Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Guest Blogger, Dan Cabrera: "The Office" Walks Into A Bookstore

You booklovers out there who saw last week’s episode of The Office, “Ultimatum,” may have perked up a bit when three characters walked into a bookstore. For a show ostensibly about people working in an industry that is rapidly diminishing or changing (paper sales), a bookstore should be a familiar setting to the characters, and one that could be a goldmine for jokes. It’s too bad the segment failed to deliver.

In the episode, Darryl (Craig Robinson), Dwight (Rainn Wilson), and Andy (Ed Helms) decide to fulfill their New Year’s Resolutions. For Dwight and Andy, that resolution is to “Meet a Loose Woman,” but Darryl’s goal is to simply read more books. Darryl, always the smooth operator, convinces Dwight and Andy that a bookstore is the perfect place to meet easy girls. All you do is ask a “cutie” what she’s reading then ask if they want to hang out—which, according to Darryl, leads to something more than just late-night discussions on who’s your favorite Brontë sister. It’s that simple. (If it’s actually that simple is the topic for another post.)

When the trio arrives at the bookstore they split up, each deciding to take a section to scour for babes. While Andy and Dwight stake their territory, Darryl goes straight to the saleswoman who is selling eBook readers. This is a generic chain bookstore apparently named Owl, which resembles a typical Borders or Barnes & Noble. A quick glimpse at some of the titles in the background doesn’t give away much. In fact, it looks as if some are prop books, though if you look closely you can see a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in the background.

The real fun of the scene happens when Darryl is sold an eReader. The only eReader that seems to be on sale is Kobo’s wireless eReader. It’s a bit hard to tell if Kobo paid for the inclusion of their eReader, or if the producers happened to film in a Borders (or, they didn’t want to offend B&N or Amazon). When offered the eReader Darryl hesitates, claiming he is scared to death of the machines. Because he works at a paper company, he argues, these little contraptions can put him out of business. The saleswoman is persistent, and corrects Darryl when he says he heard the device can carry “ten books at once,” when it’s more like ten thousand. Add the fact that the device is so light (“Like a croissant!”) and Darryl is sold.

Dwight and Andy can’t seem to pick up any ladies at the bookstore and when they leave with Darryl they ask to check out his purchase. Darryl, embarrassed, comes up with a clever lie to keep the other two from looking in his bag (I won’t give it away).

And that’s the end of the bookstore. Yes, later we see Darryl enjoying the eReader, still trying to hide its existence from his friends, but The Office has seemed to close the book—if you’ll pardon the pun—on the idea of eReaders. It’s entirely possible Darryl’s eReader will come back to haunt him, but it’s doubtful.

As publishing insiders know, eReaders are turning the book market upside down. Ebook sales are beginning to surpass physical book sales, a frightening prospect for many in the publishing world. Brick-and-mortar chains aren’t faring well, and it would be foolish not to point to eBooks as part of the problem. Paper books are becoming redundant, to borrow some office lingo.

This is ripe territory for The Office. They’ve dealt with publishing at least once before, when the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch was able to capture a major New York publishing company as a client. For most of the series’ run, the plots focused on the floundering paper company in an increasingly paperless world. The threats of layoffs are a recurring plot device, and this scary prospect is ringing all too true for publishing employees. The idea of a paper salesman abandoning paper books is sacrilegious! It’s traitorous! It can also lend itself to some great comedy. So it is surprising the idea was treated so casually on last week’s episode.

What if, instead, Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) was using an eReader in the office? Obviously this is heresy, and a good portion of the episode could revolve around Jim trying to hide his eReader from Michael. Eventually, Michael would find out, become upset, do something zany and frustratingly embarrassing. But in the end he would realize—as he so often does—that he has to adapt to the world, rather than trying to make the world adapt to him. It would be slightly more interesting, slightly more relevant, and maybe produce some bigger laughs.

Maybe I’m being too hard on The Office. After all, the show isn’t really about paper. (And don’t they sell printers now? Do they even sell paper anymore? And whatever happened to traveling salesman Timothy Olyphant?) The show is about relationships, about average folks trying to get by in this difficult world. The Office is about the awkward, embarrassing, and downright sad trials of everyday life. But it shows us that with a few laughs and some good friends, we can get by and come out on top.

Hopefully the show will revisit books and eReaders. I think there is more to be said there, and who better (and funnier) to say it than The Office?

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