The Office, Phyllis Smith, ...
Credit: Chris Haston/NBC
Michael Scott, The Office (Steve Carell)

Officers, “Secret Santa” was a holiday gift just for us: a silly, surprisingly earnest ensemble episode. I was excited for this going in — holiday episodes are an Office strong suit, and Mindy Kaling writes many of my favorite group stories (“Ben Franklin,” “Diwali,” “The Injury,” “Golden Ticket”…). This didn’t disappoint. It was a throwback that played to the show’s strengths, drawing out the dorky but begrudgingly loving moments between many of the characters. I’m giving this episode five golden rings….

Part of what I loved here was that everyone got his or her moment to shine. Dwight joked that he put his “diabolical plot on hold for Christmas,” and then had a sort-of throwaway line — “I don’t know, maybe I’m depressed” — that wound up exemplifying what I loved about this episode (and what I love about this show generally): In that moment, Dwight seemed like a person. Dwight! Of all characters, maybe the weirdest and most unable to function in normal society! He had this moment of normalcy that sounded like regular people just shooting the shizz, generically bemoaning whatever. Sure, it was immediately followed by him declaring the pathetic “unveiling” of an undecorated artificial tree a success, but still. Phyllis got to be Santa, Angela enthusiastically clapped at the “true meaning of Christmas,” Pam got to go all Yenta on Oscar, who in turn got to play it cool. Creed, Kevin, Meredith, Ryan, Kelly, Toby, even Darryl — everyone was there and everyone got a punchline.

Michael’s obsession with being Santa, just another symptom of his pathological and paradoxical need to be beloved, went on just long enough to create some tension (and have Kevin sit in his lap) without having the story really be about that. If anything, his rude and candid narration of the party was far more important, especially because it momentarily made Michael the voice of reason. Yeah, Dwight doesn’t have friends (miss U, Mose), Angela does dress conservatively, Stanley did cheat on his wife. It was inappropriate and unwelcome, but it wasn’t the kind of debased, humiliating behavior Michael sometimes displays. All it took was one dejected call to David Wallace, though, to change things around: Dunder-Mifflin was being bought out. Staring solemnly into the camera, Michael declared, “Earlier today, this office needed a Santa. And then it needed a second Santa. And then it needed a Jesus. And now, it needs a Michael.” And it did.

In classic Office fashion, we got a conference room scene and an ill-conceived pep talk. Michael raved that his coworkers were like his family: “Ryan, you are my son. Pam, you are my wife. And Jim…. And Angela and Phyllis, you are my grandmas, and Stanley, you’re our mailman,” he said, trying to brace people for what he thought was the company going under. It turned out only executives people were getting the boot, though I wonder if Michael and Jim are actually in danger, too.

Which brings us to the cutest, and cutsiest, parts of the episode: Andy and Erin’s courtship, here conducted via Andy’s wrongheaded if romantic overly literal “12 Days of Christmas” secret santa present, is so sweet it’s almost debilitating. But it stops shy of being nauseating or simply recreating the Pam and Jim story of flirtation-through-obstacles. Andy and Erin are their own goofy obstacles here, but they’re so innocent and perky they could practically be a St. Olaf story from Rose on Golden Girls. Holy crap do I want those two to get together. Andy’s 12 drummers drumming might have been “a little much” per Erin’s assessment, but it’s hard to stay mad at a dude who can so joyfully smash cymbals together.

Other highlights:

++ “We don’t have a North Pole branch, idiot!” — Dwight

++ Michael giving Dwight his gift piece by piece, and declaring part of it “space garbage”

++ Phyllis calling Andy “sweetie”

++ Michael saying that Jesus healed “leopards” and claiming that Phyllis “uslurped” his power

++ Jim getting Kelly an Edward Cullen Twilight poster, and Ryan getting Toby a (gay pride) kite because he’s reading The Kite Runner

++ Michael’s PIN is YMCA

++ Bob Vance coming to Phyllis’s rescue

++ “It’s Meredith. By the way, your wife is a very lucky woman.”

This season has been one of departures for the show as it inevitably tries new things and to push its characters in new directions, which is why it felt especially nice to have a more typical, old-school episode to remind us that The Office can still be itself.

What’d you think, PopWatchers? Will you be putting clams through your mechanical nutcrackers anytime soon?

Photo credit: Chris Haston/NBC

Episode Recaps

Michael Scott, The Office (Steve Carell)
The Office

The mockumentary-style sitcom chronicles a group of typical office employees working 9-5 at the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.

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