The American version of The Office was well known for mining comedy out of awkward situations. This harkens back to the original UK version, but when Greg Daniels adapted the premise for U.S. audiences, some recalibration was necessary. Indeed, the six-episode first season of The U.S. Office is a bit of a rough watch, as the show’s writers and cast hadn’t yet found the magic formula to mixing discomfort with likability. The series really hit its stride in Season 2 as Steve Carell imbued Michael Scott with a hefty dose of humanity, and while the show continued to put its characters into embarrassing situations, nothing comes close to the Season 6 episode “Scott’s Tots.”
“Scott’s Tots” is hands-down one of the most excruciating episodes of television ever made. It takes humiliation humor to a whole other level, and I’d wager this 22-minute episode of TV could reasonably work as a form of torture for some people. But it’s also one of the show’s best and most essential episodes—if you can make it through the entire thing.
The title of the episode, of course, refers to a handful of students to whom Michael Scott promised to pay full college tuition. This promise was made when they were in third grade, and “Scott’s Tots” takes place towards the end of their senior year, when Michael must finally go to the school and tell the kids he’s unable to pay for their college.
This confrontation in and of itself would be awkward enough, but writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg just keep adding layer upon layer of humiliation, which begins with the fact that the classroom to which Michael travels has a plaque outside in his honor. He opens the door, and all of Scott’s Tots—now grown high school students—erupt into applause, decked out in matching t-shirts bearing Michael’s last name.
Then comes the performance. Oh yes, before Michael lets the kids down, they’ve put together a dance dedicated to his generosity. He made their dreams come true. In truth, this whole episode kind of plays out like a horror movie. The audience knows Michael has to tell the kids he can’t pay for their college, and so director B.J. Novak draws out this tension for as long as possible, increasing the stakes as the kids show more and more appreciation, which inevitably leads to a blowout when Michael breaks the news.
The letdown doesn’t come easy, and “Scott’s Tots” has yet another excruciating torture device up its sleeve when Michael attempts to offer a consolation in the form of what appear to be laptops, but are actually just laptop batteries. This leads to yet another explosion of disbelief from the kids and teachers.
Even the B story of the episode—in which Dwight (Rainn Wilson) sets up an elaborate “Employee of the Month” rouse that leads to the staff turning on Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer)—further increases the anxiety in the viewer, as the show’s two most beloved characters are lambasted as money-grubbing monsters. “Scott’s Tots” is one giant Saw-like torture device, and just when you think you can take a break from Michael’s humiliation, the series blindsides you with Dwight quite successfully turning the tables on Jim.
And yet, “Scott’s Tots” is also one of The Office’s best and most important episodes. As horrible as Michael’s initial decision was, it’s clear he had only the best intentions. Michael’s an idiot. He really did believe he’d be a millionaire by the time he was 30 (or 40), and he was entirely genuine when he offered to pay those kids’ tuition. This is the key to Michael Scott as the show’s main character: He may do horrible things, he may do stupid things, but he’s always earnest—to a fault, to be sure—but earnest nonetheless. And it’s one of the reasons why Andy (Ed Helms) is so unlikable in Season 8, after Carell’s departure—he lacks the humanity that made Michael an empathetic character.
So nearly nine years after it first aired, here’s to the longevity of “Scott’s Tots” as one of the most excruciating episodes of television ever made. But also, in truth, one of the most essential to understanding why The Office persists as an immensely rewatchable and lovable series all these years later.