C+

The Office: "Sex Ed"

C+

The Office

"Sex Ed"

Season 7, Episode 4

I am aware that, after seven seasons, Michael Scott is a pretty clearly defined character. And, as part of that character, he is often quite stupid (like, for example, driving his car into a lake because a GPS told him to) and quite romantic (notably in his relationship with Holly Flax).

I quite like the latter character trait, which is why I was excited by the notion of an episode where Michael sorts through his romantic history — he has had some compelling, complicated, and humorous relationships in the past, as well as some strong dramatic moments within those pairings, so why wouldn’t I desire to see more? However, what bothers me about “Sex Ed” is that in order for this storyline to happen, the writers thought it was necessary for Michael to do something categorically stupid and ignorant in order to create this situation. It isn’t awkward or funny enough to have Michael have to go to Jan, Carol, Holly, Helene, and Donna and tell them that he has herpes: he has to go there to tell them that he has imaginary herpes diagnosed based on Meredith’s personal experience.

Admittedly, my frustration with this sticks with me longer than perhaps it should. I like Michael, but I think that his stupidity can often be exaggerated: there’s a point where the series’ cringe humour stops being funny because it doesn’t feel organic. “Dinner Party,” which I rewatched after someone in last week’s comments raised it as a counter-point to my general disinterest in the series’ cringe humor, is perfectly natural: in fact, its entire premise is built around the idea that Jan and Michael’s dinner guests are forced to witness this intensely personal altercation. We cringe because we feel that we’re intruding on their lives, not because they’re doing something idiotic or clueless. When the show does cringe in a smart fashion, creating interesting scenarios that challenge our comfort level, I’m laughing and cringing right along with you: if, however, the show makes Michael do something stupid simply to justify a particular story development, I spend the entire episode frustrated with the writers.

Ultimately, I think the A-story in “Sex Ed” ends up working as Paul Lieberstein wanted it to: meeting Michael’s exes starts out with an awkward phone call where Michael doesn’t know how to spell herpes, but Holly’s phone call makes him question his recollection of these relationships, and the rest of the episode is Michael actively searching through his past to understand his romantic desire and forgetting to tell people he has herpes. In fact, I’m guessing the reason the show didn’t actually give him herpes is that they wanted it to sort of fade into the background: Michael would have seemed a terrible human being, for instance, if he actually had herpes and left without telling Helene (who, along with Donna, lacked distance from their breakup and thought Michael a terrible human being). Because the herpes was imaginary, it was able to disappear once Michael started trying to figure out if any of the women who he was convinced were the one was actually the one.

As a result, the story got better as it got along, and despite my reservations I buy the way it came together in the end: Amy Ryan wasn’t on screen, but her presence on the phone call emphasized their chemistry quite nicely. Michael pulled his usual stunt of awkwardly turning the phone call into a joke, but instead of getting annoyed or frustrated Holly played along. Since we know that Amy Ryan is coming back, we’re not particularly surprised to see Michael decide (quite rightfully, I’d say) that he isn’t romanticizing his relationship with Holly the way he might have looked past Jan’s craziness or (more subtly) the imbalance between his own feelings and Carol’s when he proposed to her on their fourth date. With Holly, he isn’t overlooking anything when he says he is attached to her, and while she seems to still be in her relationship with A.J. — who we met at the end of the fifth season in “Company Picnic” — their connection remains strong enough in even a simple phone call that her return seems inevitable.

Michael’s story seems like a very retrospective turn for The Office, revisiting its history to help start Carell’s exit from the series. On the other hand, the B-Story seemed as if it sort of lazily tapped into the series’ basic structure by having Andy run a Sex Ed seminar. After last week’s episode placed Andy at its center without making the story about Andy, here Andy very much stepped into Michael’s shoes in terms of running an awkward conference room presentation. While I thought that there were some decent moments within the story, like Darryl using generic advice to try to help Andy out of the situation, it fell flat overall: without any particularly strong jokes, it fell entirely on Andy’s character, and there just wasn’t enough there to support it.

I get what they were going for: Andy tries to do good for the office, the office ignores him, Andy starts getting flustered, and then Andy turns it into an attempt to confirm whether Erin and Gabe are having sex. However, I didn’t feel that there was enough to differentiate between how Andy would run the meeting and how Michael would run the meeting, especially considering that Andy seemed to have a much better sense of what he wanted to do than Michael ever has. Perhaps we could extrapolate that Michael isn’t the problem so much as Andy is, as you’re forced off-topic and off-message even when Michael isn’t around, but instead it just seems like a Michael story made into an Andy story by shoehorning in his decision to invade Erin and Gabe’s sex life. And frankly, while I like Ed Helms, there wasn’t enough energy to the presentation to make it work: in other words, penis jokes are not enough to sustain a B-Story.

Thankfully, I thought that the Michael storyline came together well at the end where it matters most: his phone call with Holly creates some definite momentum for the future, and defines his character’s romantic outlook for likely the remainder of the season. And so while I am still frustrated that Michael had to do something stupid to get to that point, and thought the B-story did little to differentiate itself, that momentum is ultimately more important, and let the countdown to Amy Ryan’s return (she was on the set this week) begin!

Other Observations

  • There’s been talk in the comments about Dwight’s character resembling more of a caricature over the past few weeks, and I thought the cold open as evidence of this: the notion of picking up illegal workers, having Mose pose as an INS worker, and then dropping them in the middle of nowhere is just horrible. Perhaps it might be funny if we had gotten Michael Schur in an INS outfit, but in theory it’s cartoon villainy at its worst. Also note that they chose not to have Dwight take a latino worker back to the office, so that when the worker was subjected to a “Do or Die” hornet’s nest challenge it had no racial component.
  • We got some confirmation this week in regards to Erin and Gabe’s relationship: as some put together, Erin and Andy were headed towards a breakup when last season ended, broke up, and then Andy expressly gave Gabe permission (using a ridiculous accent and mangled sentence structure) to date her.
  • If you’ve ever seen a soap opera before, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Jan and Astrid have apparently been living in soap opera world — how the heck is she like 6?
  • Speaking of Jan, Melora Hardin really should have gotten an Emmy nomination for “Dinner Party.” She wasn’t as good here, but her singing (which emerged first when the baby was born) was yet again a highlight.
  • I had some issues with the fake herpes, but Michael going to Oscar in regards to the kiss in “Gay Witch Hunt” was fun…until I remembered how much I disliked that episode.

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