Overthinking the Office Part 3: Enter The Nard-dog

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 Time of Two Offices

The last two episodes of season two, Conflict Resolution and Casino Night, were game-changers. When Michael decides he can do a better job of conflict resolution than Toby (how can he not, in Michael’s mind, given that Toby is… gasp, shudder… divorced), he sets off a chain of events that brings Dwight and Jim’s rivalry to a boil, and begins to expose Jim’s feelings about Pam’s impending wedding. In the chaos, Dwight pushes Jim to transfer to Stamford. By Casino Night, everything seems back to normal… but Jim’s been offered the Stamford position. The episode ends with a kiss between Jim and Pam, and uncertainty as to what would happen…

A lot happened. But it all comes back to the same place. The Office’s third season begins by running to stand still.

Season three opens, and we find that Jim has, in fact, taken the promotion and moved to Stamford, while Pam called off the engagement at the last minute. Why? In Jim’s case because Pam turned him down twice, once before the kiss and once after. In Pam’s case… We don’t see the moment Pam leaves Roy, or the decision that prompts it (it happened during The Documentarians’ annual three-month break… with one exception, they never film over the summer), but the clues are there. Jim declared his love, then left for Connecticut, and in the wake of all that, there must have been a realization that Roy had never, in the last decade, loved Pam the way Jim did. And without Jim’s friendship to fall back on, the hollowness of her relationship with Roy couldn’t be ignored any longer.

So. Stamford.

The Time of Two Offices, Stamford and Scranton, dominates the first act of the third season, until an attempt to shut Scranton backfires, and Stamford comes to Scranton (as we all knew it must, Jim couldn’t stay in Connecticut forever). This won’t be the last time The Office finds its characters split between two locations, and it’s always a tricky prospect. One location tends to get the A-plots, and how well the second location deals with the B-plots kind of depends on who they’re left with. Now, during The Time of Two Offices, Scranton gets the A-plots fairly consistently (save for the Convention, in which a sales convention reunites Jim and his new boss Josh with Michael and Dwight), and they’re all pretty strong. Jim’s left to carry Stamford, but fortunately, he doesn’t have to do it alone… two new coworkers prove more than up to the task. Rashida Jones arrives as Karen Filippelli, who when he first arrives, manages to out-Jim Jim, and they develop a fun rapport that Jim and Katy never really had. Karen, as a match for Jim, has only one flaw… she just isn’t quite Pam.

As for the other.

Meet Andy

Andy Bernard, aka the Nard-dog, played by Ed Helms, the fifth Daily Show veteran to turn up on The Office, and the second most important. Andy wasn’t meant to be a long-term addition to the cast. None of the Stamford staff were. Hell, of the five (six including Jim) who transfer to Scranton, three barely existed as characters before The Merger, save for some deleted scenes, so they couldn’t help but seem expendable. In the beginning, Andy was the new office foil for Jim, a kiss-up with an anger issue that became an irritant to Jim’s new life. Upon arriving in Scranton, his quest to climb the ladder immediately puts him at odds with Dwight, a rivalry that climaxes in Dwight briefly leaving Dunder Mifflin and Andy being sent to anger management.

The question for the producers was… what’s to be done with Andy Bernard? Ed Helms is definitely funny. And there was a sense that he could be an asset to the cast. But how would anger management treat him? Would he fake his way through, relying on his standard tricks of personality mirroring, name repetition, and never breaking a handshake? Would he still be his former, obnoxious self? Or would he return a changed man, having truly learned a lesson? Wisely, they chose the second path, and Andy becomes a permanent and welcome part of the ensemble.

But therein lies the problem with Andy Bernard.

Andy’s a cypher. His core is fluid. His character shifts depending on who the show needs him to be from season to season. The rest of the cast may grow more broad, more extreme over the years, but they’re still basically the same people. But Andy… Andy of season three is barely the same person as Andy in season nine. Or four. Or the end of three. Only three things about Andy are consistent over the years… he comes from wealthy parents that demonstrably loved his little brother more (like, aggressively more at times), he never misses an opportunity to remind people that he attended Cornell, and he loves acapella. Compulsively. Andy’s urge to sing, whether he knows the lyrics or has to resort to his signature “Roota-doo-da-doo,” has a hair trigger.

