Tracing The Office’s rise from midseason also-ran to nine-season behemoth

Tracing The Office’s rise from midseason also-ran to nine-season behemoth

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Greg Daniels had not been given an enviable task for his first foray into the world of live-action sitcoms. The co-creator of King Of The Hill and a former staff writer for a pair of venerated comedic institutions—Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons—Daniels might have been the only man in Hollywood with a résumé spotless enough to adapt what was, in the mid-2000s, the latest inductee to the TV comedy pantheon: The Office. An award-winning hit in its native U.K., Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s mockumentary about corporate drudgery had garnered a cult following after its DVD release in the U.S., marking the series as a shoo-in for an Americanized remake. But it was a tricky proposition: Any attempt at translating the awkward interactions and inappropriate workplace behavior of David Brent and company was bound to endure comparisons to the original article, not to mention echoes of NBC’s aborted attempt to bring Steven Moffat’s Coupling Stateside. So Daniels and his team went to work to counter the kneejerk skepticism, going so far as to clone Gervais and Merchant’s pilot for the U.S. Office’s first episode. But the cringe-comedy alchemy of the original proved difficult to reproduce within the constraints of U.S. broadcast standards and practices; losing nearly half of its viewership between its première and second episode and beset by tepid reviews, The Office was an unlikely candidate for a second-season renewal.

Those first six episodes of The Office work best when viewed as an extended pilot, three hours of a television series finding its legs, vision, and, most importantly, what differentiates the series from its source material. When the show returned in the fall of 2005, its edges were softened: Boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell), was less of a caustic narcissist, supporting characters (many played by members of the writing staff) were progressing beyond their status as faceless drones, and there was a note of hope in the will-they/won’t-they between goofball salesman Jim (John Krasinski) and wallflower receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer). These were exactly the type of sunshiny, tooled-for-American-audiences changes that fans of the British original may have feared, but they did nothing to dilute the show’s sense of humor. In the early years, the employees of Dunder Mifflin could still exasperate and offend one another, but at the end of a tough workday, they’d still gladly meet up for a drink. It was Michael’s “co-workers as family” vision come to life, a begrudging tolerance best exemplified by Jim’s eventual respect for his boss—a slow-growing esteem that no amount of raised-eyebrows-to-camera could undercut. It was also a perspective that the show could sustain for an episode count beyond the original Office’s 12 half-hours and two Christmas specials—200 episodes by the time of its 2013 series final, in fact.

The Office’s longevity brought about a few bum seasons and followed supporting characters down some deeply unsatisfying rabbit holes (Andy Bernard’s rise from short-fused nuisance to surrogate Michael Scott, for starters), but at its peak, the show used its 20-plus episodes per season to mix episodic belly laughs with engaging, long-term storytelling. Jim and Pam’s romance is the prime example of the latter, but when the heat of that storyline subsided, it developed a strange parallel in the relationship between sycophantic wannabe leader Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and office fussbudget Angela (Angela Kinsey). With each passing year, Carell ended up sharing more and more of the spotlight with his co-stars (this in spite of the fact that he found success as a cinematic leading man when The 40-Year-Old Virgin bowed between seasons one and two), but the major arc spanning The Office’s first seven seasons plays like a decades-delayed coming-of-age tale for Michael Scott.

Carell’s pending departure in 2011 restored the earlier verve to a series that had settled into a comfortable groove; his farewell to The Office, “Goodbye, Michael,” should’ve also been The Office’s farewell, but the commercial demands of broadcast TV (and NBC’s dearth of respected, long-running primetime programming in the 2010s) wouldn’t allow for it. Yet even in its old age, the show has served as a cornerstone of NBC’s Thursday night; its ratings diminished, but its 9 p.m. timeslot remained the one sure thing in a programming block that’s become an unpredictable mess after the end of The Office’s equally unassuming partner in sustaining the Must See TV legacy, 30 Rock. These series never delivered the blockbuster ratings of their Thursday-night predecessors (a fact that’s allowed CBS and ABC to horn in on a night The Peacock used to rule with an iron fist), but they did create a safe haven for smart, warm-hearted comedy. The Office’s six-episode, midseason test run even provided a blueprint for the shaky-yet-promising debut season for Parks And Recreation, the product of a team-up between Daniels and Office all-star Michael Schur. Not half bad for a show that once looked doomed to wither in its inspiration’s shadow.

“Diversity Day” (season one, episode two): Working from a template set by the British original—but not reproducing it wholesale—The Office’s second episode goes to work establishing some key facets of the American remake: the rivalry between slacker Jim and model employee Dwight, mixed signals from Pam to Jim, Michael’s bad habit of hijacking other people’s presentations, and the terrifying prospect and comedic promise of the words “conference room.” The boss’ attempt at a workplace sensitivity seminar (“Diversity Tomorrow: Because today is almost over”) goes predictably awry, leading to the climactic slap that ends one of the series’ cruelest gags. Such outward brutality wouldn’t fit with the later conception of Carell’s character (unless it’s directed at Paul Lieberstein’s Toby), but as a representation of Michael’s stubborn insistence on “entertaining” his employees at all costs, it works here.

