Sunday, September 16, 2012

Goodbye, The Office

Blog Note: It’s been hard tracking down a copy of The Electric Horseman since it’s no longer available on Netflix Instant. The Pollack Retrospective will return shortly once I’ve corralled a copy of the film and can continue on. For the three of you reading it, I haven’t given up on it.

When NBC decided to finally pull the plug on The Office and make this upcoming season its final one, I knew I wanted to do some kind of retrospective on the show. However – as you can no doubt tell with all of these blog “projects” I “do” – I don’t really have the time to go through and do a retrospective proper, so I figure I would fall back on the simple list. Since there are a lot of great episodes of The Office, I figured a top 50 would suffice. So, when the new (and final) season starts up on September 20, I will post an episode per week until the series’ final episode. Look for selections 50-25 to be grouped into one post and then I’ll post each subsequent selection in conjunction with the airdate of the new episodes from the final season.  More thoughts on the series after the jump…

Consider this a semi-introduction to this retrospective: I came to the show late (season three) because I was one of those guys; you know the guy, that guy – the guy that proclaims they’ll never watch the show because “it could never be as good as the original British show.” Yeah, I love love love Gervais and Merchant’s show, but I have found myself returning to the Greg Daniels, U.S. version over the years. It just holds up better as a true sitcom with a re-watchability factor through the roof where the British series is something much harsher and colder (naturally) and cynical, and therefore it’s something I admire greatly, but more critically and from a distance. What Greg Daniels and ace writers like Michael Schur (who was a major reason I warmed to the show and is the primary reason why Parks and Recreation is the best show, comedic or dramatic, on television) and Mindy Kaling (whose pilot I really enjoyed, actually) and others were able to do with the ragtag group of dorks from Scranton, PA is nothing short of amazing: they made a live-action, sitcom version of The Simpsons.

I know this comparison has been made before (and is also, perhaps even more so, apt for Parks and Recreation) – and the Homer Simpson doll that pops up in every episode is a nice reminder of Daniels’ roots and what the show would ultimately become – but I love that The Office was able to create its own world a la Springfield, filled with all kinds of idiosyncratic characters that, when they pop up, often elicit bigger laughs than any of the major characters. When the show began in 2005 it struggled to interest me because it was essentially an American remake – style for style, joke for joke at times – of the British cult hit. However, the casting of Steve Carrel was totally wrong as a Ricky Gervais clone since the former is more likeable than the latter. Michael Scott was not fun to watch fake-fire employees whereas David Brent fake-firing people and making inappropriate jokes was great because the guy was sleazy through and through and Gervais so effortlessly exuded that kind of sleaze and was more in line with his comic style. Carrel does not – and cannot – project that kind of dickishness; he projects a likeable quality that Gervais cannot play (although he gave it the ‘ol college try in The Invention of Lying during its “softer” moments), and it was weird and off-putting to watch that likeable guy from The Daily Show and Anchorman be such a jerk. So, there was nothing really there to interest me from the onset considering the storylines from the first season where just copies of the story arcs from the Gervais/Merchant version and its main character was almost completely unwatchable due to the miscasting.

However, like most good television shows, The Office really found its own voice and style, and, most importantly, its own version of Michael Scott, during its subsequent seasons. Daniels and the other writers admitted that it really helped them figure out how to write Michael Scott for Carell after seeing his great performance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Once they figured out that Michael Scott was not David Brent, the American version of The Office began to not just be hilarious, but it also became one of the sweetest shows on television.

Daniels and his crew have mastered – arguably better than anyone in sitcom history – the balance of sweetness and comedy. Even though I don’t think The Office is as good at this balance as Parks and Recreation, it’s pretty amazing that Daniels and his crew – most notably Carell and how he played Michael in seasons 3-5 – were able to take an idea for a show rooted in cynicism and characters that abhor their boss and has an aesthetic that underlines the mundane and monotony and turn that kind of show into something that regularly elicited genuinely sweet moments. Okay, so here’s what I’m getting at: since I came into the show at season three, you’re going to see a lot of episodes on this list from season three, four, and five. Those are the three years that I think the show was at its peak. It’s in those three seasons that The Office had its best story arcs, had its most hilarious moments, and had its greatest moments dramatically.