He’s also super bad at nicknames, but super committed to them once he’s assigned one. Jim eats a tuna sandwich on his first day in Stamford, and based on that alone Andy calls him Big Tuna for seven years. But only one other staffer has to deal with that, despite an attempt to name Ryan “Big Turkey.”

Fortunately, Ed Helms has the charm to carry Andy through the twists and bends. Even through his more abrasive period this year. But sadly for Andy the character, his days of being Dwight’s rival are not done. Season two featured a steady stream of Jim pulling pranks on Dwight, but Conflict Resolution brought that to a breaking point, and from here on in Jim pranks are saved for special occasions, or at the very least until they have something good. Also, Dwight was becoming more popular, so he needed a new nemesis… one he could beat from time to time. And on the rare occasions when Dwight gets a leg up on Jim, I at least find it awkward and unpleasant (Dwight pranks being crueler and more Machiavellian), so despite his efforts to the contrary, Andy was the better fit, and stayed in that role for a few more years.

Jim and Pam: The Illusion of Change

Will they/won’t they has a deadline. No way around it. If you pull the trigger too late, people lose interest (that’s what really happened to Moonlighting, whatever else you heard). Pull it too early, and you risk having too little payoff. That’s why it’s for the best that Daredevil hasn’t shown up in any other Marvel Netflix series… if they all meet too early, it won’t be a Big Moment when they come together in The Defenders. That’s… not entirely relevant to romance discussions, but it’s a shorter road to my point than starting a nine-part blog series breaking down Ted and Robin on How I Met Your Mother.

For Jim and Pam, there was no going back from Casino Night. Jim declaring his feelings permanently altered their relationship, for better (later) or worse (now). Even once Jim’s time at Stamford came to a close, there was no going back to Jim pining for Pam. Jim had moved to a new state to get away from that, and couldn’t let himself go backwards. But they weren’t ready to get those crazy kids together just yet. And so how do you move things forward without actually moving things forward? You flip the bitch.

Jim comes back to Scranton, and Pam’s surely super excited to see him… but he comes back already dating Karen Filippelli. Season three’s Jim/Pam plotline becomes a mirror image of season two’s: Pam pines over Jim, while being forced to watch him date another co-worker. And she even has, in a way, her own Katy: someone she ends up with when watching the one she actually loves dating someone else.

Love is a battlefield

A reviewer for the AV Club hit on a key theme for season three: an infestation of couples that shouldn’t be. Not all of them, of course. Dwight and Angela remain deeply in super-secret weirdly perfect love. Ryan and Kelly remain where we left them, with Kelly getting as attached as possible, while Ryan is simultaneously searching for the exit and pathologically drawn to Kelly. So… they kind of fit the profile.

Everyone else… Hoo boy.

Jim and Karen: Jim and Karen are the best bad match. Karen’s charming, they get along, they have decent chemistry. But Jim doesn’t love her. He still loves Pam. And before long, she knows it, which just makes her dig in harder, while trying to isolate Jim from Pam. I mean, I never found it easy to root against them… for some people, a relationship that 80-90% works is enough. But when the 100% match is right there, a few feet from your desk… being mostly good together just isn’t enough.

Pam and Roy: Jim ran from Pam and Roy by moving forward, taking a promotion and dating Karen. Pam runs from Jim and Karen by running backwards. At Phyllis and Bob Vance’s wedding, she finally gives into Roy’s attempts to win her back. Roy thinks he’s trying harder. He thinks he’s not taking her for granted. He thinks he’s paying attention to her art and other interests. But he falls short, time and time again. Sure, in Business School, he’s one of the only Dunder Mifflinites to come to her art show, and Oscar and his boyfriend didn’t exactly set a high bar, calling her work “motel art” because she lacks courage, which… yeah. It wasn’t bravery or tolerance for risk that made her stay with Roy or keeps her at Dunder Mifflin for over a decade. But when Michael shows up at the last minute, his genuine enthusiasm for her painting of their office building makes it clear how hollow Roy’s comments of “I looked at all of them” and “Your art was the prettiest of the all of the art” are. There is genuine support, which is what she gets from Jim, and finds from Michael at the art show, and then there is lip service, which is Roy’s attempts to play the part of dutiful boyfriend.

