In Defense Of 'Scott's Tots': Why 'The Office's Most Excruciating Episode Is Also Its Most Necessary
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If The Office is the cringiest mainstream American sitcom of all time, fans agree on its single most excruciating installment.
Gird your officially licensed Dunder-Mifflin loins. It's time to watch "Scott's Tots."
"I just finished this episode for the first time one minute ago, and I want to drown myself in gasoline."
Reddit user u/DeejayGaming isn't alone. That's just one of the thousands of comments posted to u/CannotWatchScottsTots, an entire subreddit dedicated to an inability to endure the episode without the threat of self-immolation.
It has nearly 17,000 subscribers.
Most episodes of The Office are uncomfortable. Much like its UK namesake, the American Office adaptation made cringe its calling card, feeding us so much awkward that scientists studied its crippling effect on our empathetic souls.
But some episodes stand out above the rest, and much of the vicarious shame comes via regional manager Michael Scott, so oblivious to his own lack of propriety that heinous social acts are practically second nature. Who else could cluelessly out Oscar, everyone's favorite gay accountant, then kiss him full on the mouth to prove the virtues of accepting others?
We're talking about the dude who attempted to hoist hefty Stamford branch transfer Tony Gardner onto a tabletop, despite the big man's protests. It's only an hour or two into his new job, and Tony realizes there's no way in hell he can work with Michael Scott.
Michael then reached near-apex cringe when Phyllis's disabled father found the strength to walk his daughter down the aisle. A tantrum-throwing Michael slammed the man's wheelchair into multiple church pews before inserting himself between disgruntled groomsmen.
Go ahead. Take a moment to crawl out of your skin. But all of these disturbing episodes pale in comparison to "Scott's Tots."
In case you're one of the thousands who had the episode as a permanent skip in your Netflix queue, here's a brief recap:
Ten years prior to the episode, Michael Scott was inspired by a local group of underprivileged students.
"I fell in love with these kids, and I didn't want to see them fall victim to the system. So I made them a promise," he confesses to the camera. "I told them that if they graduated from high school, I would pay for their college education. I have made some empty promises in my life, but hands down, that was the most generous."
The pledge was also reasonable because, assumed Michael, surely he would be a millionaire by the time he was 30.
Nearly all of the kids hold up their end of the bargain, studying hard in exchange for that sweet tuition cash. Michael is a folk hero; the school has even named a reading room after him. And now that it's graduation time, the students have worked up a hip-hop tribute to their champion:
Hey, Mr. Scott, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do? Make our dreams come true!
Except Michael can't make their dreams come true. He doesn't have the money. Not even close. And now he has to face the kids -- kids who have busted their academic asses for a decade -- and absolutely devastate them by admitting that he Scraton Strangled their college dreams.
They momentarily perk up when it appears Michael may give them free laptops, but instead, he offers them lithium batteries. Everyone is furious, their hopes for the future crushed. And for once, there's no one to bail out Michael or the kids. Everyone loses. Although does Michael luck out that this wasn't a couple of hours south, in Philly, where they whip batteries at Santa Claus.
A form of torture
Not all the critics hated "Scott's Tots." Many of them gave it a thumbs up. But pretty much everyone agrees it was painful as hell.
"For a minute there," said a Buddy TV review, "I forgot I was watching a comedy."
Entertainment Weekly lamented that the episode "robbed us of whatever last shred of compelling humanity Michael may have had left."
And Collider called "'Scott's Tots'" "hands-down one of the most excruciating episodes of television ever made. It takes humiliation humor to a whole other level, and ... this 22-minute episode of TV could reasonably work as a form of torture for some people."
So yeah, it's a difficult watch. But why exactly is it so unbearable?
Consider if it was prickly Angela Martin who had made a pie-in-the-sky promise she could never keep. Or backstabbing Ryan Howard. Would we sink into our couches so completely if Assistant to the Regional Manager Dwight Shrute had to face disappointed kids? No. It's horrible because it's Michael Scott, but not just any Michael Scott. After all, it's easy to wish righteous comeuppance on the Michael Scott of the first 10 episodes or thereabouts, the guy who stupidly imitates Chris Rock on Diversity Day.
