B+

The Office: "China"

The notion of television as a microcosm for global politics is … uneven.

It’s one thing for a show like The West Wing to deal with foreign policy and the growing power of China within economic and political circles—the show was built to handle just those questions, and so to see the White House staff working within such a situation is both logical and valuable.

It is somewhat more challenging, if not impossible, for a show that is not in the position to do something similar. Aaron Sorkin had precisely this problem on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, where he took a character’s serviceman brother, made him a hostage, and had the negotiations filter through the studio and its various staff members for reasons I still do not adequately understand. The problem is not that it couldn’t happen, although that is certainly a fair point; rather, the problem is that while those characters could address elements of political satire (being that they were writers on a sketch comedy show) but fail miserably at speaking to anything substantial—which, let’s face it, Sorkin was trying to do from his soap box—about the subject at hand.

I raise these points because The Office tackling “China as World’s Greatest Superpower” has similar problems when it is first introduced. This isn’t South Park, an environment where Cartman can become obsessed with an idea and the whole town can become a microcosm for nationwide panic and global conflict; while that show is malleable, The Office is technically grounded in reality and is in no position to achieve that level of satire considering the people who populate it (although Creed's ability to understand, but not speak, Pirate could come in handy).

“China” has some pretty serious issues in its early moments, reflective of the show’s inability to handle this type of conversation. Michael’s vision of Chinese domination means the end of forks and everyone being forced to learn how to play the cello. The joke is that Michael only knows what he learned from the Newsweek article and what Erin looked up on Wikipedia, and at first it seems that he failed to absorb much more than the title of the article. For Michael to then spin that into a red scare is just plain silly, and the stereotypes weren’t funny enough for the storyline to be worth that silliness.

Fortunately, “China” steps back and finds a small moment within that conflict—not unlike The Simpsons, this opening is just a red herring used to introduce a story about Oscar as “Actually,” and the gap between Michael’s rhetorical potential and his actual knowledge of just about any subject. We presume that Michael is making facts up, as does Oscar, but then we discover that Michael was actually right. It’s a nice twist, and really shifts the episode in an interesting direction.

I tend to enjoy smug Oscar, as his intellectualism does sort of clash with most of the rest of the office, and you all know that I like when Michael gets a chance to prove himself. When they finally have their coffee meeting, and after Andy and Jim help Michael (which I buy in this instance, since they want to knock Oscar down a peg), Michael is actually a skilled debater (yes, you can go ahead and fill in “master” to get a chuckle) on the subject at hand. Michael’s ability to speak persuasively is undeniable, but the problem is that he usually comes at these situations with a certain degree of ignorance. Here, armed with some legitimately interesting facts, Michael holds his own with Oscar quite easily.

And yes, this fits into my larger desire for Michael to seem more competent, so I’m admittedly a fan. This is the kind of story that I think they can tell with the character, one where he has moments where he is clueless (the exaggeration of the red scare narrative, as well as his reading of what the coffee meeting actually accomplished) and yet has other moments where you see how that does not always have to be the case. I do not need for Michael to always act in a competent fashion, but I do want there to be some semblance of a normal human being who could, under certain circumstances, achieve some sort of success. Michael’s behavior here did not prove that America will triumph because of the friendship of healthy conversation bringing the nation together, but it did prove that Michael occasionally getting moments of marginal intelligence (even when helped by some cheat sheets*) is in the show’s best interest.

*Okay, so how precisely was Michael using them? Did he have them there for reference and panicked in that single moment (not using them throughout)? That didn’t seem clear, and on rewatching it I wondered if he had actually been cheating—I still think he was going mostly from memory, but maybe you read things differently.

The same goes for Dwight, really. His stint as Building Owner has been pretty dull thus far, in that the character is trapped in an unfortunate space. Yes, “China” tries to play with the character’s duality by having Dwight refuse to deal with building matters while working, but what I always loved about this character was that who he was outside of the office was both more weird (in that he was unhinged, free to be an eccentric beet farmer) and less weird (in that when he was actually on a beet farm, his eccentricities played as more charming than ridiculous). Here, his greed has none of those elements of charm the character once had, and some half decent physical stuff with the motion sensors and half-ply toilet paper does not a hilarious storyline make.

However, the ending makes up for it. Yes, Dwight’s various efforts to damage the building were broad, but the reveal that he had overheard Pam’s speech to Jim about being a failure and had orchestrated the whole scenario to let her win one is honestly quite sweet, in a way the show doesn’t often let Dwight be. It’s the Dwight who came to Jim’s rescue when Roy tried to kill him, and it’s the opposite of the Dwight who has been around most of this season (and, frankly, the Dwight in parts of this episode). While the series tried to locate Dwight’s behavior in greed, the character lacked any further motivation to adequately explain his cruelty: This final moment establishes that Dwight will occasionally value someone else’s emotions over his own self-interest, and that’s a good step for the character.

When Pam went into the office administrator position I was skeptical, and many of you pointed out the various reasons why she would want out of her sales position to try to find her niche. I still have issues with the way that storyline was introduced and even some issues with the way it seemed so matter-of-fact that Pam would be in charge here, but where it ended up was where it should have begun. I will give them credit for getting to the “Pam = failure” narrative eventually, and while the storyline has yet to make any substantial impact and has never really been what one would call “funny,” this single emotional beat is perhaps worth the hassle if it adds some dynamism to a character who hasn’t threatened someone with the image of her daughter dancing on his/her grave often enough this season.

In case it’s not clear, this was not an episode about “China,” despite its title. I guess you could say that it’s an episode about the ways that Michael and Dwight’s respective modus operandi—how does one pluralize that? Any Latin experts?—can be used for both good and evil. With evidence behind him,  Michael’s rhetorical skills are actually quite impressive, and Dwight’s scheming can give Pam a win just as much as it can give Pam a loss. Once the racial stereotypes filtered away (or, awkwardly, moved to Kelly), the episode managed to take two of its most problematic characters and give them storylines that spoke more to their basic human nature than to any sort of larger question—and if you’re going to have The Office deal with foreign policy, that’s where you want to end up.

Stray observations:

  • Why does Phyllis believe Michael? I see why someone like Kevin would jump on the opportunity to discuss his once-a-week antacid idea and why Erin sees it as an opportunity to test out her conspiracy theory about the office murdering her, but Phyllis seems to actually think the office should or could do something. I am curious where Phyllis the Hawk came from—perhaps a web series?
  • The Andy/Darryl runner about texts was … pointless. But I’m charmed enough by their general dynamic that I’m okay with that.
  • Loved Kevin’s little smile when he hears Dwight talking about it—the simple pleasures.
  • Apparently the show now has its very own coffee shop in the lobby—curious if they go back to that set, as it seems like the kind of space that could work for the show on occasion (and make it seem more generic at the same time).
  • DID YOU SEE THE COMMERCIAL FOR THE CHRISTMAS EPISODE?! It came halfway through the episode, and I was distracted for the next ten minutes. Hype level B, for Beadie.
  • “Don’t get me started on how coddled the modern anus is.”
  • “He really does fit that old stereotype of the smug, gay Mexican.”
  • “I can’t wait to do to Pam what I just did … to Pam.”

More TV Club