Also he brought his brother. How, Roy, how after ten years do you still think that Pam considers bringing your lummox of a brother along on dates is a value add? On their first date he did this. At the art show he did this. And when she wants Roy to accompany her on a group outing to Poor Richard’s (Dunder Mifflin’s go-to pub), he brings his brother. That’s… that’s not why that particular outing is a disaster that ends Pam and Roy as a couple forever and always (and not in a small way: Roy was an upper tier ensemble member, but basically leaves the show after the next episode), but it surely didn’t help.

Michael and Jan: No, you’re not remembering it wrong. Michael started dating his realtor Carol during Casino Night. Something Jan does not take well at all. She’d never admit to being jealous of Michael, or upset about being jilted by him, but there’s no denying that she takes a harsher management style with him at the start of the season. She’s demanding hour-by-hour accounting of how he spends his time, belittling him at every opportunity, and her friendlier interactions with Stamford’s Josh Porter show that it’s not just the way she operates.

Which is not to say that she operates sanely the rest of the time, as her attempt to lure Josh back to her hotel room in The Convention show.

No, all is not well with Jan. All has not been well for a while. If you read the signs, watch her progression from cold but professional in the first years to completely unhinged at the end of season three, it seems clear to me that Jan’s been in a downward spiral since her divorce. Her dalliance with Michael in The Client and his inability to let go of that certainly contribute, but there’s a lot of pain and anger driving her. And when she and Michael finally do get together after Michael’s off-putting over-enthusiasm tanks his relationship with Carol, leading to Jan taking her place on a trip to Sandals Jamaica, it is not a turning point. It is merely another stop on her journey to rock bottom. How do I know this? Her exact words. When she’s explaining why she’s decided to be with him post-Jamaica, she says her therapist has advised her to give in to her self-destructive tendencies. Exact words, self-destructive tendencies. And when they reveal their relationship to corporate in Cocktails, she sums it up as “Cons… I date Michael publicly and collapse into myself like a dying star.” For Michael, showing off their relationship at the CFO’s party is a moment of romantic triumph. For Jan, it’s an acquiescence to her fall from grace, as her dirty little self-indulgence has simply become her life.

On the more comedic side, the moments where she realizes Michael’s habits are becoming infectious are all funny, such as saying Michael’s signature “That’s what she said” during a talking head interview, only to get a haunted look in her eyes and mutter “Oh god.”

Like I said last time… Michael’s pursuit of Jan in season two was unhealthy at best, but his punishment is to finally win her as her downward spiral goes critical. Sure he tries to break up with her, but afterwards she does the one thing that is guaranteed to win him back. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the one thing she does is something incredibly superficial, and not “self-improvement” or “becoming sensitive to Michael’s needs.” But it does mean that when Jan hits bottom in the season finale, Michael “gets” to be there to catch her. His consolation after losing a major promotion is to have his incredibly toxic relationship move to the next step.

General Thoughts

So really, that’s the theme for the whole season. Things that don’t mix being forced together, whether it’s exes who were better off split up, a relationship based on convenience over passion (for one of them, anyway), or two branches of a company that just don’t blend. Because sometimes you need to see what’s wrong in order to realize what’s truly right. And for our central couple, things are about to go very, very right.

For everyone else, season four’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Another notable twist of season three: Jim the authority figure. Post-merger, Jim is made the office’s second in command in a far more real way than Dwight ever was. And Jim has an interesting reaction to authority… turns out he actually takes it a little seriously. Which gives a character reason for the diminishment of his pranks against Dwight. They don’t vanish, because birds gotta fly and Jim’s gotta prank people when they’re obnoxious, but he does do his best to cut back.

