The Office (Classic): “Michael's Birthday”/“Drug Testing”
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The Office (Classic): “Michael's Birthday”/“Drug Testing”

“Michael’s Birthday” (season two, episode 19; originally aired 3/30/2006)

(Available on Hulu and Netflix.)

In which Kevin has Michael’s worst birthday ever

While The Office helped warm American television audiences to the look and feel of the mockumentary, the show’s format also led viewers to a number of misconceptions. Namely: The loose, conversational nature of The Office’s dialogue means the show was heavily improvised. That’s not an outlandish conclusion to jump to, as the most prominent take on the form at the time—the films of Christopher Guest—are composed of ab libs built around a predetermined outline. But as late as 2012, Office staffers were still answering questions about the degree to which their show was made up on the spot, typically with variations on the same answer: You can’t make all of this stuff up. Space was provided for the actors to go off book or do multiple takes with alternate punchlines, but The Office’s grand illusion involved masking the strings pulling the cameras in certain directions or keeping the source of a joke out of frame.

And the show’s stars had good reason to jump in and say “No, really, we have writers” whenever they could. It’s not quite the murders’ row assembled for The Simpsons’ finest seasons, but the early years of The Office can lay claim to one of the most talented sitcom writers’ rooms in recent history. It didn’t hurt that it was being led by someone who’d actually been a part of those Simpsons staffs, and the people Greg Daniels surrounded himself with have had a noticeable impact on TV comedy in the short term: With help of Daniels, Michael Schur went on to shepherd Parks And Recreation (another of the last decade’s funniest shows) and the forthcoming Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The Mindy Project made it to air thanks to Mindy Kaling’s onscreen presence on The Office, but the scripts she penned while playing Kelly Kapoor made her a bankable talent as well. “Michael’s Birthday” writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, meanwhile, have their names on three shows coming to air in the 2012-13 season: They’re running Trophy Wife for ABC after assisting Stephen Merchant in a similar capacity with Hello Ladies, and their screenplay Bad Teacher is set to be the basis of a CBS sitcom.

It’s telling that Eisenberg and Stupnitsky are the writers doing a “hands across the water” routine with Merchant. Three of the Office episodes they wrote—“Michael’s Birthday,” “Dinner Party,” and “Scott’s Tots”—are the closest this series gets to replicating the stomach-churning cringe comedy of Merchant and Ricky Gervais’ original. Such a tone would be unsustainable across the span of an American TV season, but little reminders of the show’s origins never hurt. They’re painful to watch, to be sure—the big joke of “Michael’s Birthday” involves cancer, after all—but the best Eisenberg-Stupnitsky episodes retain the warmth that makes the American Office special, while remaining true to the honest awkwardness of Merchant and Gervais’ show.

And a birthday is such a perfect setting for that balance. Here is a day—March 15, if that Eva Longoria trivia in the talking head is correct—that is supposed to be all about Michael Gary Scott. In his mind, every day is all about Michael Scott, but “Michael’s Birthday” takes place during the 24 hours of every year in which he can be shameless about his self-absorption without fear of reprisal. He can demand ice cream cake. He can sing the high harmony on “Happy Birthday To You.” He can giggle his way through what he thinks is a performance by a stripper in courier’s clothing. And no one can say “boo,” because doth it his birthday.

Unfortunately, Michael’s birthday is also the Ides of March, and while he’s weathered no assassination attempts on that portentous date, he has had his share of “worst birthdays ever.” He recalls two of them (that bit about the pony and the rash feels too specific to not have a real-life inspiration) for The Documentarians while the latest one unfolds: An Eisenberg-Stupnitsky special in which Kevin waits to hear back about a possible skin cancer diagnosis while Michael frolics about in birthday reverie. It’s a perfectly low-stakes disruption—I wonder how many of the “skin cancer is totally treatable” lines were inserted to ease anxiety about the subject of the joke—feeding one of season two’s best “the office versus Michael” plots. 

