Waxing Episodic: ‘The Office’ celebrates ‘Diversity Day’

03.27.15 2 years ago

In HitFix's new feature “Waxing Episodic,” we reflect on an episode of television we'll never forget.

NBC's “The Office” debuted 10 years ago this week, arriving with the unenviable challenge of having to live up to the standard of one of the best-received comedies of recent times, but went on to outstrip the British original. I don't even know if that's a controversial statement anymore. The British “Office” is great and, in terms of comedic efficiency, NBC's version didn't come close. But Ricky Gervais' series was built for 12 episodes and a Christmas special and never had to worry about longevity, never had to wonder how sustainable its circumstances and its characters were. NBC's version took that world and made it renewable. Whether you think the American “Office” was great (or even good) for all 200-ish of its episodes, it was certainly very good or great for more than 13 episodes.

I knew I wanted to write about an “Office” episode for this week's Waxing Episodic installment and I contemplated clear peaks like “Casino Night,” probably the show's best overall episode, or “The Injury,” perhaps its funniest half-hour, even though they didn't exactly line up with a 10th anniversary.

Then, of course, Deadline.com ran its risible “Too much of a good thing?” article regarding Hollywood Diversity and that made me change my focus to the still-relevant “Diversity Day” episode of “The Office,” which premiered on March 29, 2005.

So let's talk about “Diversity Day” and why Michael Scott has a future writing for online entertainment publications…

“Diversity Day” was the second episode of the American “Office,” but it's significant because it was the first real stab at an American “Office.” The pilot was basically a carbon copy of the British opener and while it wasn't a dismal embarrassment like the similarly Xeroxed starter for American “Coupling,” the sameness was still unsettling.

Written by B.J. Novak and directed by Ken Kwapis, who also helmed the pilot, “Diversity Day” finds “The Office” in a strange and awkward middle ground between finding its own voice and mimicking the legacy of Ricky Gervais. 

At this point, Steve Carell's Michael Scott isn't quite David Brent, but he's mighty close. A good comparison between the borderline sociopathic Michael Scott here and the character as he would eventually evolve can be seen in the differences between “Diversity Day” and “Sexual Harassment,” separated by only six episodes in the show's chronology, but by a vast gulf in their approach to Dunder-Mifflin's regional manner.

Leaving aside the slicked back hair and absurd tan that made the first incarnation of the character look like something of a Rick Pitino wannabe, this Michael Scott doesn't know Oscar's last name, thinks collard greens are “colored greens” — “You don't call them collard people. That's offensive.” — and it isn't that later-season Michael Scott wouldn't talk to Kelly Kapoor in a stereotypical accent, but there's no way he'd go so far that when Kelly hauls off and slaps him in the episode's climax, it's a blissful relief. 

“That was great. She gets it. Now she knows what it's like to be a minority,” Michael says after a slap so satisfying it should have prevented NBC from featuring any additional slapping for at least another 50 years, saving us from the limp slappitude of “The Slap.”

This Michael Scott is awful.

But is he racist? I'd say no, just as I don't think the Deadline article, which is absolutely anti-diversity, is racist.

What Michael Scott is is post-racial, at least in his own head.

“Stanley, I don't look at you as another race,” he tries telling Stanley.

“Is there a term besides Mexican that you prefer? Something less offensive?” he asks Oscar.

Larry Wilmore's diversity-training instructor Mr. Brown tries telling Michael, “We don't have to pretend that we're color-blind. That's fighting ignorance with ignorance.”

But Michael can't see things that way. The idea that a Chris Rock routine might mean one thing when said by Chris Rock and a different thing when said by Michael Scott and that the difference might be one of race gives him pause, but that pause doesn't teach him anything. [It would be a while before Michael Scott became capable of retaining information and learning.]

The problem with unilaterally making yourself post-racial in a world in which race remains an ingrained and institutionalized part of life for millions is that you often say and do stupid things. [Note: You're not post-racial. The world you live in is not post-racial.]

Often (if you're Michael Scott) your best way to get people to discuss race is to put note-cards with different nationalities on people's heads and get people “to treat other people like the race that is on their forehead.” [The race on Michael Scott's forehead? Martin Luther King Jr.]

