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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”