Early Season Michael reads everyone's emails. He steals his employees' ideas and presents them as his own. He enlists Dwight to pick out a low-rent health plan for the office so no one can hold him accountable. Even Michael's hair was jerkier, slicked back Wall Street-style and screaming "corporate a-hole."
Michael's Got To Have Heart
But Midway-Through-Season-6 Michael Scott is a different story. As the seasons progressed, we learned Michael was actually a good salesman— counterintuitive but true. His innate ability to relate to people (and his desperate need to be liked) endeared him to customers who trusted this doofus to do right by them.
But the biggest change wasn't Michael, the salesman; it was Michael, the man.
Remember, The Office wasn't a hit right out of the gate. Viewers didn't especially like the show and with an obnoxious Michael as its lead, and it wasn't hard to figure out why. According to script coordinator Jason Kessler in Andy Greene's oral history, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, showrunner Greg Daniels had a revelation before Season 2 began.
"[He] came in and said, 'Michael's got to have heart.' That changed the entire show."
That meant making Michael "less of a dick," evolving from an unsympathetic a-hole to a lovable loser.
The British Office's David Brent "was driven by a desire to be famous," says Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall. "Michael Scott was driven by a desire to be loved. And that is a very big difference. You couldn't have done a hundred episodes with David Brent. That would be unbearable."
Office writers learned to write for Carrell by studying The 40-Year-Old Virgin, another story featuring an emotionally stunted man with clumsy social skills.
You can begin to see the change at the end of the "Office Olympics" episode when Carrell tears up during the national anthem. "He was so vulnerable, and you see how desperate for anything good to happen to him and any kind of approval or validation," says director Paul Fieg. "Greg was really excited and was like, 'That's it, that's it!'"
If there was any single element that Office writers discovered and brought out in Michael over the subsequent seasons, it was this: He desperately wanted a family.
"Ultimately, he's just a man who wants to be loved," chimes in Jenna Fischer, who played Pam. "And as annoying as he could be, you don't want to kick him while he's down."
All of which makes Michael's desire to 'adopt' Scott's Tots understandable, deplorable, and ultimately heart-breaking.
Michael: Just tell me it is going to be okay, all right?
Michael: I'm not a bad person; I bring good news. Like when I promised those kids I'd pay for college.
Why is "Scott's Tots" such an indispensable episode of The Office?
For Michael to truly evolve and be worthy of a better life with Holly and maybe a real family of his own, he needs to understand his desperate need to be liked at all costs has real-world consequences.
And Michael is practically crying when one student, Lefevre, reveals what that tuition promise meant to him.
Lefevre: There were a lot of times over the years where I was pressured to get into the drug game. But I always thought back to my guardian angel and the gift that you gave me. So I just want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to go to college, educate myself, and become the next President Obama.
Michael: Oh, God. Oh, God.
Of course, Michael has effed up before. But his coworkers (and the audience) always let him off the hook, and that was partly Carrell's performance. "The great thing about Steve," says writer Anthony Farrell, "was that he could say such terrible things as Michael, but his eyes were so empathetic that you would let it go. A lot of times, when he would mess up, you'd feel like you do when you watch a kid mess up. You're like, 'Oh, well, he's just a kid. He's just trying his best. He just doesn't know things.' And that's what happened a lot with Michael Scott."
"Scott's Tots" was the episode when ignorance could no longer be held up as an excuse. Michael's apologies are profuse, but the kids still make sure he understands the irreparable damage.
Lefevre: Hey, Mr. Scott. That was messed up what you did.
Michael: Yeah. Yeah. I know, I know, I know, I'm sorry.
Lefevre: Who does something like that? Who promises that to a bunch of kids and then just doesn't come through like that?
Michael: What can I do?
Lefevre: You can pay for my college.
There was less than one season left in Carrell's run when "Scott's Tots" aired in 2009. Could audiences believe that Michael Scott was actually capable of becoming an actual adult? The writers knew it was time.
"We had a lot of discussions about how quickly to evolve Michael," says writer Jen Celotta. "Sometimes the nonevolved Michael was the funnier Michael and sometimes the more evolved Michael was the one you were rooting for." By the end of Carrell's run, it was time to put the ignorant version of Michael Scott to rest.
Michael: 15 lives. I destroyed 15 young lives today.
A tough watch? Hell yeah. But this was the episode where Michael Scott finally grew up. (Albeit a couple of decades late.)
Top Image: NBCUniversal
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