Key Episodes

Branch Closing and The Merger, obviously. The fall of Stamford and Jim’s return to Scranton. Dwight and Andy’s first, most intentional rivalry peaks in Traveling Salesmen and The Return. Cocktails provides multiple turning points: Michael and Jan’s relationship turns sour, Pam and Roy’s reunion explodes, and Jim makes friends with CFO David Wallace. That one’s more of a subtle development, and causes less property damage than Pam and Roy’s, but it has an impact just the same. The Negotiation begins Darrel’s ascension as a more central character, as Roy makes his exit from the show. And of course Beach Games and The Job, in which someone is getting a promotion to corporate, and someone gets to be manager at Scranton.


Not a one. Yes, season three is broader than season two. Things are getting bigger. They have to, in order to accommodate Jan’s breakdown, Andy’s buffoonery, and Michael’s beach day contest to be his successor. But we’re still in the golden years here. The jokes are all landing, the chemistry and timing is into a good rhythm, and you shouldn’t miss out on Karen Filippelli. You’ll miss her a little when Rashida Jones leaves Scranton for Pawnee, Indiana.

Okay, maybe, maybe The Convict, when the staff learns one of the Stamford transfers is an ex-con, and things get awkward in a hurry. It’s the closest season three gets to season one cringe levels, and it isn’t my favourite. Also, it’s focused on a guy we met last week, so it’s hard to get too invested in why he leaves.

Notable Guest Stars?

If Andy Daly is someone you’ve heard of, and people who’s TV comedy tastes are a little more cutting edge than mine tend to have, he turns up as a Benjamin Franklin impersonator/educator Jim hires for Phyllis’ stagette instead of a stripper.

I feel I should talk about writer/producer Michael Schur as Dwight’s cousin Mose, but what can you say about that neckbearded oddball expect that he somehow manages to make Dwight’s life more surreal than it was, while still proving he’s the sane one in the house? Well, I suppose I could decry his cowardice for using a prosthetic neck beard in all but his first appearance, instead of growing it out like Community’s writer/producer Dino “Starburns” Stamatopoulos did, but come on, the man’s responsible for some of the funniest network comedies of the last decade. He didn’t want to have a ridiculous neckbeard for his handful of appearances. (Of the four writer/producers in the cast, Schur was the least fond of screentime, after Mindy Kaling/Kelly, BJ Novak/Ryan, and Paul Lieberstein/Toby in approximately that order.)

When we discuss season four, we’ll look at how a season shortened by a writers’ strike still manages to teach a lesson about “too much of a good thing.”

Overthinking the Office Part 2.5: Love and War (mostly love)

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.

Romance is in the air

We’ve covered how Jim and Pam are the central couple of The Office, certainly in its early seasons. But in season two, they’re not the only ones. The ensemble is too big for only two people to have a love story, and besides… Jim and Pam are the swoon-worthy couple from the word go. Their relationship is played for “Awwwws” rather than laughs, and that means that there are places they couldn’t take that relationship. Lines they couldn’t cross and gags they couldn’t do. And that’s where these other couples introduced in season two come in handy. Let’s meet them, while looking at the key episodes that shape their arcs.

Michael & Jan: Michael and Jan’s working relationship changes forever, and not entirely for the better, in season two’s The Client, which is a key episode on three fronts. When Michael and Jan have an off-site meeting trying to sell to the local county government, Pam finds Michael’s screenplay, “Threat Level Midnight,” featuring a superspy version of Michael Scott and his assistant/would-be-lover, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Yup. It’s not subtle. So we have three important things in this episode: 1) Jim and Pam bond during a staff reading of Threat Level Midnight and an impromptu rooftop dinner picnic; 2) despite going against Jan’s wishes at every step (moving the meeting to Chili’s, opening with a joke, playing truth or dare over drinks, an Awesome Blossom, and baby back ribs), Michael makes the sale, demonstrating how exactly he got promoted in the first place and his worth to the company; 3) having learned about Jan’s divorce, and dragged the story out of her during truth or dare, after the sale Michael and Jan share a celebratory kiss in the parking lot, and a night in a hotel room (mostly conversation, mild making out). Michael being Michael, he assumes Jan is now his girlfriend, and when Jan calls the next day with morning-after remorse, he’s completely blindsided. To the point of trying to hide under his desk from the cameras, which provide no escape.