Michael Scott is so ineffectively post-racial that the only way he can think to approach race is with a frontal assault. As he puts it, “Abraham Lincoln once said that 'If you're a racist, I will attack you with the North' and those are the principles that I carry with me in the workplace.”

That quote comes from the video “Diversity Tomorrow… Because today is almost over.”

“Diversity Tomorrow” has been a motto that Hollywood has always kept in its heart, while doing lip service to “Diversity Today.” Then an unexpected thing happened this season and a slew of diverse TV shows became hits of variable sizes and there became a financial justification to push for either continued diversity or even more diversity and suddenly agents who represent white actors got wicked worried and Deadline was kind enough to give them an anonymous platform for their absurdist ranting.

Just as electing Barack Obama didn't magically eliminate generations of inequality in government and make us politically post-racial, the success of “How To Get Away With Murder” and “Empire” didn't correct the systemic problems in the industry. Even if 100 percent of all roles this development season were cast “ethnic” and a lot of white actors had to either go hungry or look for work on cable or new, expanding digital platforms, this illusory “swing of the platform” wouldn't magically fill writing rooms with black, Asian or Latino writers, nor would it impact the highest level of executives in all corners of the industry. It would impact the faces you see on TV, but it wouldn't erase the decades that those faces were largely absent, decades that codified the representational structures of the medium.

And, as an unrelated forward-looking side-note: When networks premiere two or three extra “diverse” shows next season and they fail, that won't mean audiences are rejecting “diversity” or that there's too much “diversity,” any more than audiences not watching “The McCarthys” means that TV audiences are anti-Irish-American or that audiences not watching “We Are Men” means there's too much Tony Shalhoub. It's a weird business and we haven't even begun to approach equality of representation until multiple black-centric, Latino-centric or Asian-centric shows can fail without people suggesting race had anything to do with their failure.

BUT ANYWAY… BACK TO “DIVERSITY DAY”…

Michael Scott's brief moment of illumination after Kelly slaps him is a hint of the Michael Scott to come and his “Now she knows what it's like to be a minority” probably fits with Future Michael, because it's not like the character ever stopped saying stupid things, the show just made it clearer that the stupid things were tip-of-the-tongue comments, as opposed to the greatest nuance he'd find if he gave thought to his words. [Probably that's a lesson for us all.]

“Diversity Day” finds a lot of “Office” characters stuck in moments of pure id, as opposed to the shadings they'd later find. 

Dwight, for example, was pretty much just a monster and although Monster Dwight returned throughout the series, it was never the show's best approach to the character. So Dwight stealing the client who gave Jim 25 percent of his annual business? That's pretty awful and even though mocking Dwight was always part of his DNA, it's hard to accept Jim graciously giving Dwight his mini-champagne bottle in tribute.

The episode still gets its required heart from the Pam/Jim relationship and the John Krasinski/Jenna Fischer chemistry. With all of the bedlam caused by Michael's improprieties and the frustration from Dwight's client stealing, Jim is able to look at Pam, napping on his shoulder and conclude “not a bad day.” Do we really believe that a day of office unpleasantness and a large financial deficit could be ameliorated by an engaged woman sleeping in your proximity? We believe that Jim believes it, so I guess we believe it. 

Bits and pieces of the supporting cast had their voices intact immediately. Toby's already an easily mocked sad-sack. Stanley's already resigned to the world around him. Kevin's already a step slow. 

Kelly Kapoor has no resemblance at all to the bubbly ditz she would become, but maybe that's because Ryan Howard hardly exists. One of the funniest moments in the episode from a dramatic irony point-of-view is Ryan sitting on the couch alone in the office, uninvited to the Diversity Day meeting.

I'm not sure if I'd put “Diversity Day” in my Top 10 list for “Office” episodes, but I'd list it among the five most important “Office” episodes, because of how well it works as a proof-of-American-concept, even an imperfect one. And the conversation it instigated 10 years ago somehow hasn't become less relevant today, just in case you think we've made great leaps and bounds.

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