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.
Outgrowing Your Premise
Not every aspect of a show’s premise is designed to last if the show keeps going. For instance, Jeff Winger was always going to graduate from Greendale after season four of Community. The interns on Scrubs couldn’t stay interns forever. In fact, not even for two seasons. “High school is Hell” is the central premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they still had to find a way to move past it (we can argue how successfully they managed that another time). In the case of The Office, it’s the threat of downsizing.
From the pilot until Branch Closing, the staff of Dunder Mifflin lived under the constant threat of downsizing. It’s established in the very first episode that the corporate office is planning to merge Scranton and Stamford, and only a last second betrayal from Stamford’s Josh Porter saves the Scranton people. And while Dunder Mifflin’s financial woes are far from over, as we’ll learn down the road, something changes for Scranton in season five. Suddenly, instead of being the second lowest performing branch under Jan’s control (as mentioned in Casino Night), Scranton is the most profitable branch Dunder Mifflin has.
It makes sense… they absorbed Stamford, Dwight is the company’s top salesman (even beating the website), they couldn’t possibly stay the low sellers forever. But it creates a whole new power dynamic. One that is entirely necessary for where they want to push the show. Everything that happens in future seasons hinges on the idea that this branch is special, this is the branch worth following, worth being close to. I mean, one could argue that the writers just occasionally forget that there are other branches, but I think higher of them than that. No, I think it’s that the stories they start telling require this new dynamic. Starting with…
The Big Break-up
No, it’s not Jim and Pam. In fact, by the end of the first episode (hour-long, yet again), they’re engaged. Sure, they open the season by sending Pam to New York for art school, and sure, Mad Men’s Rich Sommer is there and has a bit of a thing for her, but as I said last time… now that they’re together, the producers are unwilling to fully commit to actually threatening their relationship. So Rich Sommer never has a chance. Pam was always going to come home to Scranton, despite a last-second twist of her failing one of her courses. So no, they don’t break up Pam and Jim, not even a little. They go for the other relationship that seems too strong to fail.
Michael and Dunder Mifflin itself.
Late in the season, events conspire to make Michael quit his job and found the Michael Scott Paper Company. To a casual observer, it might seem that it’s all about Michael’s new boss (introduced, fittingly, in New Boss), Charles Miner, played by the great Idris Elba, our second veteran of The Wire. But no, the seeds were planted much, much earlier. Charles plays a role, but it’s mostly about Holly Flax and David Wallace.
We talked about Holly last time. How she was, and remains, Michael’s perfect match. The first woman Michael dates where it actually goes well. How clear is it that Holly is something special? For the first and only time, the Documentarians don’t take the summer off.
Yes, sure, the real reason for the Documentarians almost never filming between June and August is the standard network television hiatus, but nearly every season premiere involves talking head interviews where the characters catch the Documentarians (and through them, us) up on what’s been happening, so in-universe they clearly take the summer off. They wouldn’t need Michael, Pam, Oscar, or Toby to fill them in on what’s been going on the last three months if they had footage. But in Weight Loss, they’re in for the long haul, as the episode takes place over two months.
Are we to believe that they stick around for the summer because they’re really interested in the Dunder Mifflin– you know what, I’m going to start writing DM and y’all are just going to get what I’m saying. Where was I? Right. Are they really that interested in the DM weight loss challenge? More than being present for Jim’s last days in Scranton, Ryan’s ascent to VP, or Jim and Pam starting to date? When those things happened, the crew took their scheduled break. And they weren’t missing something that big again. So they make sure they’re around at least once per week for the whole summer because they don’t want to miss anything between Michael and Holly.