But he does not take this rejection well, easily, or sanely. It’s the self-delusion that propels Michael through most of the series. Despite all the, frankly, overwhelming evidence that this relationship is a non-starter, Michael is unable to let go of the idea that she and he are meant to be. Michael’s pursuit of Jan approaches uncomfortable to the point of scary. He manages one positive act on her behalf on Valentine’s Day, though to be fair it’s just making up for his own nigh-catastrophic mistake.

There are points when being with Jan is supposed to be a victory for Michael. A Pyrrhic victory to a point, because the Jan-related prize usually comes after something bad on his end, but a victory just the same. But even when things between them become good, there is always something… off about them. So if Michael’s pursuit seems uncomfortable, it’s okay, folks… when we reach season three, we find out that the punishment fits the crime. The punishment for his horribly awkward courtship of Jan is, ultimately, successfully wooing Jan.

Kelly & Ryan: In the beginning, The Office doesn’t really know what to do with Kelly Kapoor. They also didn’t 100% know what to do with Ryan but that came later and is another story. She’s mostly there to be one more minority to suffer Michael’s knee-jerk reflex to profile (her Dundie is the Spicy Curry award, a title he is unable to explain, given the obvious answer; at Halloween, he thinks Bend It Like Beckham would be a better costume than Dorothy). But fortunately for the show, Kelly is played by writer/producer Mindy Kaling, who in the back half of the season finds Kelly’s character. Her sometimes vapid, celebrity gossip obsessed, rom-com loving, drama queen character. Which made her an entertaining fit for the more casual, easy-going, one-foot-out-the-door Ryan Howard of the early seasons. Their early relationship is best defined by Valentine’s Day… Kelly excitedly tells Jim that she and Ryan finally got together the previous night (Jim having become Kelly’s confidant during an earlier episode), and is thrilled to have a boyfriend for V-Day. Ryan has a talking head moment in which he runs his hands through his hair, voice calm but a look of terror and sad acceptance in eyes, and says “I hooked up with her on February 13th.” From there, it’s Ryan’s low-key, non-committal attitude versus Kelly’s rom-com-fueled, high-maintenance quest for a husband and babies.

But that is just the beginning. There are amazing depths of dysfunction these two have yet to plumb. And that is what makes Kelly and Ryan one of the show’s most memorable couplings. Very rarely has a show managed to make a relationship so very wrong and so very right at the same time. In season two, there’s just Ryan’s limp acceptance that “Just having fun” has become “long-term relationship” faster than he was in any way braced for. But they evolve into a truly, weirdly hilarious portrait of mutual abuse as Ryan’s character shifts in the later seasons. They’re the couple who are absolutely wrong for each other but at the exact same time weirdly perfect for each other. We’ll check in with Kelly and Ryan as we go.

Angela & Dwight: There are reviewers out there who feel that Jim and Pam are not the true central couple of The Office. That that title belongs instead to the Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan of Dunder Mifflin, Dwight K. Schrute and Angela Martin.

Dwight and Angela would be impossible to like in real life. Both are abrasive, judgmental, and attempt to hold their co-workers to insane standards of behavior that play out like a Victorian England Taliban. And yet… as time goes on, Dwight wins you over. The sheer absurdity of Dwight, and the passion he devotes to everything he does, gradually becomes endearing. And one of Dwight’s greatest passions is uptight accountant Angela.

Their relationship is largely defined by secrecy, which becomes part of the fun. Angela is devoted to maintaining her (completely inaccurate… remember that self-deception is the key theme of this show) self-image as a perfect Christian, which means keeping her affair with a co-worker as secret as possible. Secret enough that despite a few dropped hints, you’d never guess they were together until Email Surveillance, when Pam enlists the Documentarians to help uncover proof that Dwight and Angela are together… a quest she walks away from after Phyllis assumes the “secret office affair” she’s talking about is actually her and Jim.

