I liked season 1 a lot, and I liked season 2 even more, but season 3 was where I came to really love The Office. The show does many many things well, and at the front of the line are plotting and characterization. The former takes spectacular advantage of continuity to provide some deeply satisfying moments, while the latter provides hundreds of funny and subtly moving gems. As a bonus, the whole thing also provides some fascinating food for thought about the camera-aware culture of Reality Show America.
Okay, let’s talk about plot. Season two, of course, ended with the jaw-dropping cliffhanger of Jim and Pam kissing, and Gay Witch Hunt‘s resolution of this moment is terrific. I absolutely love it that Pam didn’t run off with Jim on the eve of her wedding, but that she did end up canceling it. This pattern of quailing in the moment but gathering courage over the longer span felt quite true to the character, and nicely mirrored the greater process she’d go through in the course of the season. The fact that Jim left after this not only feels emotionally real but gave the show a great opportunity to introduce new characters and to broaden our knowledge of Dunder Mifflin as a whole company. Season 3 is overflowing with brilliant plotting choices like that, story directions that resonate emotionally, play realistically, and create new and interesting opportunities for humor and drama.
In that spirit: easily my favorite plot moment of the season, and in fact my favorite moment of the entire series so far, is Dwight macing Roy in The Negotiation. Whoever came up with this moment (the writer is credited as Michael Schur, so maybe he’s the one) deserves a big old award, because it is PERFECT. It’s as if the entire show so far has been specifically constructed to create this climax, like an intricate puzzle whose final piece has just slid into place. The web of relationships between Jim, Pam, Roy, and Dwight simply fluoresces at this moment, because each character’s behavior is utterly believable but also quite unexpected, and the action creates fascinating dynamics between all of them while providing a perfect peak to the arc of their storylines so far. God, I just loved that moment.
The season’s whole shape did a lovely job of resolving concerns from early on (such as the downsizing threat) while opening up new storylines with great potential (such as the merged offices). The Stamford employees are interesting enough when we see them at their own branch, but they really come into their own when inserted into the Scranton office. Karen and Andy resolve into valuable ongoing characters, while the gradual departure of the others provides some of the stinging discomfort that remains the show’s trademark. I also really appreciated the way that every character got a little attention, a little advancement, and their collisions often sparked great insights into each. For example, Oscar and Gil viewing Pam’s art in Business School tells us more about Oscar and his relationship, while also commenting on Pam (courage and honesty aren’t her strong points).
That moment also exemplifies something that the show perfected in this season: story beats that are both funny and emotional at the same time. The show still has plenty of moments of broad comedy, along with general wit and “ha ha ow.” The best ones, though, made me laugh while deepening my feeling for the character. One example out of many: Michael’s shift from fake depression to real depression while on the roof in Safety Training.
This is the part where I go through character-by-character. I’ll talk about that person’s arc (if any) and somewhat arbitrarily pick a moment I really liked.
- Michael: Michael’s childlike quality came through so clearly in this season — he really is like an 11-year-old placed in charge of a business. Also, the way his relationship with Jan turned, right around Cocktails, making us switch our sympathies from her to him, was wonderfully done. The scene in Women’s Appreciation where he gradually comes to understand the sickness of his relationship is one of those great funny/winceworthy/heartfelt bits of writing.
Moment: In the “Hilarious Talking Heads” category, I nominate, “Wikipedia… is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So, you know you are getting the best possible information.” (The Negotiation)
- Dwight: Seeing Andy try to usurp Dwight’s position with Michael, finally succeeding in Traveling Salesmen, was a great technique for communicating how much Dwight’s presence actually means to the office. Along with Jim’s actual instatement as Michael’s #2, it lent some tension to Dwight’s established toadying relationship to Michael. And of course, his rescue of Jim got me on his side in a big way.
- Jim: As I said, having him leave Scranton after Pam’s rejection not only hit the perfect character note but it opened up a whole vista for the show. His relationships with Pam and Karen, with all the tension that triangle brings out, felt quite real. The way he punishes Pam in The Negotiation is pitch-perfect. The idea, suggested in season 2, that he should leave his pranksterish habits behind, was more or less discarded by the end of this season, but at least we saw him attempt it a couple of times (I’m thinking of A Benihana Christmas), only to be lured back by Dwight and Andy’s insufferable behavior. Also, his discomfort in the Stamford branch, the way he went from pretty much owning the room (in Scranton) to being the awkward and out-of-place one, was a nice new layer to his character.
Moment: The various bits he does to convince Dwight he’s a vampire in Business School. Oh, and I also really dug his furrowed brow and head-shake to the camera after Michael claims that Lake Scranton is America’s eighth-largest indigenous body of water in Beach Games.