I have more to say about the show and its evolution from pretty meh adaptation of a brilliant show to one of the greatest American sitcoms ever made. Yes, even the awful season six or the Sabre story arc, or the completely forgettable season eight aren’t enough to deter me from using such superlatives: The Office is one of the greatest shows ever produced for American television. I’ve found myself these past four years becoming totally convinced of this, and the show’s great run from 2006-2009 is what did the bulk of the convincing. So yes, I have more to say but will allow myself the space within my picks for the best episodes to say those things. For now, I will just say that I’m really looking forward to the show’s final season. It’s never found its tone post-Carell, but I think Greg Daniels returning to run things is a major step in the right direction for giving this wacky group of characters from Scranton the ending they deserve.

Picks 50-25 will appear Tuesday and pick 24 will appear on Thursday in conjunction with the season nine premier. One pick will appear every Thursday after that until the final episode of the season/series. The reviews will be more compartmentalized than free-flowing reviews/remembrances. In fact, thanks to one of my blogging heroes Tim Brayton, I would like to do something similar format-wise to what he’s been doing for his James Bond retrospective. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve borrowed an idea from Tim, and he’s always been more than amicable about my blatant cribbing. The only difference being where Tim is scoring each of his designated sections for the Bond films, I will simply use the sections I’ve come up with to give each review a uniform look that will hopeful rein-in my ramblings. So, here’s to him understanding yet again, Thanks in advance, Tim. Here’s how the format will look:

Pre-Title Sequence
Act 1
Act 2
Act 3
Favorite Joke
Favorite Moment
Favorite Michael Scott Line
Favorite Non-Michael Scott Line
Favorite “Aw, shucks” Moment
Favorite Talking Head
Favorite Conference Room Joke
Final Thoughts

This should be fun. Be back Tuesday.


  1. Dude, you haven't even started this and you're already wildly, terribly wrong. Seasons 2 and 3 are the height of THE OFFICE, followed by, yes, a different kind of balance in Seasons 4 and 5. But it was early in Season 6 that the show ran off the rails. And any moments of brilliance it has had since then -- and it's had them, but only moments -- have simply been because they revive something from the spirit of Seasons 2 and 3, or 4 and 5.

    Now, I realize you came to the show late and with a fondness for the Gervais version, so that explains your attachment. Fair enough. (I came late to the show, but watched it sequentially, and having not seen the Gervais original.) I think the problem here is that you see early Michael as a weak version of Gervais: "Carrel does not – and cannot – project that kind of dickishness." Which is true, sort of. But from the beginning Michael was different: he isn't a dick ... he's the most unselfaware person in history, which is why one of the series' all time best jokes is when Michael is hiding behind the door of his own office from Andy and turns to the camera and asks how someone can be so void of self-awareness.

    The first two seasons also are strong with the Jim and Pam storyline, which is especially charming then not because we're rooting for them to get together but because they're so believably 'normal' and plain, and their pain and isolation is so palpable. THE OFFICE has never matched that, except VERY late in the Michael Scott arc, when it rallied with the Holly relationship that it had bungled earlier.

    So, like I said, you're wrong. Already. But go ahead and just write your silly posts anyway so I can underline just how wrong you are. :)

    Seriously, very much looking forward to this. I'll be reading!

  2. Thanks, Jason. But because you’re disagreeing with me, you’re banned! Seriously, though, here’s what I’m getting at with my little intro: I wanted to just get it out there that I wasn’t a fan of the show at first, and that I’ve always had a soft spot for seasons 3-5 even though I am well aware that a lot of fans of the show consider season 2 the best season. I’ll tackle the other points you make character by character:

    Michael: Yes, his evolution is definitely more than just going from being a dick to being a likeable guy. One of the things you will read a lot in this little retrospective is that his level of awareness to how the office responds to him – both in admiration and disgust – is one of the best things the show did with the character. You’re right, it’s his self-awareness that he’s being a dick that allows him not to be a dick, and that’s the key difference between the Michael of season 1/beginning of season 2 to the Michael everyone in the office grew to love. I think it was Sepinwall that pointed out the difference between Michael fake-firing Pam in season one versus fake-firing Erin in season five, and how it’s easy to see that difference thanks to the job the writers (and Carell) did with evolving the Michael character and making him more likeable and self-aware.