Now let’s talk about David Wallace. Michael’s boss’ boss when we meet him, David Wallace must be everyone’s dream boss. He’s pleasant, friendly, generous, and so, so forgiving. Even before we find out DM Scranton is head of the pack, he seems to ultimately forgive all the ridiculous behaviour he witnesses from Michael and Dwight. Not always easily… there are some angry talks in Stress Relief, but Dwight doesn’t get fired, and man did they have cause. And in The Deposition, when the DM attorneys tried to make him say Michael wasn’t a serious candidate for Jan’s job, he resisted as long as he could before only replying “What do you want me to say, he’s a nice guy.” But he does have a limit.
Michael and Holly hadn’t been together long when David found out about their relationship. They’d known each other for months, Michael was already deeply in love, and Holly was seriously twitterpated, but it they’d only gone on three actual dates. But when David finds out one of his managers is in a relationship with the branch HR rep, he swiftly transfers Holly to Nashua, New Hampshire. And there our troubles begin.
David tries to make things better. He sends Michael on a business trip to exotic Winnipeg (in Ca-NAH-dah, as Michael pronounces it, trying to make everything seem as cool, fancy, and exotic as he can). But when the trip doesn’t go well (the sale works out fine, but Michael has a less-than-great hookup with a concierge, which he mistakes for concubine, since big words are not his strong suit), Michael ends up lashing out about Holly. And from there, David begins to feel the strain of managing Michael directly. A series of ridiculous incidents test David’s patience, and he erects a wall between himself and Michael: a wall named Charles Miner.
It would be easy to assume that its Charles’ management style, with his austerity measures and mirthless attitude (Charles is surprisingly similar to Elba’s Wire character, business-minded drug dealer Stringer Bell). One could easily jump to the conclusion that Charles cancelling Michael’s 15th anniversary party was what drove Michael away from the company he loves. But no. Pay attention, and you see that the fuse was lit the second Holly was transferred. David took Michael’s true love away, handed the reigns to a steel executive (“You’re not from paper!?” asks an incredulous Michael), and stopped taking Michael’s calls, all on the eve of Michael’s 15th anniversary serving the company. Fifteen years of service, only to have the company break his heart and treat him like an inconvenience. You need all of that together to make Michael declare war on his family.
When the Illusion of Change Fails
The first third of season five also heavily features the escalation of the Dwight-Angela-Andy love triangle. Angela and Andy’s wedding is looming, but in the fourth season finale, hours after accepting his proposal, she started banging Dwight again. Andy eventually finds out, he and Dwight have a duel in the parking lot, but partway through realise they’re fighting over a woman who betrayed them both, and both leave her.
Here’s my problem with this turn of events. And it’s not Angela and Dwight being broken up again.
Angela defines herself as the hyper-Christian moral center of the office. And I know, self-deception, I know, I’m the one who keeps bringing it up, so if she was simply judging others while secretly failing to live by her own morals, that would be fine. But as soon as the entire office learns that she’s been banging Dwight literally the entire time she’s been engaged to Andy, there should be no going back from that. Her every single attempt to judge people for acting “loose” or “whorish” should be crushed by the reminder that she cheated on Andy with Dwight.
Angela’s main target is Pam (well, also Meredith, but Meredith is basically immune to criticism). How she dresses, being “nosy,” how she’s the “office mattress” for dating both Roy and Jim, and down the road, getting pregnant outside of wedlock. Other than the dress code thing, Angela has done or will do all of those things, only worse. But Pam never once calls her out on it. Not one “You’re right, Angela, I did date Roy before Jim. Was that wrong? Should I have been sleeping with both of them at the same time like you were with Dwight and Andy? Is that the Christian way?” Is Pam just too nice? She’s certainly willing to call Ryan out on his shit this season. Does she consider Angela too close a friend? For the love of Buddha and all his wacky nephews, how could that be true?
No. Angela cheats on one co-worker with another, and it should destroy her reputation forever, and it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. She goes back to same old Angela, and over five years, exactly four people call her out on it… the Documentarians, in an early season talking head; Kevin, the episode after everyone finds out; Dwight’s best friend Rolf in the season finale; and then not again until season nine, almost four years later. I just can’t, for the life of me, understand why anyone (least of all Pam) lets her get away with being judgmental when she can be shut down with one “Try not to secretly screw Dwight on your way back to your desk.”