- Pam: This was my favorite arc of all. Pam’s progress, from who she is in Gay Witch Hunt (especially the bit of it that flashes back to Casino Night) to who she becomes by the end of Beach Games, is so much fun to watch, and of course her final talking head in The Job is a beautiful moment. Her progress is portrayed slowly enough to maintain believability, and it’s kind of a rare thing in comedy: a character actually growing and maturing. Charles Schulz always used to assert that “Happiness is not funny” — that’s why Lucy always had to pull the football away from Charlie Brown. It seems that The Office is daring to make a couple of its characters happy, for a little while at least. I’ll be very interested to see how they handle that in season 4.
Moment: The obvious ones are her speech in Beach Games and the end of The Job, but I also loved the way she makes the coffin in Grief Counseling, and her speech in that episode. In particular, when she suggests that the bird might have lifted their spirits with a song and Dwight interjects that it’s not a songbird: “An impression, then.”
- Angela: Watching her relationship with Dwight was entertaining, and I liked the little softening touches, such as her happiness in Traveling Salesmen. Of course, she didn’t soften all that much, which is a good thing.
Moment: Her awkward apology to Oscar in The Return — “Certain events have transpired. And I’ve thought about certain things. And I’m sorry for the way those certain events transpired. [starts to cry] And I would just like to make some changes about certain things and certain situations and certain accounts.” That’s another wonderful combination of hilarious and poignant.
- Oscar: He was gone for half the season, so didn’t get much of an arc, but I really enjoyed his normalizing effect during the times he was there, and need I mention that he was great in Gay Witch Hunt?
Moment: From that episode, “Yes I am super cool. I am an accountant, at a failing paper supply company, in Scranton. Much like… Sir Ian McKellen.”
- Kevin: Moment: “Uh, attention, everyone. Attention, please. Uh, I’m supposed to ask if anyone has seen Uncle Al. He is old, has brown eyes and dementia. His family is very concerned. It’s a very serious situation. [pause, then singing] Rooooooooooxannnnne!”
- Meredith: Moment: Her quest for a fling in Branch Closing
- Stanley: Moment: The whole pairing with Ryan in Traveling Salesmen, in particular his unrestrained glee in recounting Ryan’s embarrassment. In general, it’s fun to see Stanley livened up by something, such as Pretzel Day in Initiation. I love the deleted scene from that episode where he and Michael bond over how much they love the pretzels, and Stanley gets in a “That’s what she said.”
- Phyllis: Phyllis doesn’t get developed a whole lot, despite the fact that one whole episode is centered on her wedding. However, I like the glimpses we get of her cleverness, such as her sales technique in Traveling Salesmen.
Moment: The way she coaches Michael at the food court table in Women’s Appreciation. I liked seeing her briefly step into that maternal role towards Michael, especially since Michael’s always so desperately in need of mothering.
- Karen: Given that Jim and Pam ended up together (more or less) at the end of this season, I really appreciate that Karen was much more than a throwaway “transitional” girlfriend, unlike Katy from season 2. The show injected a lot of humanity, especially in her complicated relationship with Pam. It was such a good choice to make those two distant, then closer, then distant again — that’s a much more interesting story than the stereotypical “jealous girlfriend” narrative. Having Karen be so relatable drained some of the fairytale quality from Jim and Pam’s long-awaited connection, which in my mind is a good thing.
Moment: Her prank on Jim in Cocktails. It was fun to see the tables turned on him so effectively.
- Andy: The great thing about Andy (besides the fact that Ed Helms is just generally hilarious) is the way he serves as a nemesis to Jim and Dwight and Pam and Michael and Karen, etc. etc. He really is “the office pariah” in a way, as Dwight says, but he’s also not cartoonishly awful. I love the way he one-ups Dwight in the suck-up department. A suck-up one-up.
Moment: Seeing him really groove on Jim singing “Lovefool”, even as Jim is doing that as a kind of “nuclear option” on Karen. (Initiation)
- Jan: Boy, talk about somebody who goes ’round the bend! She got a lot of character development, but in a shockingly dark direction. “Some serious, hardcore self-destruction,” as Karen says. I wasn’t completely crazy about this, but it was certainly an interesting choice to make with her character. I suppose we saw hints of it in season 2, but she becomes an out-and-out villain in this season, and I did not see that coming.
Moment: Her look of exasperation after Michael says, “But you just said fifteen,” in The Negotiation.