    I just watched the episode last night “Ultimatum,” and it’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about: Michael thinks he has something to celebrate because Holly isn’t wearing an engagement ring, when he realizes she’s still with AJ he does the pouting, mopey Michael thing, he then offends Holly in the conference room by taking it out on Creed and Kevin, and then he apologizes to Holly by masking it as an apology to Creed and Kevin. The sequence of that episode is a perfect example of that self-awareness.

    I think the other thing that’s interesting about the Michael Scott character – and this kind of falls in-line with my SIMPSONS comparison, is that every writer has their favorite version of Michael, just like every writer on THE SIMPSONS has their favorite version of Homer. Whether it was self-aware Homer, dog-version Homer (Swartzwelder’s favorite, which was that Homer is essentially a giant dog), or jerk ass-Homer, it seemed that almost every season we got a handful of episodes of each version of Homer. The same can be said of THE OFFICE and the different types of Michael. He’s the guy that really wants this office to be his family so badly that he often does things to come off as aloof or a jerk ass, or sometimes he’s aware of the wrong he’s done and fixes it (like in the example of “Ultimatum” or like when they kidnap in the pizza boy in “Launch Party”). And other times (like in “The Deposition”) he just can’t resist a good “that’s what she said joke,” but he can also read between the lines (Jan bringing his diary, David Wallace calling him a nice guy) in his own clumsy and sometimes misguided way.

    I have more to say about Michael, but I’ll save those moments for the retrospective. I’ll just end with this: I love Michael most when he so badly wants the office to be his family and to feel some kind of connection to his co-workers. I know I’m just as big softy in that regard, but to me, that was the best thing Daniels and company did with this show. More on that in my next comment. I’m running out of room.

  3. Part 2:

    Okay, so let me address the other part of your comment.

    Jim and Pam:

    I may be in the minority on this one, but Jim and Pam were never all that interesting together. Allow me to clarify here: believe me, I’m glad the writers were smart not to drag that “will they/won’t they” thing out later than they did. Just because characters get together doesn’t mean they have to cease being interesting or that the banter and tension needs to disappear. However, the best part of Jim and Pam for me has always been their relationship with their office. Don’t get me wrong, I love “Casino Night” and I think “Niagra” (especially that ending) is one of the great romantic television episodes of all time; however, they often get on my nerves in the later seasons. Okay, let me backtrack though. The Jim and Pam I love is the Jim and Pam from “Office Olympics” or when Pam says things like “I forgot I have to support him now no matter what” when Jim tries to do away with individual birthday parties in “Survivor Man.” For me, Pam is at her most interesting in her relationships with Dwight and Michael. One of the best parts about Michael’s final episode was his need to know where Pam was so that he could say goodbye. A lot of what made the new Michael work was Pam and how she went from detached observer to invested employee who tried to keep Michael from completely going off the tracks. The same thing happened with her “friendship” to Dwight. Whether it was being his secret number two when he took over the office briefly, or whether it was her trying so hard to comfort him when Angela left him for Andy (I loved the whole Schrute Farms B and B thing, especially considering it had a healthy dose of Mose). That’s the Pam I liked, and I don’t think the Michael Scott character works nearly as well without Pam and the way Jenna Fischer decided to portray her during the series’ peak seasons.

    In regards to Jim, I love the pranks when it’s something silly like a stapler in Jell-o or sticking Andy’s cell phone in the ceiling (which led to a hilarious but not-so-harmless conclusion), but when he got to the point where he was just wasting time and being a lazy jerk, I didn’t really care for it. This may be because I’ve never worked in an office, so the idea of killing time before your day is over is very foreign to me, but I always felt like it was the wrong kind of tone when Jim and Pam would seem “better” than others in the office and would try to find ways to not be a part of that community. But that’s a nitpick, and I don’t even think that’s what you’re getting at, so let me get back on track here: Jim is at his best when he realizes that, yes, this IS his job and he has to acquiesce to the idea that he is becoming, in a sense, Michael Scott. The best thing the show did with Jim was give him more responsibility in the office so that he legitimately had to struggle between being “the boss” and being “old prankster Jim.” Also, I loved it when we got to see him fail (it seemed like in the second season he was always getting the better of Dwight) like in the “Survivor Man” episode (more on that later in this retrospective) or in the later season 7 episode “Classy Christmas” where Dwight took him down a few pegs for being a jerk about the whole snowball thing, or the whole Charles Minor story arc (that was some of the best acting Krasinski did in the show, by the way).

