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.
After watching season 1, I expressed the hope that the element of pain and suffering remains in the show as time goes on, saying that “its satire would be pretty toothless if the characters weren’t actually in pain.” Well, in season 2, the characters are still in pain, but much work is done to rehabilitate our feelings towards those who inflict the lion’s share of that pain. By the end of the season’s first episode, it became clear to me that the show was taking a turn away from vicious, biting satire and into a softer, more traditional sitcom feeling, albeit with generous doses of that uncomfortable spirit that is the hallmark of season 1. All of the characters gain more depth; we gain more sympathy towards the “villains”, see flaws in the “heroes”, and get to know a wide range of quirks in the surrounding characters. And yeah, as a result, the satire loses some of its sting.
I worried when I saw this turn taking place. I thought that maybe the show would turn its back on the savage spirit that made it so dark and funny to begin with. That doesn’t happen, really — it just adds some sweetness to the cocktail, morphing from a straight shot of whiskey into more of a Manhattan. The writing stays sharp, the jokes stay funny, and a little grace is thrown into the mix to stop us from ever really hating any of the characters. And here’s the thing: it turns out that I enjoy a good story with ongoing characters and clever jokes even more than I enjoy razor-sharp satire. Thus, to my slight surprise, this season of The Office worked even better for me than did the first. So let the notes begin:
1) Obviously, the biggest share of softening went to Michael. Through several techniques, he goes from an utter incompetent and full-fledged jerk to a well-intentioned boob who, because he’s very good at one thing (sales) has bumbled into something he is very bad at (management). This isn’t as much of a stretch as one might think — even after season 1 I thought of him as well-intentioned and loving, though terrible on the execution. This season deepens our sympathies for him in several ways. First, we see him attacked by people who aren’t under his thumb, like the Chili’s hecklers in The Dundies. Secondly, we see him display moments of competence and even excellence, such as his sales job in The Client. In addition to this, we see him experience moments of real vulnerability, such as his deep distress at having to fire someone in Halloween. We see his feelings of inadequacy compared to Ryan in The Fire. We watch him bullied and humiliated by the friend he idolizes in The Carpet. Finally, in the arc beginning at The Client and ending with Casino Night, we see Jan actually coming to care for Michael as… well, not a girlfriend exactly, but a lot closer to that than we’d ever expect her to become.
2) Jan herself gets a few good vulnerable moments in Casino Night and Valentine’s Day, which help round out her character a bit from being simply the hard-edged businesswoman. Even Dwight finds some redemption, especially in The Injury, where a concussion transforms him into Bizarro Dwight (i.e. caring and considerate.) His normal persona is as grating as ever, of course, but the more time I spend watching him sycophantizing to Michael and receiving mostly poor treatment out of the deal, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for him. Of course, the situation is of his own making, but the hints of desperation that occasionally peek through are enough to earn a bit of sympathy from me. Also, his relationship with Angela is highly entertaining. I quite liked the way Angela got developed this season — she became one of my favorite characters, though of course not really one of the characters I like the most, if that makes any sense. Her supercilious primness, her certainty of her own rightness, and her devotion to her religion to the exclusion of all else (think of the books she chose in the “Desert Island” game) perfectly captures a certain workplace type, albeit a comedically exaggerated version thereof.
3) Where we have villains we also have heroes, the main ones of whom are Pam and Jim. I really loved their developments this season, both as individuals and in relationship to each other. The show does a beautiful job of exposing the real misery to their lives without ever storming in with Capital-D Drama. Even the final moment of Casino Night felt like something that could happen to real people, rather than just TV people. I liked the flaws that this season exposed in both of them. Pam, trapped within the choices she’s made to settle for less and bound by her fear of breaking out, comes across very poignantly in Boys And Girls. Jim’s moments of self-doubt, culminating in his application at the Stamford branch, were written and acted with a wonderfully light touch. I was very happy, too, that he finally allowed himself to tell Pam he’s in love with her. At first, I felt a little mixed about it — my default value is to believe that you don’t try to break up somebody’s relationship, no matter how strong your feelings. However, this situation isn’t quite so cut and dried. It’s clear that Jim’s feelings for Pam are requited (though not clear whether she’ll be able to break fear’s grip on her and admit those feelings to herself), and it’s also clear that Roy does not treat her particularly well. I think Jim’s desire for her to hear his feelings, just one time, is quite understandable, and in the end, justifiable. Plus, from the audience point of view, too much more stretching out of that tension without a major turning point would turn from tantalizing to tedious.
4) I’m not sure I understand why B.J. Novak appears in the opening credits. As a character, Ryan seems to be right around the same level with Jan or Angela. It feels like his producer status is getting him a higher billing than he may warrant. Oh well, I didn’t think Charisma Carpenter deserved her billing in the first couple of sesons of Buffy either, and Cordelia certainly grew into a very important character, so perhaps I just need to give it time.