But it’s too late. The Documentarians know all, and from there, we’re all in on the spycraft-laced relationship of Angela and Dwight. So why would this relationship between, on paper, the two least likeable characters on the show eclipse Jim and Pam? Well, part of it is the same “These two must be right for each other because they can not be right for anyone else” energy that Ryan and Kelly end up having, but a bigger part is that Angela and Dwight are free from the fear of disruption that surrounded Jim and Pam.

See, Jim and Pam’s budding, inevitable romance was treated with such devotion that once it finally happens, the writers are unwilling to throw any real tension at it. Dwight and Angela do not suffer from that, and thus their story can be more epic. Spanning years, blood lost and lives ruined. They’re together, they’re apart, they see other people but cannot resist each other. Their love is filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, it’s a story that lasts all nine seasons, whereas Jim and Pam peak early and stay there.

Plus, there’s a lot more comedy in a weirdly adorable train wreck than a relationship that’s obviously perfect and why can’t they just see that, which is what Jim and Pam are giving us this year.

Anyway, those are the main plot threads in season two. Jim and Pam inch towards to each other, Ryan finds himself in over his head with Kelly, Michael wins, loses, and almost but not quite wins back Jan before moving on to his realtor, Carol… a rare Normal that ends up dating one of the cast.

New Characters

Season two introduces us to some other key people at Dunder Mifflin. Valentine’s Day introduces the new CFO, David Wallace. Wallace becomes the face of Dunder Mifflin’s corporate HQ for the next five years, the straight man who must deal with Michael’s shenanigans. The same episode introduces Josh Porter, manager of the Stamford Connecticut branch, which will be highly important once season three kicks off.

Also of note… Christmas Party introduces us to Phyllis’ boyfriend, Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration. They become to office park’s weirdly and uncomfortably passionate middle-aged power couple.

And I mentioned Carol, right? Michael’s realtor, introduced in Office Olympics, and played by Steve Carell’s fellow Daily Show alumnus/real-life wife Nancy Carell (née Walls)? She turns up three times, and goes from one-time guest star to person of interest.

Key Episodes

God, so, so many. That’s what makes season two the golden year, every episode feels like a new delight. Office Olympics. Booze Cruise. Take Your Daughter to Work Day. The Injury. The Carpet. And the climax, Casino Night, one of two episodes written by Steve Carrell, in which everything comes to a head.

But if I had to choose one. (Other than The Dundies, which we discussed last time)

Dwight’s Speech, in which, as the company’s top salesman, Dwight has to deliver a speech to a sales conference (something Michael did twice, as he’s swift to remind people), represents a turning point. There have been, for lack of better words, wackiness and hijinks in the show, but they’ve been relatively grounded. Dwight’s Speech, in which Jim pranks Dwight by handing him a speech culled from quotes from famous dictators, is when we begin to cross the line into larger, broader comedy. Dwight’s transition from almost realistically eccentric and power hungry peon to legit supervillain, along with Creed’s breakout lunacy, begin a transition into an Office where the rest of the staff don’t just roll their eyes at Michael or Dwight’s craziness, but contribute their own. Everything gets pushed further and further. Kevin gets dumber. Meredith gets trashier. Creed gets crazier. Kelly’s quest for attention gets bigger. Ryan’s relative normalcy gets chipped away. Even quiet, low-key Stanley and Phyllis get their quirks.


None. They’re all great. Have I not made that clear?

Notable Guest Stars?

Amy Adams is back as Jim’s girlfriend, Katy, for two episodes before the whole “He’s only dating her to distract himself from being in love with Pam” thing wears him down. Tim Meadows is the titular client in The Client, and apparently Melora Hardin (Jan) had a terrible time keeping a straight face (let alone a perpetual scowl) playing opposite him and Steve Carell. Our fourth Daily Show veteran (I totes forgot about Larry Wilmore in season one, that’s on me), Rob Riggle, is the captain of the Booze Cruise.