Let’s talk about Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. They’d been playing recurring characters Gino and Leo, grunt workers for Vance Refrigeration, since season two. They jumped in Michael’s elevator and tried to take over the shot (Leo just yelling “Ass” over and over). They got in a fight in the bullpen while delivering Phyllis’ many, many Valentine’s Day presents from Bob Vance. When Dwight interrogated the entire office about a joint he found in the parking lot, it turned out to be Gino and Leo’s. But if you’re only watching on Netflix, or if you only watched the show when it aired, you’d never know any of that. Because their scenes were habitually cut for time.
So it was a little strange when I realized that these characters, who almost exclusively existed in deleted scenes, were suddenly back in season five, like they’d always been there, in scenes that actually made it to air. Okay, sure, it turns out that Eisenberg and Stupinsky were both producers (like Ryan, Kelly, Toby, and Cousin Mose), so they weren’t hard to track down. But it’s still odd, and slightly miraculous, that they finally got their days in the sun three years later.
Ryan vanishes for a while mid-season, as BJ Novak had to go film Inglourious Basterds. He wins Kelly back before he leaves, though, and Craig Robinson proves how under-used he’s been so far in Darryl’s reaction to Kelly breaking up with him (via Ryan writing a text on her phone): a reply of “Cool” followed by a jaunty stroll to his truck with a spring in his step and a silent but obvious song in his heart.
Darryl is also missing for a lot of season five, because Craig Robinson had some drug charges right before the season started filming. Sad. But he’s doing better now.
Steve Carell makes Michael’s reaction to Toby’s return priceless.
The entire Holly arc, from Weight Loss through to Employee Survey. Never skip a Holly Flax episode.
The entire Michael Scott Paper Company arc, from Charles’ arrival in New Boss through to its epilogue in Casual Day. First of all, it’s the keynote arc of the whole season, and signals a new stage in Pam’s career. Second, it debuts a new character who becomes not only vitally important to the back half of the series, but a sheer delight: Kimmy Schmidt herself, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon. We’ll talk about her more next time, because it takes them a little while to realize what a powerful comic weapon they’ve acquired and how best to use it. Like how it took the Community writers a half dozen episodes to figure out how best to write for Donald Glover.
Stress Relief. In their hour-long (they got better at these after early season four) post-Superbowl episode, Michael decides to throw the Roast of Michael Scott to cheer up the office, and you don’t want to miss that.
I’m not crazy about the “Charles doesn’t care for Jim” subplot during the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, but I already named that whole thing as key episodes, so…
Notable Guest Stars?
I mentioned Rich Sommer, Amy Ryan, and Idris Elba already. Two veterans of The Wire: one as Michael’s greatest love, one as his newest nemesis. That’s neat.
For the post-Superbowl episode, Jack Black and Cloris Leachman play themselves playing the lead roles in a movie about a man’s affair with his fiancee’s grandmother. (As Andy explains, it was supposed to be the fiancee’s mother, but when Nicole Kidman dropped out they rewrote the part for Cloris Leachman). Jessica Alba is also there as the jilted fiancee, but don’t blink, you’ll miss her.
David Denman makes his first of three return appearances as Roy, following his exit mid-season three, when Jim goes for a drink with the warehouse staff. Rashida Jones makes her second of three returns as Karen Filippelli when Michael, as head of the newly crowned most profitable branch, goes on the road to share his management secrets. It goes about as well as you’d expect. And Melora Hardin makes an appearance as Jan before quietly shuffling out of the ensemble after Michael realizes he feels no connection to her sperm bank baby.
Dwight’s best friend Rolf is also the voice of Dr. Venture on Venture Brothers, if that’s something you care about.
Next time… Scranton’s success does not mean all is well at Dunder Mifflin, Jim steps up, and the episode hard core fans avoid the most.