  4. Part 3:

    So, I think I like Jim and Pam together at times, but to me they’re most interesting in their relationships with Michael. Jim and Pam border on smug at times, but they’re at their best when they’re, like you said, just acting so normal that their isolation, pain, or, as is the case in later years, their love is palpable. Yes, part of the charm is that Scranton is a horrible place and they show their disillusionment with being there. But as any show grows, so do the characters, and I love it that Jim came alive when he moved to Stamford and the subsequent responsibilities that came from having that job. I loved his relationship with Karen (mostly because I absolutely love Rashida Jones). And I loved that when he finally asked Pam out on a date, he was a different Jim. He wasn’t the detached, too-cool-for-school guy (even though there were still shades of that in the Halloween episodes, for example), he became the dork that cuts off his tie in the wedding episode or wears a tuxedo to work because Dwight sends out a memo about dress code. But he also became someone that actually started caring for his job, so it made it funnier when he did pranks and messed with Andy and Dwight in later years because instead of just annoying him, it was now affecting how he did his job, which he actually cares about now. So the evolution of Jim and Pam (and I’ll track this in the retrospective, as well) is just as important to the show’s successes as Michael’s evolution.

    This comment has actually devolved into what I fear is nothing more than incoherent blabbing, so I’ll just wrap-up with this: My pick for my favorite episode will be easy to figure out if you look at the clues. I appreciate most the episodes where Michael so badly wants the office to be a family, I love episodes where the supporting characters get a chance to shine and play off of the main stars, and I love episodes where Jim and Pam are dorky together and realize just how much they love this wacky group of people they work with. All of the other stuff makes for good, sometime even great, television, but those are the types of episodes that stand out the most to me.

    More thoughts coming as this thing chugs along. Thanks, Jason, and I’m sorry this comment turned into a novel.

  5. No apologies. This is great. Let's hold the rest of the discussion for when the other pieces publish. But a few quick thoughts ...

    * I like that idea of the different versions of Michael, as in the different versions of Homer.

    * To me, the thing to remember about Michael is this: He hates to work, but the best part of his day is going into work. For the rest of us, the ideal is flipped: we hope to love our work, but we also hope that the best part of our day is going home. Indeed, they're always family to Michael, and I agree that it's touching that Jim and Pam realize how much he (and Dwight and others) needs to be needed and appreciated -- something that they demonstrate all the way back in Season 2.

    * I'm glad they didn't drag out Jim and Pam, but once those two were together, the writers failed them. They became lost characters, for the most part, with the exception being Pam's role in the Michael Scott Paper Company and Jim's growing respect for the hardships of management. Beyond that, the writers moved on to Andy and whomever and Dwight and whomever, as if even they thought that the only depth to Jim and Pam was whether they'd get together. But what I'm drawn to, again, is the palpable loneliness that you feel when they're not together, which is what makes their love so charming. But more on that later, I'm sure.

    I'm interested to see your pick for best episode. The one that's coming to mind ... well, let's just say I'm hoping that isn't it.

    1. Yeah, I think we're on the same page about a lot of this stuff. The later seasons are just on my mind right now because that's what I've been watching lately. You're absolutely right that, aside from "Niagra," the writers didn't know what to do with Jim and Pam once they were together. On top of that, as you mention, their remedy for that problem seemed to be so short sighted to the point that I can imagine the writers room conversation:

      "Crap, we don't have any tension between Jim and Pam now."
      "Let's get Dwight and Angela and Andy in a love triangle!"

      "Crap, the love triangle has been resolved. What do we do now?"
      "Let's bring in another receptionist and recreate Jim and Pam with Erin and Andy!"

      Here's the main problem: I cannot stand Erin. It's nothing against Ellie Kemper, who I think is good actress (but she only gets to show this briefly in her protection of Michael from Holly or her "safe place" moment when she goes to lunch in "Secretary's Day"), it's just that her character adds nothing to the show other than a character we can laugh at because she's so dumb. Dwight and Andy are funny because they're aloof, not because they're dumb. Erin is just written as a dumb character. I hate that.

      Anyway. Yes, there will be more conversation. I hope other people chime in as well because I know that amongst my circle of friends, we often disagree on what the best episodes are.