This week, though, The Office officially crossed into Iverson-with-the-Pistons territory: painful to watch, toxic, and utterly tone deaf. For those of you who didn't catch it, the story centered around a promise that Michael Scott (the boss) had made ten years earlier to a group of poor African-American third graders. Michael--who was visiting the classroom for some reason or another1--told the kids, in the heat of the moment, that he would pay their college tuition if they graduated from high school.
One problem: Michael didn't have the money. And instead of a) establishing a trust, b) 'fessing up to his mistake when the students were in, oh, fourth grade, or c) trying to secure some financial aid for the kids, Michael chose to d) do nothing. Of course, he still let the class to celebrate him as a hero. The kids wore "Scott's Tots" T-shirts. They looked up to Michael as a mentor. Michael's fake-o promise apparently changed the way they lived: the kids worked hard, got involved in extracurricular activities, and allowed themselves to dream big dreams. And then, during their senior year of high school, they invited Michael to their school to show them all that they had accomplished--and to thank him for their forthcoming scholarships.
Remember, The Office is nominally a comedy, so this is all one big comedic set-up. "Surely, this will provide some guffaws," the tone-deaf hacks over in The Office's creative department must have said to one another. "You see, it will be awkward! They'll be celebrating his generosity, and he'll have to tell them that he can't fulfill his promise!"
And so the episode sets up this supposedly "comedic" tension. Michael Scott walks into the school. He is greeted by a bubbly young girl who shares with him her love of music and her dreams of college. A troop of the students perform a dance for Michael, chanting "whatchu gonna do, make our dreams come true." An earnest, ambitious young man gives a speech in which he thanks Michael for giving him the opportunity to be "the next President Obama." Michael sits there, watching the ebullient enthusiasm of fifteen young people whose lives he is about to shatter, and that is supposed to be funny. Because it is awkward. Or something.
Fail. Fail fail fail fail fail. I know that The Office has long thrived on putting its characters in awkward situations (Season 1's Diversity Day is one of the funniest episodes of any TV show, ever), but this one was just mean-spirited. Awkwardness is funny sometimes, but there comes a point past which it's funny anymore. More awkward does not mean more funny. For example: it would surely have been far more awkward if, instead of sitting there quietly listening to the kids's speech, Michael had punched the music-loving girl in the head, set up a waterboarding facility right there in the room, and tortured her while screaming "blow this through your tuba!" in front of the teenagers who had idolized him five minutes earlier. But that would have been even less funny than the actual episode.
So there are limits to how much humor you can get from awkwardness. I have proved this point with a graph that I made using the most sophisticated of technology:
In any case, after all that painful awkwardness, we get to the comedic climax: Michael gives a speech in which he tells the kids he's not giving them college scholarships, but hands out laptop batteries instead. Our reaction, I suppose, is supposed to be "Oh Michael! LOLOLOLOL! That is too much! What are they going to do with laptop batteries--they can't even afford a computer!" The comedic focal point, of course, is supposed to be Michael. He made a buffoon out of himself again! He tried to make things better but didn't! How like Michael Scott to completely bumble the situation!
Personally, though, I can't see why anybody would be focusing on Michael at this point in the show. We saw the kids, we saw their excitement and optimism--and then we saw Michael Scott shatter their dreams. But the writers of the episode apparently wanted us to think of the kids as nothing but comedic collateral damage. We were supposed to just disregard the fact that fifteen kids who worked hard and did everything right would have to go home that afternoon and say "hey Mom, it turns out I'm not going to be able to afford Penn after all," or "hey Grandma, is there any way you can sell your car to help pay for my college?" Our comedic focal point, after all, is Michael. Laptop batteries! Ha!
Part of what made The Office funny was that its most awkward moments always came in situations that we really didn't care about. When Michael screwed up diversity training by pretending to be Martin Luther King, that was funny, because most of us don't think office-mandated diversity training is all that important. When Michael made an idiot out of himself at an awards banquet for top salespeople, nobody cared--again, because we don't attach any real importance to showy sales conferences. But Michael screwing over fifteen underprivileged kids is different. The upper-class, Ivy-league educated creative forces behind The Office might think that nobody really cares about what happens to poor kids, but many of us do, and many of us think that the promises we make to our kids are important.
It doesn't disturb me so much that the writers had a bad idea. What disturbs me is that The Office creative team, its editors, and the NBC brass all apparently thought nothing wrong with this episode. They wrote it, they produced it, it aired--suggesting that these folks really thought most of their audience would find the episode funny.
In fact, NBC must have thought it was a particularly hilarious episode, because they are currently hawking brand-new "Scott's Tots" tee shirts in the NBC store. That's right, for $25, you can buy a T-shirt just like those worn by the kids that aren't going to college anymore! This t-shirt screams "I thought the episode about Michael Scott breaking his promise to a group of poor black kids was HILARIOUS!" You can wear it with your scarlet letter jacket or whatever other pieces of clothing you might own that shows you enjoy the suffering of fictional characters.
I'll pass on the t-shirt. And if you're looking for a better way to spend your $25, remember that every single gift on The Generation Project site is pre-funded--you put your money down upfront, and we fulfill your vision when a student or educator claims it.
Here at The Generation Project, we still think that promises made to our children are no laughing matters.
1. To be fair, I am sure that third graders find lectures by middle management in paper companies absolutely riveting.