The Office, as pointed out in an excellent essay on the Awl, has been more quietly depressing than finger-clenching awkward this year. It has been less about impossible social situations to be wriggled out of and more about the slow, steady, unceasing collapse of your hopes and dreams while tethered to a company that has no idea what it’s doing anymore and would just as soon fire you. It has been quite the culture change.
Last night, though, The Office went old school with a classic What Did Michael Get Himself Into This Time? plot, and it was a worthy one: Ten years ago, Michael promised a class of third graders at an inner-city school that he would pay for their college tuition. Now that they're about to graduate from high school, Michael is called back to the school, where he must confess that he can’t afford it — to them, he was a “successful businessman” — right after the class puts together various testimonials to his largesse. It’s an ingenious plot, because it’s painfully uncomfortable — the whole class thinks Michael is paying for them to go to college, after all, and he has to tell the students he can’t — but also because telling a class of third graders he’ll pay for their college because he happens to be in a good mood and thinks he’ll be a millionaire someday is precisely something Michael would do.
When he made the “promise,” he was 30, and “I thought I would be a millionaire at 40. I ended up having less money at 40 than I did at 30.” One suspects most of America can relate.
In the B plot, it's the ongoing tale of Jim Halpert, lousy manager, when Dwight conspires to have him fired through a convoluted plan involving a fixed Employee of the Month award. (It also features Dwight doing hilarious impersonations of Kevin, Stanley, and Toby.) Dwight’s plan doesn’t work — though he does get a co-conspirator in Ryan, who ominously joins forces with him “to take down Jim” at the end of the episode — but it’s telling once again how poor a job Jim does of handling the situation. David Wallace calls at the end to yell at him, but ultimately backs off simply because they're friends. Jim Halpert, a supposedly smart, competent character on the series, is skating out of jams because he’s kissing up to the boss so he can keep his middling middle manager job at a failing paper company. Historically, he's the most likable character on the show. Maybe this episode was a little depressing.