryl Philbin hates Michael because Michael just straight up disrupts Darryl’s workplace. The fun of The Office—and the fun of any workplace comedy, for that matter—is that these people must get past these differences in opinion and management style in order to do their jobs. The additional fun of this particular workplace comedy is that one of these people, Michael, isn’t 100 percent clear on what a regional manager’s job is. He’s not supposed to be everyone’s friend. He’s not supposed to be an entertainer first and a boss second. And as we learn in “Safety Training,” he’s never, ever, ever supposed to go near the baler—or any other piece of heavy machinery in the warehouse.

That last bit is detailed in a season-three outlier that harkens back to the nastier, more confrontational passages of The Office’s early days. After Michael causes a mishap in the warehouse, Darryl is required to go over the company safety policy with his employees. In addition to suffering an injury because of Michael’s stupidity, Darryl must sacrifice work hours to the safety seminar—a once-a-year or once-an-accident occurrence that only ever goes the one way. In our ongoing tracking of Michael Scott’s many personas, “Safety Training” is Michael in Tasmanian Devil mode. Offscreen, he knocks Darryl off of a shelf, wrecking the warehouse foreman’s ankle. (The talking head in which Craig Robinson lays all of this out is one of The Office’s finest moments of showing while telling.) During the safety demonstration, Michael interrupts every bullet point and insists on treating the warehouse like his own personal toy box. Later, in an effort to prove that working upstairs can be dangerous, too, Michael nearly leaps from a roof. No wonder Michael can’t be trusted around the baler or the forklift: Beyond everything else, he’s the greatest danger to himself.

That would also be the message of Toby’s training address, if Michael’s buffoonery didn’t push Darryl and Lonny (Patrice O’Neal, in the late comic’s final Office appearance) to the breaking point. “Safety Training” stops short of full-on social commentary, but there’s some potent stuff in the way the warehouse workers react to what they hear from the man upstairs in this episode: It’s difficult to believe that this idiot gets paid better than they do. (Though, prior to “The Negotiation,” it’s not by much.) There are parts of “Safety Training” that play like scenes from the path The Office didn’t take, in which the tensions between different factions within Dunder Mifflin took a good, hard, satirical look at life in an office.

That’s present in both of this week’s episodes, actually: Both take use everyoffice inconveniences as their jumping-off points, and apply them to the absurdly dysfunctional dynamics at work within this Office. It’s a relatable approach that has a limited amount of story-driving material; this show endured because its characters ultimately mattered more than the situations they faced. Relations between Michael and Darryl would eventually cool, which is why re-watching the “nerf life” sequence of “Safety Training” is particularly jarring. Ultimately, the pair turned out to be more Jim-and-Dwight than Michael-and-Toby, and that softening is on display when Darryl talks Michael off of the rooftop. Robinson still draws on the irritation in that moment, as the script (by B.J. Novak, pulling from the darker side of his comic voice that also produced “Diversity Day,” “Chair Model,” and “Prince Family Paper”) plays both sides of his character’s feelings. “Mike: You’re a very brave man,” he says through Dwight’s megaphone. “I mean it takes courage just to be you. To get out of bed every, single day, knowing full well you gotta be you.” Backhanded compliments have never sounded so sweet.

The point about the office workers sitting on their biscuit, never having to risk it is unfounded, anyway. If Dwight and Angela’s barely private hookups aren’t proof of this willingness to take a chance, then the betting runner in “Safety Training” is. The series of mundane workday wagers is about as basic as Office subplots get—and highly effective for just that reason. It’s “Office Olympics” in miniature, pitting the regulars in a head-to-head competition that draws upon and breaks the predictability of the show’s main setting. Each of the set pieces is inspired—Kelly explaining to Ryan how Netflix works is my personal favorite—and they’re enlivened by the sense that the characters are letting the viewer in on a little secret. There’s a dryness to it that suits The Office; in an episode that finds Michael threatening to leap on to a pair of objects ill-suited (and ill-positioned) for breaking his fall, the biggest laugh might involve Paul Lieberstein telling the camera “Creed is eating an apple. I found a potato.” Underlining the feelings of inadequacy that plague Michael throughout “Safety Training,” Toby notches the episode’s funniest joke. That’s something that’ll really drag down the boss’ self esteem.

Stray observations:

  • Andy’s back, but we can ignore that fact because a) he’s asked to be called “Drew,” and b) Dwight has made the right call to shun Drew’s pompous, Cornell-educated ass.
  • There’s an all-time-great cut during Darryl’s talking head about his injury, moving from Craig Robinson’s stone-faced telling of the story to Steve Carell—nearly in tears from the laughter—blurting out “Hey Darryl, how’s it hanging?”
  • For the Office statistical nerds: In the Netflix bet, Pam makes $10 because Kelly said “awesome” 12 times, and Jim earns $5 because six romantic comedies are mentioned. 
  • Additionally: How great was the late Harold Ramis at using the entire frame to tell a joke? The screen is alive with activity in “Safety Training,” with the gamblers stacking up their wages behind Kelly’s back and Pam and Jim giving great silent reactions during Darryl’s turn with the megaphone. It’s a nice complement and contrast to the show’s pan- and close-up-heavy house style.
  • Kevin has a gambling problem, but at least he makes hilarious wagers because of it: “If someone gives you 10,000-to-1 on anything, take it. If John Mellencamp ever wins an Oscar, I am going to be a very rich dude.