And most notably, David Koechner makes his first appearances as Michael’s ultra-obnoxious best friend, travelling salesman Todd Packer, in Sexual Harassment… perfect timing, because as inappropriate as Michael can be, Todd Packer makes him look like mild-mannered Toby in comparison. Packer made his first appearance over the phone in the pilot, but season two is when Koechner brings him to full, horrifying life. And provides another layer of Michael’s self-delusion: despite what Michael thinks, Packer isn’t as funny, awesome, or nearly as good a friend as Michael (or Kevin) thinks.

Next time… season three gives season two a run for its money, and the last central character arrives.


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.

Overthinking the Office, Season 1: Mercifully Swift

I’m not someone who needs silence to write. Or wants it. In fact, I typically need something on in the background, if only to keep me off of YouTube. And that’s how I’ve ended up rewatching The Office start to finish about four times in the last two or three years. Because as much as I try to mix things up, I keep coming back, perhaps because it’s become so familiar that it’s enjoyable without being hugely distracting. Scrubs sucks up more attention, especially in the seasons I’m less familiar with (4-8, which I’ve only seen twiceish); Community only has three seasons that I can/want to watch, so it gets older faster; and the Flash only lasts me a few days.

And so I keep finding myself rewatching the antics of Dunder Mifflin paper company. And if that’s going to keep happening, and I’m going to keep having thoughts about it, I may as well start writing them down.

So let’s start at the beginning. The awkward, cringe-filled first season.

Early steps

For those unfamiliar with the Office… I promise to try to make this accessible. Anyway, it’s adapted from a British series from masters of cringe comedy Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Aside from reality shows, adapting a British series is always a dodgy process, one with more failures than successes. Red Dwarf, Doctor Who, Skins, Coupling, and The IT Crowd all failed and failed fast, and there’s practically a failed American Fawlty Towers alone for every success story. Maybe it’s a failure by American networks to understand how these shows work. That would explain how they take shows like Coupling, Spaced, and The IT Crowd, adapt episodes almost word-for-word, and still end up with unfunny train wrecks.

Community’s Joel McHale couldn’t make American IT Crowd funny, and he was using the same script.

Back to The Office, then. This first season tries to match the original British version’s twin atmospheres of boredom and gloom, as we meet the Dunder Mifflin crew while the branch is staring down the barrel of possible downsizing. Dunder Mifflin is not the corporate titan Michael Scott sees it as, and will be plagued by financial troubles for the next six seasons. So here in the beginning, the bulk of the cast (save for Michael and Dwight, who see paper sales as their life’s calling) are both bored by their jobs, and anxious about losing them.

This is, of course, easier to maintain on a British series designed to run in brief spurts. And since the US version’s debut season was only six episodes long, much like both series of the UK version, they could keep this atmosphere. Once they needed to run longer, some things needed to change. But we’ll get to that.

There’s only six episodes in season one, which doesn’t leave a lot to pry open, so let’s open with a review of the basics.

Central cast

Now, The Office did borrow a few things other than tone from their UK brethren. Mostly the cast. While every character has a different name (Michael Scott in place of David Brent, or “Jim” in place of “Tim…” as Ricky Gervais put it, “Way to put your own stamp on things”), the basics of each character are still there. Everyone starts out in the same place. Michael Scott, regional manager of Dunder Mifflin paper company, would-be father figure and entertainer; Dwight Schrute, assistant regional manager—no, assistant to the regional manager; Jim Halpert, slacker salesman wishing he were anywhere else; Pam Beesley, the receptionist, who stopped chasing her dreams so long ago she doesn’t fully remember how; and Ryan Howard, freshly hired temp. And it becomes clear that they have one thing in common.

Our central theme, ladies and gents

Some sitcoms aren’t content to restrict their narrative to “These people all work/spend time in the same bar/airport/court.” If you dig into them, there’s a deeper theme. Community wears its theme on its sleeve, in its title, even: it’s all about connecting with people, forming a community. Like I said, not subtle. The Office takes a little more attention.

The Office is about self-deception.

