Overthinking the Office Part 2: The Golden Year

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Best of Times

Seasons two and three are very much The Office at its apex. There is a joy of discovery happening, as the writers shape and explore the ensemble and the larger world of Dunder/Mifflin. The jokes hit so well and so frequently that there’s typically 40 minutes of material for each 22 minute episode, leading to a wealth of hilarious deleted scenes for those with access to the DVDs. Many episodes involve finding the sweet spot between cringe and heart, as they find ways to make us love these paper-selling misfits while still making us glad we don’t work alongside them.

Three important things happened between the first and second seasons of The Office. First, iTunes sales of individual episodes made up for the initial season’s low ratings. (Honestly, when are we going to move past Nielson ratings? As Last Week Tonight would say, how is this still a thing?) Second, The 40 Year Old Virgin transformed Steve Carell from “ex-Daily Show correspondent” to “Legit movie star,” which helped bring more attention to the show. And third, they adjusted the tone of the show a little.

To the credit of both the producers and Steve Carell himself, this did not involve a major shift to Michael Scott. His worst habits are still there. Still casually racist, still filled with self-delusion, still prone to cringe-inducing attempts at humour or flirting. There are just two differences… first, they give him a more flattering haircut, and second, he is granted the occasional moment of redemption. Because US audiences need the grim, gloomy tone of the UK version to be cut with moments with hope and levity. So beginning in season two, we get a lighter atmosphere to contain all of the cringe and dread.

Now… they don’t always nail it. Sometimes the lighter, redemptive moments can come across as unearned. The best example of this comes in Christmas Party.

Some reviewers have said that The Office shines at Christmas. And it does. Out of nine seasons, only two don’t have a Christmas episode (one and four, when the show didn’t air in December), and they’re typically key episodes. And Michael is not always his best self when Christmas rolls around. But Christmas Party is the year when Michael goes from “terrible and selfish” to “forgiven and everything’s great” so fast it gives you whiplash.

When Michael’s gift in the office Secret Santa isn’t to his liking, he hijacks the entire party, turning Secret Santa into Yankee Swap (you know, the game of many names where you either open a new gift or steal something that’s been opened), in a transparent attempt to relieve himself of a homemade oven mitt while reveling in how much the staff covets the iPod he bought Ryan in a flagrant violation of the 20 dollar limit. The problem is, people bought gifts for specific people, making Yankee Swap awkward for many, and especially for Jim… whose gift to Pam is filled with inside jokes and card containing his true feelings. (Which she won’t read for over seven years, but that’s another thing entirely.) Once Michael’s selfishness has thoroughly spoiled the party to a point where even Michael can’t convince himself otherwise, he rushes out and uses his Christmas bonus to buy a lot of vodka to get the party back on track.

Yep. That’s it. He buys vodka. In the end, he even gets invited out for post-party drinks with everyone, something his improv class invented an unlikely excuse to avoid just one episode earlier.

Sometimes Michael’s redemptive moments are touching. Sometimes he makes a gesture that shows his professed love for his employees isn’t all talk. But sometimes they’re just not willing to settle for a downer ending, and perform narrative gymnastics to get around it. What seems like an insufficient gesture makes up for his misdeeds in Christmas Party. When the improv class (rightfully) shuns him in Email Surveillance, an episode that shows his desperate need to be the center of attention doesn’t end when he leaves the building, he finds acceptance from Jim mostly out of pity on Jim’s end. In Performance Review, Jan lists everything about Michael that’s distasteful, but seeing the hurt in his eyes, backs off and, in an attempt to be kind, accidentally gives him a ray of hope. When season six reveals the Worst Thing Michael Ever Did, a sympathetic voice still points out the silver lining, rather than let him stew in his mistakes. They so seldom let him stew in his mistakes.

But not all redemptive moments go down this way. And there is a more positive example right off the bat.

The show in one episode

You know what? The second season premiere has everything you need to know. You just need to watch it closely.

The Dundies. Not unlike a second pilot, albeit only six episodes after the first one. We witness what seems to be Michael’s proudest achievement as regional manager: the Dundie Awards, an annual attempt at recognizing the staff through trophies with award names he finds amusing. In the course of prepping for and attending the awards, we get subtly recapped on everything introduced in season one, plus introduced to our lighter tone for seasons two and beyond.