- Roy: In the first two seasons, Roy was unsympathetic and one-dimensional. He was the clod, the point of whose existence was to be an obstacle to Jim and Pam’s connection. This season made the marvelous choice of having him blown apart by Pam’s departure, and determined to win her back. Even better, he does win her back, and even after doing so, is still a clod, but his cloddishness now seems much more sympathetic than it used to. When he says to Pam, in Business School, “Your art was the prettiest art of all the art,” we can see both how earnestly he cares for Pam and how wrong he is for her. Before, we could only see the latter. What a great layer to add to that character.
Moment: The very quick cut to his horrible mug shot as he talks about hitting bottom in Gay Witch Hunt.
- Ryan: Once again, Ryan does not seem like a major character to me, certainly not worthy of appearing alongside Michael, Dwight, Pam, and Jim in the opening credits. However, his ascension promises to make him more interesting than he’s ever been.
Moment: His handling of Dwight’s brainteasers in the cold open of Initiation.
- Kelly: Moment: “Don’t dump me while I’m in the dumpster!” (Deleted scene from A Benihana Christmas.) Oh, and here’s a bonus one: Dante’s all-time favorite moment from The Office is Kelly singing, “This day is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S! This day is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!” during Product Recall. He asks me to sing this or asks to watch it on TV just about once a week.
- Toby: Moment: “I think we hang out an appropriate amount of time.” (Women’s Appreciation) Something I’m appreciating about Toby is the way that the scripts tend to have him drive the word “appropriate” into the ground, just as it is often driven into the ground in the workplace.
- Creed: Moment: A tie, both from Product Recall — “Every week I’m supposed to take four hours and do a quality spot check at the paper mill. And of course the one year I blow it off, this happens.” vs. “The only difference between me and a homeless man is this job. I will do whatever it takes to survive. Like I did, when I was a homeless man.”
- Darryl: Moment: “Hey, when you get done with your… meeting, you should come to the break room. We’re having a party.” (A Benihana Christmas)
Moment: “I am removing all bananas from the kitchen!” (Women’s Appreciation)
In the commentary for Beach Games, Ed Helms quite rightly points out that while the episode is obviously a parody of Survivor, it is also an excellent sendup of concepts like The Bachelor, in which someone makes an incredibly important choice (who to marry) based on incredibly silly criteria (performing a series of arbitrary tasks.) Occasionally, someone will even make an outright reality show reference, such as when Michael strains for the Amazing Race metaphor in Traveling Salesmen. However, even when the references aren’t so clear, The Office is soaking in reality show culture every minute. We refer to the cameras in the story as documentary cameras, but the fact is that we’re watching television, and what we’re watching is a fictional reality show. It’s “The Real World: Work”, but unlike many reality shows, the act of observation tries to be as transparent as possible.
In fact, the longer the filming goes on, the less conscious all the characters are about the cameras. In E-Mail Surveillance from season 2, Pam even developed a bit of conspiratorial camaraderie with the camera crew. (A lot of alliteration, acknowledged.) There’s still a bit of self-consciousness sometimes, such as Pam’s (momentary) reticence to disclose her feelings in a talking head from The Negotiation, and Roy’s anxious glance to the cameras and clumsy hedging after suggesting in that same episode that he thought Jim was gay. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) For the most part, though, the characters have stopped noticing the cameras, and so have we. Even the talking heads don’t feel so artificial anymore — they’re just a part of life for these people, and part of what we’ve come to expect in our visits to them. Jim’s takes to the camera (such as the Lake Scranton head-shake) don’t feel like takes to the camera — they feel like takes to us.
This is a kind of structure that only became feasible very recently. Before the age of omnipresent cameras and pervasive mikes, there was either a fourth wall or a broken fourth wall, but in Reality Show America, we’re quite able to swallow the concept of real people who are always aware of an audience. In fact, the more blogging and webcamming and flickring we do, the more we become those people. The Office is always interested in breaking its own structure (such as the Michael voice-over that resolves into a talking head in The Return), and at the same time, it’s an observation of how the boundaries between reality and theater, between performer and person, are becoming more and more fluid in our culture.
What’s still true, though, is that not everyone is interested in blurring those boundaries, and I think the show could do more exploration of characters attempting to maintain their privacy from the cameras, not just from each other. (A little of this showed up in the premiere episode of season 4, and I think there’s still a lot more to explore.) I wonder: whose idea was it to allow these reality show cameras into the office anyway? I have to lean towards Michael, though I’m not sure he’d have the authority to make that decision, considering how much access the cameras have. Still, if there’s anyone who wants to be onstage all the time, it’s Michael, and he’s certainly always one to drag everybody else along. It amuses me to think of the entire show structure as yet another time-wasting, humiliating experience being foisted on the staff by their attention-hungry manager.