And nowhere is that more clear than its leading man, Michael Scott. Michael sees himself as a born entertainer, when in reality his jokes are met with sighs and eye rolls more often than not. Michael sees himself as the patriarch of the Dunder Mifflin family, when everyone else just sees it as somewhere they work. Michael thinks he is adored, when he is often merely tolerated.

But it’s not just Michael. Especially here, at the beginning, no one is who they think they are. Dwight is not a born leader, diabolical genius, sheriff’s deputy, or even assistant manager. He’s a great salesman and decent beet farmer (although that doesn’t come out until season two) with severe delusions of grandeur… delusions that the writers began to buy into from time to time as the show ran on and Dwight drew in popularity.

Jim’s self-deception is more subtle: he thinks he’s above this place. This is just a job to Jim, something he does to pay the rent while he waits for his real life to start. Something which has the added bonus of keeping him near the object of his affection. But Jim is not better than this sales job, not yet. He’s just a slacker trying to do the minimum effort, and pranking Dwight to repay all the ways Dwight makes life at the office harder.

And Pam… Pam routinely falls for the saddest deception… she thinks her life is fine the way it is.

The key couple

Pam’s engaged to Roy, who she’s been with for eight years. They’ve been engaged for two of those, but in season one are nowhere near picking a wedding date. It’s clear to us in the audience… and to Jim, who’s secretly in love with her… that Roy is wrong for her, and she’ll never be truly happy with him, but Pam is scared of chasing a better life if it means risking the flawed, comfortable existence she has now. And not for the last time.

Whereas Jim is stuck not only in a job he hates, but stuck watching the woman he loves settle for a man who takes her for granted over and over.

It’s important to note that this is not a standard will they/won’t they. It can’t be. Those don’t last nine seasons, not without driving people crazy. But here, in the early days, Michael is the lead, Dwight the wacky sidekick, Ryan the new guy, and Jim and Pam are the show’s beating heart.

The Documentarians

The Office didn’t invent the mockumentary format (how could it, it’s a remake), but as far as series television goes, I think it’s fair to say that it boosted the style’s popularity. Since then, we’ve seen the format pop back up in Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, but each of these shows makes the same choice: they keep the “talking heads” sections, in which characters talk to the camera about what’s happening, but that’s it. By the end of P&R’s first season, or by Modern Family’s second episode, they’ve abandoned the pretense that there’s a camera crew following these people around. The Office never does.

It’s not consistent. Sometimes they fade into the background. An entire Diwali party in season three seems unaffected by the cameras’ presence. It’s hard to believe that a convenience store clerk would let a cameraman behind the counter just to get a better angle on Michael, but in season seven, that happens. But in these early days, they really drive home the fact that we’re not just secretly spying on a group of office workers, there are people with cameras and microphones following them around, and their presence isn’t always welcome. Something that stays a trend all the way to the last season, albeit off and on.

Key episodes

With only six episodes in the first season, they’re basically all key episodes. The pilot introduces us to (some of) the cast, Diversity Day is the first big Conference Room meeting, the show’s most common trope; Health Care is both Michael’s failures as a leader and inability to live up to his own self-image and Dwight’s thirst for power in all their early glory; The Alliance is when Jim and Pam’s pranking of Dwight begins to take its proper US shape; Basketball introduces us to the warehouse crew; and Hot Girl… well, it has Amy Adams in it. What more do you need.


On occasion, when doing a rewatch, I’ve skipped the entire first season. Like its younger sister show, Parks and Recreation, the short opening season is rougher. The larger ensemble is unformed, and the tone bleaker. And of all of them, Basketball might be the easiest to miss. Diversity Day already let us know that Michael’s kinda racist, and it should be pretty clear that Jim and Roy have an unspoken rivalry, and there’s not much more there.

Notable guest stars?

A lot of big names and/or cast members of The Wire will make their way through the Dunder Mifflin offices over the years, but in season one, it’s pretty much just Amy Adams as a purse saleswoman who Michael and Dwight lust after, but who ends up dating Jim.

Next time… The Office finds its footing, and its own voice. And thanks to iTunes and the 40 Year Old Virgin, an audience.