I say this because an episode like “Michael’s Birthday” would’ve been a spectacular misfire during the first season. For all of the character’s remaining boorishness, he’s so much of an improvement over the way this would’ve been written (and played) if it was part of the first six episodes. It’s all about an easing off of the throttle, something Steve Carell injects into his performance anytime it appears Kevin’s worst day might upstage Michael’s bad one. Everyone’s rallying around Kevin because this day is different from any that came before or would come afterward; Michael has to buy his own celebratory donuts because Dunder Mifflin has weathered the storm of countless Michael Scott birthdays.

Ultimately, Kevin’s test comes back negative (cue fantastically wrong interpretation of the news on Michael’s part), and Michael gets to show off on the rink in front of his employees (and his real-estate agent, opening yet another door for “Casino Night”), but the characters who get to most enjoy “Michael’s Birthday” are Jim and Pam. The pair has another non-date where intimate details are revealed (Jim’s a fabric-softener kind of a guy) and low-key fun is had—this time through the episode, I found myself marveling at how elegantly their subplot is integrated into the rest of “Michael’s Birthday.” Even this late into the second season, that will-they/won’t-they aspect of The Office is playing nicely with everything else that made the show great, all the while being pretty great itself. More than a manipulative tease, the peak of the Jim-and-Pam storyline captured the dizzying swell of falling in love as well as the turbulent spiral of not being able to express that feeling. Post-“Booze Cruise,” much of the thread hinges on Jim and the latter part of that equation, so it’s nice to have an episode that pays a little more attention to Pam recognizing how nice it is to spend time with a guy who actually wants to spend time with her. (And doesn’t mind her teasing him about fabric softener.) “Michael’s Birthday” focuses on a rough eight hours for Michael Scott and Kevin Malone, but it’s Pam who gets the last word on how the day went. 

“It was a good day,” Pam says, while Jenna Fischer nervously fidgets in a way that’s awfully hard to write into a script. “It was a good day.”

“Drug Testing” (season two, episode 20; originally aired 4/27/2006)

(Available on Hulu and Netflix.)

In which Dwight seeks a culprit and Jim isn’t talking (and these two things are intertwined, but not as you may expect)…

“Drug Testing” also features a talking head that wraps its major threads into a neat little bow—yet for all of the poignant irony of Jim asking “What is he getting out of that relationship?”, the sequence underlines the troublesome transparency in characters talking directly to the audience. True, Jim isn’t directly talking about the great lengths he goes to to please Pam, but that’s what the writers, producers, and editors want the viewers to think, running John Krasinski’s dialogue over footage of Jim and Pam in the conference room. There’s nothing wrong with taking the audience’s hand and guiding them to such a conclusion, but the on-the-nose nature of “Drug Testing”’s conclusion dulls some of the finer points of a funny statement on devotion and loyalty within Dunder Mifflin.

It’s even more dispiriting that Jim over-explains at the end of an episode that makes its points in long stretches of silence. I love the game of jinx between him and Pam because it breaks down into such a smart, simple illustration of their friendship. Over the course of these first 26 episodes, that relationship amounts to a murky, volatile cocktail of emotions, but with every passing instance of Jim’s silence in “Drug Testing,” his motivations become clearer: He wants to show how devoted he is to Pam. As a friend, and possibly more. By adhering to the rules of such a silly game—rules that Jenna Fischer notes to the camera with a dose of laughter, demonstrating Pam has no expectations for Jim’s endearing pedantry—he lets her know how seriously he takes their connection. And then he reiterates that point again and again, in a glorious sequence of escalation that involves fake tears and fake sympathy for Kelly.

Which is why that portion of “Drug Testing” dovetails so nicely with the scenes that give the episode its name, an investigation into the origins of a stray joint that nearly crushes Dwight between his unbending toadyism and his fanatical compliance with the rules. The investigation plot is a weird little Matryoshka doll of a storyline, in which a goofy cop-show tangent hides a statement on playing by the rules—inside which nests one of the defining characteristics of Dwight Schrute. In the battle of power versus law, power claims another win: Dwight delivers (with considerable hesitation) a coffee cup full of his clean urine to Michael, whose own sample is compromised through a series of events involving an Alicia Keys concert, a lip ring, and what may or may not have been clove cigarettes. Meanwhile, in a juxtaposition that’s less obvious than the one that closes the episode, Dwight runs down the Schrute family lineage, the memory of two proud Dwight Schrutes (and one Dwide Shrude) blemished by Dwight’s unquestioning loyalty to Michael.