Michael’s delusions: Michael truly believes that the Dundie Awards are a beloved institution amongst his underlings, whereas everyone else sees it as a yearly obligation that they tolerate for Michael’s sake. Michael thinks giving Pam “Longest engagement” every year just gets funnier and funnier, whereas Pam sees it as a reminder that another year has passed without her engagement being fulfilled.

Michael’s redemption: This is an instance when Michael’s redemptive moment is earned. After getting heckled by outsiders mid-show, Michael almost shuts the whole thing down. Broken and defeated, he hands one last gag award to Kevin and surrenders. But Pam and Jim lead the rest of the staff into a spirit-boosting round of applause. Because he may be a self-deluded obnoxious jerk at times, but damn it, he is their self-deluded obnoxious jerk, and no outsider gets to take the Dundies away from him.

Michael and Jan: Season one only gave us a few glimpses at Michael’s working relationship with his boss, Jan Levinson-Gould. Here we have it laid out for us that Michael’s unorthodox style is not appreciated by corporate, something he didn’t anticipate, as Jan’s refusal to cover the bill for the Dundies takes him by complete surprise (leading to one of the few attempts on Michael’s part to escape the camera crew. We’ll talk more about Michael and Jan in a minute.

Michael and Ryan: Season one offered glimpses of Michael’s odd relationship with temp Ryan Howard. Michael sees Ryan as his super-handsome best friend/protégé/surrogate son, whereas Ryan sees Michael as his weird boss with an uncomfortable crush on him. It’s all summed up in Ryan being awarded “Hottest in the office.” As Ryan says to the cameras… “What am I going to do with it? That’s… the least of my worries right now.”

Jim and Pam and Roy: They don’t need to recap the Jim/Pam/Roy triangle directly. Everything you need to know you get watching the three of them at the Dundies.

The Documentarians: After a fun and eventful night together, Pam has a question for Jim… but spotting the ever-present camera crew changes her mind. The Documentarians might usually avoid getting involved in the story, but sometimes they can’t help but influence it, as intimate moments are not typically enhanced by the presence of a cameraman and boom mic operator. Well, maybe for Meredith.

The rest of the cast

Most of the Dunder Mifflin staff was briefly glimpsed in season one, but this is where they begin to take shape, as the writers cast their eye beyond the five leads. In the sales department with Jim and Dwight are grumpy, crossword obsessed Stanley and quiet, matronly Phyllis; in accounting are bookish Oscar, slow-witted Kevin, and uptight, judgmental, hyper-Christian (in word if not deed) Angela; behind them, sexually adventurous single mom Meredith and Creed Bratton, who… cannot be described simply; in the annex, on the far side of the kitchen and break room, customer service rep Kelly Kapoor and HR representative Toby Flenderson, Michael’s nemesis. In the warehouse, Pam’s fiancé Roy reports to Darrell, whose importance to the show only grows. Each of these characters gets built over the course of the season, and each has their moment to shine, though I’d like to talk about two in particular.

Toby is an ideal nemesis for Michael. Played by writer/producer/eighth season showrunner Paul Lieberstein, Toby is the low-key, low energy barrier to Michael’s more outlandish ideas. This alone might be enough to make Michael resent him, and that’s certainly why he claims to hate Toby, but there’s more under the surface. When Michael wants to insult, belittle, or devalue Toby, one of his go-to moves is to bring up the fact that Toby’s divorced. They never spell out why, but… Michael wants to be married. Michael desperately wants to be part of a family, enough that he tries to make his office a family through sheer force of will. Toby had it all, and gave it away (save for partial custody of his daughter), and it’s not hard to theorize that that actively offends Michael.

And it cannot help that the employees of Dunder Mifflin actually find Toby funny and likeable in a way they never do Michael. That one goes all the way back to Diversity Day, when Michael kicks Toby out of a meeting in theory because of the content of his joke, but more likely because his joke got a laugh.

Now Creed… where to start. At the beginning, he’s in quality assurance, and manages to duck getting fired by arguing with Michael until he changes his mind and fires another little-seen employee instead. By the end of the season, he’s freely admitting to habitually stealing (“I stopped caring a long time ago. I just love stealing”). By the next, his detachment from our shared reality has become his defining trait. Basically, Creed becomes the repository for any action, idea, or thought process that’s too “out there” for Dwight. How you react to Creed will help determine whether second or third season is your favourite, for reasons I’ll get into.

There’s a lot to say about season two. When every second or third episode feels like a series highlight, that’s bound to happen. So we’ll have to pick this up next time, as romance extends beyond Jim and Pam’s will-they-won’t-they.

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