One of the challenges facing a sitcom is finding the balance between characters as people and characters as modifiers. While some storylines on The Office emerge from this particular set of characters and their unique traits, others feel like stock storylines that are then filtered through those traits. It’s the difference between a Michael Scott storyline and a Michael Scott version of a storyline, and it’s something that The Office has always had to deal with in stretching the premise beyond the short run of the U.K. original. The latter kind of story is inevitable when you make twenty-plus episodes a season (on average) for seven years, but the former is generally more effective (and thus more desirable).
What struck me about “Garage Sale” was the degree to which Jon Vitti (who wrote the episode) and Steve Carell (who directed it) seemed very much aware of the balance that needed to be achieved between these two modes. On the one hand, this is one of the most important character moments that Michael Scott has ever experienced, which meant that the episode needed to feel as though it sprung from the character and his actions. This is especially important given the unavoidable discourse surrounding Carell’s exit from the show, which risks making the character’s actions in the episode seem contrived (more on that later).
On the other hand, the episode is very much a Michael Scott version of a stock television storyline. The episode was sold based on the notion of a proposal, something that we can all say we’ve witnessed with one television couple or another — a quick scan of TV Tropes, for example, outlines the sheer volume of examples of slightly off-kilter televisual proposals. As a result, the question becomes what a Michael Scott proposal—a hypothetical scenario that we might have imagined on other occasions—might look like in comparison to other proposals: sort of a “Who Proposed In a Humorously Embarrassing Form Better” competition, if you will.
“Garage Sale” does not reinvent the wheel, but it does acknowledge this dichotomy by allowing Michael to have his moment of creative (if highly flammable) license before eventually settling on something that feels motivated more by human emotion than sitcom convention. Now, admittedly, I think Michael is complex enough that we sort of believe that even his ridiculous proposal strategies involving exploding corpses and gasoline-fueled fire writing are an extension of who he is as a person. However, that’s a very different side of his personality, and much of the seventh season has been spent reiterating the softer side of the character.
But even as someone who much prefers Michael as a competent if flawed man, I see why he first had to douse himself in gasoline and suggest acquiring corpses. Michael’s potent cocktail of heightened emotional attachment and nervous energy is what most men go through when they propose, but Michael just sort of lets it loose, whereas people like Jim let it simmer under the surface before making their move. The scene where Jim and Pam relay the story of their engagement and Michael finds it imperfect is incredibly meaningful: Not only does it reiterate that a proposal is intensely personal (and thus something that Michael should be allowed to want to involve an exploding corpse), but it also reiterates that Michael is not someone who wants a moment like this to be entirely private. He wants this to be “an event that everyone talks about always and forever.”
That’s what Jim wanted too; after all, he was going to propose in “Goodbye, Toby,” but Andy stole the moment out from under him. Jim, of course, was able to settle for that rainy gas station halfway between Scranton and New York City because it felt right in the context of their relationship (as they threatened to grow distant in their time apart). Michael, however, isn’t willing to wait for the right moment: He knows he loves Holly, he knows Holly loves him, and so he’s going to create that moment in order to take control of his destiny.
In some ways, his proposal is very similar to Jim’s. At a point where his relationship could be divided, where Holly could go back to Colorado and leave him behind, he realizes that this is not a time for elaborate plans and instead finds a way to turn something very simple into something very momentous. The difference, of course, is that Michael’s proposal was never going to be private: Like most of Michael’s plans, and like most everything in the show, it was going to involve the entire office whether or not we actually believe that all of these people would be gung-ho about this particular union.
I’ll get it out of the way now: I think the proposal itself was a beautiful piece of work. Carell and Amy Ryan were as strong as they have been all season, their performances very much driving the scene, even with some strong writing to go with it, and the sense of scale felt perfectly balanced. It wasn’t so large that it pushed the boundaries of “reality,” but it also wasn’t so small that it didn’t feel like something Michael Scott would do. It was comfortably within that space between a television event and a personal expression, and I got a little choked up throughout the sequence.