To try to pick out all my favorite moments would be ridiculous — each episode made me laugh many times. Instead, I’ll just go through the characters and randomly point to a moment I really liked.
- Michael: “It’s for charity, and I consider myself a great philanderer.” (Casino Night) In general, I love Michael getting words wrong, and I also quite enjoy his habit of making a reference and then immediately identifying the reference. “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley. Airplane!”
- Dwight: “Do you think this is a reference to you boning Jan?” (Performance Review)
- Jim: The way he immediately turns the tables on Dwight in the drug investigation. (Drug Testing)
- Pam: “Finally, I want to thank God, because God gave me this Dundie… and I feel God in this Chili’s tonight.” (The Dundies)
- Ryan: “What am I going to do with my award? Nothing. I don’t know what I’m going to do. That’s the least of my concerns right now.” (The Dundies) In general, I quite like the talking heads where Ryan is really stressed out. Also, I have to show some love to “What line of work you in, Bob?” (Christmas Party)
- Kevin: The way, in the Desert Island game, he can’t contain his amusement thinking about Weekend At Bernie’s and Weekend At Bernie’s 2. (The Fire)
- Angela: The moments where she just cracks, such as her talking head about the Christmas party, and her ornament-stomping rampage. (Christmas Party)
- Phyllis: The way she won’t let Michael off the hook about the fact that they’re the same age. (Sexual Harassment)
- Meredith: Her jaw-dropping come-on to Michael and the way he takes a beat, then takes a photo. God, that was funny. (Christmas Party) Maybe that’s more of a Michael moment, in which case I’d have to nominate “My name is Meredith and I’m an alc– I’m good at supplier relations.” (Boys And Girls)
- Stanley: “This here is a run-out-the-clock situation. Just like upstairs.” (Boys And Girls)
- Kelly: “What about ‘second base’? Like, if Michael said he got to second base with you, does that mean, like, you closed a deal? I mean that’s a baseball term, right?” And then the wink at the camera. I think that was one of the funniest moments of the season. (Boys And Girls)
- Jan: “Please don’t smell me, Michael.” (Performance Review)
- Toby: His grin on the line “Guess I shouldn’t have stopped for dinner.” (Booze Cruise)
- Creed: “Which one is Pam?” (The Secret)
- Oscar: [Referring to Angela’s poster] “I don’t like looking at it. It’s creepy, and in bad taste, and it’s just offensive to me. It makes me think of the horrible, frigid stage mothers who force the babies into it. It’s kitsch, the opposite of art. It destroys art, it destroys souls. This is so much more offensive to me than hardcore porno.” (Conflict Resolution)
- Roy: [Pam’s Valentine’s Day gift] “Let’s get you home, and you are going to get the best sex of your life.” What a perfectly ugh-worthy line. (Valentine’s Day)
- Darryl: “I taught Mike a few phrases to help him with his ‘interracial’ conversations. You know like ‘fleece it out,’ ‘going Mach 5,’ ‘dinkinflicka.’ You know, things us Negroes say.” (Casino Night) I also love him patiently explaining to Michael in this episode why it’s a bad idea to have fire-eaters in a paper warehouse.
I’d always heard that the British version of The Office was hilarious, but I never got around to watching it. When the American one premiered, I heard great things about that too, but I didn’t really make the time for it, basically because I already had enough shows to watch. This was to the mild chagrin of my two closest friends at work, who are big fans and would love to share it with me. Well, now that a member of my family is working on the show, I figure it’s time to catch up so that I can fully enjoy season 4. Towards that end, I’ve bought the DVD sets of the first two seasons (no idea yet what I’m going to do about season 3), and I’ve just finished the first one.
I have to say: I really, really like it. I’m shocked at how different it is from what I think of as a sitcom — no laugh track, very naturalistic acting style, mostly handheld camera. It’s so refreshing, so dark, and so funny. I find it heartening that a show like this can actually be a success on network TV. I also kind of can’t believe for Ryan’s sake that he actually gets to work on a show that’s really good. The odds of getting a job as a TV comedy writer seem long, but the odds of getting a job on a good show seem EXTREMELY long. I’m still kind of stunned.
Anyway, here are a few semi-spoilery notes:
The Buffyverse Watching Project is going on hold for a while.
My sister’s boyfriend is a comedy writer (sequitur coming soon…), or at least he’s been an aspiring comedy writer. He graduated from Harvard and worked on the Lampoon there, so he knows a lot of people in the biz, but has been trying unsuccessfully to break in himself for a couple of years. Then, last month, he learned he’d gotten a job as a writer for The Office! This is super exciting, not only because I’m very happy he’s landed a job, but because it seems to be one of the best things on TV right now. I haven’t been watching it, but (and here comes that sequitur I promised) I’m going to start this fall, so my summer project is to get caught up on the seasons I missed. I have several friends who watch it, and I’m looking forward to being able to participate in their conversations.