“Product Recall” (season three, episode 21; originally aired 4/26/2007)

Let’s say, just for Tuesday-afternoon shits and giggles, we’re the crewmembers on the same sinking ship. Instincts will undoubtedly dictate how we act in this situation, but as a collective working toward a common goal, we’re likely to look to one person for guidance—the one person who knows we can’t reverse the course of actions that caused the ship to start sinking, the one person who can assure that the most of us make it out alive. In that moment, what type of leader do you hope to see step forward? Is it someone who’s “prepared” for this type of crisis by studying similar ones, who hides his own panic by emulating the actions of braver people? It’s definitely not the person who throws others under the bus to ensure his own survival—which is one route our crisis-management expert might take. Perhaps, then, it’s the individual who knows their fellow crewmembers well enough to take the shortest path to calming us all down. They’ll do this even though it’s a personal burden; they’ll do this even though no one ever thought to do it for them.

“Product Recall” presents that sinking-ship theoretical in a fashion that’s entertaining within the context of the episode—yet it also does so in a way where the full consequences won’t be felt until the end of season three. In this balance of episodic and serialized concerns, this could very well be the best installment of season three—at least in terms of what Greg Daniels and company were trying to achieve with the promotion arc that carries through this last stretch of episodes. Ever so subtly, pipe is being laid, but not at the expense of the pitch-perfect story of the darkest day in Dunder Mifflin history.

As a catalyst, the watermark disaster is the perfect device for a series that made a catchphrase out of “That’s what she said.” The image of two cartoons humping is filthy (in a supremely silly way) and unequivocally inappropriate for the workplace, let alone a high-school prom invitation. More importantly, it requires a response from everyone in the office. All of the regulars have something to do in “Product Recall,” and the fact that those storylines stem from the same source gives the half-hour a crucial sense of cohesion. It’s an opportunity for the show to express who these people are while getting them to contribute to a common cause, showing their leadership qualifications all the while.

This had never occurred to me until my most recent go-round with the final scene of “Product Recall,” when Jim snuffs out a meltdown-within-the-meltdown by leading Andy into a rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” John Krasinski doesn’t completely convey how much it pains Jim to lay down that bass line—preceding episodes and the first front-seat sequence of the episode beat him to it. There’s a precision to the dialogue of “Product Recall”—it’s the source of such Office quotables as “Lord, beer me strength” and “They’re trying to make me an escape goat”—but the episode has a satisfying structure, too. The two scenes in Andy’s car do a great job of mirroring one another, each beginning with a one-sided conversation and concluding with Ed Helms belting a golden oldie. And there’s such a natural progression in the Creed story, with Dunder Mifflin’s resident quality-assurance rep taking every wretched step possible to keep his job. One of these characters will wind up competing for a job at corporate—unsurprisingly, it’s not the guy who gets someone else fired in order to cover his own ass, then pockets money he collected in her name.

Jim proves his leadership bona fides in “Product Recall” by absorbing the blows of a problem he didn’t create; Michael tries to do the same thing before playing the “not my fault” card he’s kept up his sleeve for the entire episode. This is probably the sloppiest corner of “Product Recall,” just because it’s all over the place: Michael’s brave face in front of his employees, his breakdown at the press conference, his eventual slide into making an unnecessary apology video. Still, it dovetails with the accountants’ story, where all of the humor is in out-of-proportion responses and lack of qualifications. To return to the precision of the episode’s dialogue, however, there’s such a complete portrait of Michael Scott that comes across when he tells Pam “they always give an ultimatum.” He’s not relying on any real-world survival experience or crisis-management know-how here, nor is he tapping into what he knows about his co-workers and clients. Instead, he’s working from a script that’s as phony as the taped-together American flag serving as his apology-video backdrop, bits and pieces of contrition gleaned from others (real and fake) who had more to apologize for than horny cartoon characters. In the movie Michael Scott thinks he’s starring in, this is his Watergate, but in the reality that exists outside of the Apology Camera, this is a standard-issue corporate blunder that the world will forget in a week or two. That’s why the only person to show up for the press conference is the local paper’s “lighter side” columnist. He does obituaries, too, but no one’s getting buried here.

As viewers, we love Michael Scott because this is the way he reacts when his job is threatened—but this is also why you wouldn’t want him to captain the sinking ship. “Product Recall” is as much a psychological profile of the characters as it is the chronicle of stressful times at Dunder Mifflin. The watermark is a Rorschach blot, and few of the people on screen provide answers that paint them as satisfactory leaders. Jim would help cooler heads prevail, but would he be too busy imitating Dwight to get people in the lifeboats? The only conclusive answer: It’s a good thing Michael’s “Booze Cruise” emergency was only a false alarm.

Stray observations:

  • More well-deployed parallels in the cold open and pre-credits tag, in which the “Jim as Dwight” prank begets a “Dwight as Jim” retaliation. The surprise of this one wears off over time, but I remember being near tears the first time I heard “Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica.” This is the kind of joke a show can only pull when it’s this deep into a third or fourth season—the character tics are still fresh enough, but the actors have had enough time to learn how to mimic one another.
  • Another joke for the long-time viewer: Jim’s take to the camera when Michael declares Threat Level Midnight.
  • It turns out that Michael’s sense of humor is dictated by some standards: “Five hundred boxes have gone out with the image of a beloved cartoon duck performing unspeakable acts upon a certain cartoon mouse that a lot of people like. I’ve never been a fan.
  • Quality Creed Thoughts: “Every week I’m supposed to take four hours and do a quality spot check of the paper mill. Of course, the one year I blow it off, this happens.” And later: “The only difference between me and a homeless man is this job. I will do whatever it takes to survive—like I did when I was a homeless man.

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