It’s also strong enough to overcome the transparent machinations that were the episode’s primary objective. In one fell swoop (and without much in the way of subtlety), the episode plainly lays out Michael’s reason for leaving: A phone call from Holly’s parents suggests they are having trouble taking care of themselves, a conversation with Phyllis reinforces the importance of transitioning your aging parents into nursing homes before they lose all of their independence, and then Holly announces she’s moving back to Colorado. Frankly, if any viewer didn’t figure out the entire scenario from Holly’s phone call with her parents, they weren’t paying attention. It was, needless to say, not exactly a surprise when Michael announced to the office that he was moving to Colorado with Holly.
First off: Can you imagine if Carell’s exit from the show had been kept a secret, and you saw this episode without knowing that it was outlining the exit strategy for the character? Changes like this are often suggested, but we would have been doubting their willingness to go through with it; instead, it felt like bald-faced exposition, finally getting around to setting up (in the span of 10 minutes) the entire justification for Michael’s exit.
And yet, what it lacked in elegance, it made up for in logic and, well, elegance. While the way it was laid out was too accelerated, not unlike the rekindling of Michael and Holly’s relationship, it feels true to this character and to the idea of their relationship. We all presumed that he would be following Holly somewhere, given that the show’s affection for Michael this season would suggest a happy ending, but there was the chance it would be some sort of transfer or another machination. As cheap as it might be for it to be “aging parents who are suffering from what appears to be dementia,” one cannot deny that it is a good (and plausible) reason why Michael would be willing to leave Scranton.
What makes this unimpeachable reasoning feel at least somewhat natural is the way it ties in with the proposal. Michael doesn’t just agree to go to Colorado: He hears the plan, resists her attempts to propose, and immediately discovers the perfect proposal. While one could say that this is, again, too fast, the speed is part of the point: Faced with a huge life change, Michael achieves a sense of clarity that we rarely see from the character. Even if the circumstances felt like an external function of a creative decision on the part of the writers, the way Michael responds to them is so caught up in the emotions of the proposal that it starts to feel real. It is the “reality” that shifts Michael away from the wacky proposals into something heartfelt and honest, and it was the moment when “Garage Sale” went from setup to satisfaction.
The rest of the episode was not exactly as satisfying, but there was a simplicity to it I very much appreciated. The garage sale was a simple but effective way of getting some more insight into each of the characters, mostly confirming pre-existing traits for a quick chuckle (like Angela’s sense of a ceramic cat’s value) or using the setting as an opportunity for character-specific jokes (like Ryan’s opportunism in the canned goods industry and his predictable desire to follow the lead of James Franco) or character-centric “plots” (like “Dallas: The Board Game”). Build a typical but charming prank-centric storyline for Jim and Dwight into the mix, as was done here, and you have a nice, collective B-Story that can offer some support for the A-Story when necessary.
On that level, this really was the spiritual successor to “Casino Night,” which remains one of my all-time favorite episodes of the series. It wasn’t quite as novel, and many of the supporting characters weren’t given any chance to make an impression, but “Garage Sale” succeeds in turning what could feel like a gimmicky sitcom scenario into something that feels distinct to both the office (as in the characters who populate Dunder Mifflin Scranton) and The Office. Even if certain moments felt false at first glance and even if this whole exit scenario has felt rushed even though we’ve been building to it all season, the “Michael Scott proposal” really did overwhelm those reservations and suggested that the writers are very much in control of Michael Scott’s departure from Dunder Mifflin.
Now, the question becomes whether they are in control of Steve Carell’s departure from The Office.
- The “Dallas: The Board Game” storyline was not what one would call laugh-out-loud funny, but Kevin’s cunning ploy at episode’s end was a nice callback to his poker skills in “Casino Night” (which was one of the last times he seemed legitimately sharp—seems he’s only “on” when gambling is involved), and I did very much enjoy Ed Helms throwing Andy into the setting so wholeheartedly.
- I hope, for Holly’s sake, that the program on TV about India wasn’t Outsourced. Then she’d really have something to worry about.
- I don’t know why, but Dwight’s talking head updating us on his progress in his swap experiment in which he notes the cute squid he got from Erin cracked me up.
- Love the little beat where Pam convinces Michael to come into the conference room by telling him he set a meeting, and he just waltzes in ready to give a speech on recycling. Simple, but effective.
- Sorry to be light on quotes this week, but this is going up later than I’d like as it is due to some other commitments, so feel free to share your favorites in the comments.