Or are they? Here’s the thing about that voiceover: When it reaches the point where Dwight recounts his dad cheating to win their father-son games, what’s playing out onscreen is Dwight handing his bathroom contraband over to Michael. The punchline of the voiceover involves Dwight never “busting” his dad for cheating because he had no idea he was doing so, but the notion goes deeper: Dwight’s not betraying his father, because Michael currently fills that role in his life. That’s why he’ll go to the ends of the earth for him, and it’s why it’s this week’s “Jim and Dwight are more alike than either will admit” moment. Both have pledged themselves to people who might respect them, but don’t necessarily reciprocate the pledge. In time, these things will balance out, but for now, both Jim and Dwight are side by side, grounded on adjacent relationship seesaws.

That voiceover from Dwight also telegraphs its deeper meaning, but it doesn’t bother me as much as the Jim talking head that follows. I think it’s because the role those scraps of dialogue play within each storyline. Dwight’s plot carries the comedic weight for the majority of “Drug Testing,” and the stuff about his father roots the Keystone Cops routine in recognizable emotions. It takes a thread that’s at turns broad and cartoonish and gives the viewer some hints to root around in; Jim’s incredulity at Dwight’s behavior, by contrast, feels more like a pat on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se—I just find it more satisfying to extrapolate from the twitch of pain in Krasinski’s face when Pam goads Jim by saying he can tell her “anything.” Because he can’t tell her anything, and we’re left to chuckle-and-twinge as yet another piece of confidential information stays confidential.

It could also be that there’s something so definitive about placing that “What does he get out of that relationship?” at the end of the episode. There’s a lot that’s left to ponder about why Dwight does what he does in “Drug Testing.” He knows what he’s doing for Michael is wrong, and yet he has no way of confirming if Michael actually smoked pot. He’s doing it on blind faith, and the episode doesn’t provide any sort of answer as to whether or not he needed to resign from his volunteer post with the sheriff’s department. Things are more cut and dry when it comes to Jim’s feelings for Pam, but that’s why their part of “Drug Testing” plays so well near the end of the second season. That volatile cocktail of emotions is a few solid prods away from exploding, and it will do so spectacularly in next week’s episodes. In order to get it to that point, however, the show needed an episode like “Drug Testing”—and if Jim’s Dwight-like obedience to Pam’s whims has to be represented by a shortcut in the script, so be it.

Grades

“Michael’s Birthday”: A-

“Drug Testing”: A-

Stray observations:

  • Hey, it’s 2006!: Michael shows his ostensible support for Kevin’s theoretical diagnosis by crafting his very own Livestrong wristband. (Of course, Michael’s so typically behind the cultural times, this is more of a “Hey, it’s 2004!”.)
  • An additional great use of silence: Ryan stares blankly into the camera after witnessing a particularly tense, innuendo-laden exchange between Angela and Dwight.
  • I can’t tell if the ice rink seen in “Michael’s Birthday” is the same that was used for Parks And Rec’s “The Comeback Kid,” but it is part of the same facility as the bowling alley where Ben decks the guy who calls Leslie a bitch.
  • I love the world in which Michael thinks he lives, the one where a Sharpie-scrawled “Michael Scott Sample” is enough to pass a coffee cup off as a legit medical supply. 
  • A special PSA from Michael Scott: “Next time you’re in the shower, you should check yourself out, you know—give yourself an exam. Those things are like ticking time bags.”
  • And now, a special thought for your next spell of self-pity: “I bet Luke Perry’s friends don’t treat him like this.” (Just make sure you’re actually talking about Luke Perry and not James Dean.) 

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