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The Office Recap: The Seminar

January 28, 2011
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The phrase “it was only a matter of time” seems a bit obsolete if I’m going to use it to describe the meeting between Michael Scott and the original Michael Scott, David Brent. The U.S. Office is in its seventh season, and by now the characters are molded enough that a guest appearance by Ricky Gervais is less a gimmick for a ratings boost than it is a nice little detour on the way toward Steve Carell’s sendoff.

And that’s pretty much what they do. Brent’s not integral to the plot; he just appears in the cold open, shares some banter with Michael, the two hug, and end scene. It’s basically your standard sitcom cameo, but it works a little better than most. For one, and like I said, it’s not a cheap attempt for ratings, and it’s also not punctuated by a score of hoots and hollers from the studio audience (the lack of which has served The Office endlessly well throughout its seven seasons). It’s quick, it’s fun, and that’s about it.

The A plot of the episode deals with Andy conducting a small-business seminar in an effort to boost sales. Essentially his plan is to get a bunch of gullible, budding entrepreneurs into the conference room, have some of the sales team come in and make a few platitudinal, motivational speeches (“Dream big!”), and then hit them with a sales pitch for some business-plan packages.

However, the rest of the team—Stanley, Phyllis, and Dwight—back out at the last minute, leaving Andy to plug the leaks with Kevin, Ryan, and Creed. That in itself isn’t particularly funny, but it works. One of the gripes I have with the show is when the characters make strange and terrible decisions with little to no provocation, and two of the worst offenders are Michael and Andy, who’re too far out there to plausibly function within normal society (while Dwight and Creed are so far out there that it somehow works). But here Andy shows a refreshing sense of self-awareness: The reason he’s putting on a seminar is because his off-setting cheeriness tends to alienate customers (a flaw the rest of the sales team realizes right in the nick of time, hence their pulling out), so why not use someone else to talk and then he’ll swoop in to seal the deal?

The seminar gets off to a rocky start. Kevin’s speech is a miscalculated bravura entrance that starts with an epic intro that has him running around the room soliciting high-fives and ends with him puking into a trash bin. But Ryan’s turn works surprisingly well, thanks to Kelly, who shows up in his place, proclaims herself to be “The Business Bitch” (just one character in a line of many self-help “Bitches” she’s conceived), and phones Ryan, purportedly a Yale business professor, to ask him what the 10 secrets to business are. The group eats it up, and soon the sales force, smelling blood, wants back in, but Andy shrugs them off thanks to some quick advice from Darryl. (I’m still not quite convinced of the Andy/Darryl pairing, but any Craig Robinson is good Craig Robinson.)

Jim, on the other hand, is absent through much of the episode, since one of the seminar attendees is a former grade-school friend he broke off contact with for “being too dumb,” a subplot that has a nice little payoff near the end. And the Michael/Holly arc edges forward when the two are called in to act as plants. Posing as a Greek couple. It’s pretty cute. And right when you think Michael’s going to blow the whole thing by taking his character too far, he does a prompt 180 to give Andy some advice.

In short, I was on board for the whole episode. The Office is at its best when the characters have to deal with the consequences of their quirks and at its worst when it’s simply a Wonderland-ish collection of oddities. “The Seminar” holds strong because it’s grounded in the former—Andy’s drive to succeed despite himself; Michael’s coaching and keen eye for sales; and the flagrant skulldugerry of Stanley, Phyllis, and Dwight.

Rounding out the episode is a wonderful little B plot concerning Erin and Gabe’s Scrabble game, wherein the winner gets to choose the movie they’ll watch that evening. I couldn’t decide what I liked more: Erin’s confusion of “mood,” a noun meaning “the state or quality of feeling at a particular time,” and “mooed,” the sound a cow made (she has a bit of a hang-up on cows); Pam and Oscar teaming up to help Erin and Oscar getting so into the game that he loses his shit; or Gabe’s disturbing choice in movies (never thought he’d be into Dario Argento). And the payoff of Andy unconsciously one-upping Gabe by loaning Erin a copy of Shrek II (“There’s a Shrek II!” was also priceless) was just another bright spot in a spot-on episode.

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