“The Client” (season two, episode seven): With the threat of downsizing looming over several episodes, it’s fitting that NBC ordered The Office’s second season piecemeal throughout the fall of 2005. That season turned out to be one of the strongest sitcom runs of the ’00s, its original six-episode order filled out by classics like “The Dundies” and “Office Olympics.” “The Client” makes good on the network’s investment, continuing the momentum of the proceeding set of episodes by sending Michael off-campus to land a major client, proving his worth to his boss—and future girlfriend—Jan Levinson (Melora Hardin). But the episode is most noteworthy for the after-hours activities at Dunder Mifflin Scranton, where Jim and Pam uncover Threat Level Midnight, a derivative bit of wish-fulfillment that re-imagines mild-mannered paper man Michael Scott as the super spy Agent Michael Scarn. Working with the limitations of the show’s main set and low-concept premise, “The Client” ekes another second-season classic from what’s basically a filmed table read—albeit one that sets time aside for Jim and Pam’s first “date” on the office-park roof, the sweet scene that launched a thousand ’shippers.

“Booze Cruise” (season two, episode 11): The main hurdle toward putting Jim and Pam together was wrapped around Jenna Fischer’s left ring finger: Like her British Office equivalent, Pam began the series in the middle of an engagement with no wedding date in sight. “Booze Cruise” fixes that right quick, delivering one of the show’s earliest emotional gut punches and forcing John Krasinski’s character to face up to his feelings for the receptionist—which, unfortunately, means confessing those feelings to the one person on staff not equipped to keep a secret: Michael. The Office emerged from “Booze Cruise” imbued with two new sources of tension, jettisoning recurring player Amy Adams in the process (a few weeks shy of her first Academy Award nomination) but gaining the hilarious image of Steve Carell delivering a motivational speech to the pounding rhythms of Sean Paul.

“The Injury” (season two, episode 12): In which the peak of Michael Scott’s insane selfishness is located, thanks to a poorly placed appliance and some strange behavior on the part of Dwight. With a script credited to Mindy Kaling, “The Injury” is one of the The Office’s best-written half-hours, a sort of shaggy-dog story where Michael burns his foot on a George Foreman grill and his petulance overshadows the fact that something is very wrong with Dwight’s brain. The ultimate reveal is a slick piece of writing, but the performances from Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson put “The Injury” over the top. And the loopiness in Wilson’s line readings (“Part of my duties are to…”) betrays its true source only when all other explanations—and ludicrous requests from Michael—have been exhausted.

“Ben Franklin” (season three, episode 14): After nailing down its tone and establishing a healthy balance of pathos and humor in the second season, The Office split in two, adding “the state of New York” to the list of items keeping Jim and Pam apart. In the grand scheme of things, Jim’s seven episodes in Stamford, Connecticut, are a non-starter—his relationship with Karen (Rashida Jones) drives some season-three action, but the arc is mostly one, long, digressive way of introducing Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard. The “two offices” concept works better in micro, illuminating sides of the characters they’d never show to their co-workers or reveal in a talking-head interview—as in this episode, where the men and women of the Scranton Business Park throw midday bachelor and bachelorette parties. Some plot machinations are at play in “Ben Franklin”—primarily the growing fissures between Jim and Pam, necessary for making their season-four coupling truly mean something—but it’s best viewed as a prime example of a certain type of Office episode, one also defined by a perfect Jim prank: hiring a Benjamin Franklin impersonator (future podcast MVP Andy Daly, as always pitching his performance between hammy and creepy) as the stripper for the bachelorette party. 

“Dinner Party” (season four, episode nine): Embracing the sweeter sides of its characters didn’t mean The Office abandoned cringe comedy entirely: Take the funniest episode of the show’s uneven, writers’-strike-shortened fourth season, for example. Under the guidance of director Paul Feig, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky’s script turns into something that’s a little bit Harold Pinter, a little bit Edward Albee, and completely the fiery dissolution of Michael’s relationship with Jan. Carell and Hardin’s barbed portrayal of a dying romance (that was doomed from the start) turns a pet name into a weapon one act in, and the viewer gets to witness the disaster alongside Jim, Pam, Angela, Andy, Dwight, and Dwight’s former babysitter (a well placed Beth Grant). It’s an important step for Michael, a reinforcement of why Jim and Pam are together (the latter also gets a great subplot where she’s worried Jan is trying to poison her), and a reminder that no one should stay with a partner who “relaxes” to a song about taking her former assistant’s virginity.  

“Goodbye, Toby” (season four, episode 14): No occasion at Dunder Mifflin Scranton is too small for an extravagant party, but the departure of Michael’s arch nemesis—human-resources representative Toby Flenderson—calls for a blowout that shakes the office’s squabbling party planning committee to its very foundations. It also requires an additional half-hour, a move that sunk the early parts of the fourth season, but feels right for the amount of action that takes place in “Goodbye, Toby.” The final episode produced during Greg Daniels’ original term as showrunner (he returned to oversee the ninth season), this super-sized installment pays testament to the ensemble show The Office grew into over the course of its first four seasons, planting important seeds for the show’s main characters—Toby’s replacement (played by Amy Ryan) will be a huge factor in Michael’s life; Jim nearly finds the right moment to ask a big question—while serving former background players like the eponymous HR rep well. “Goodbye, Toby” is a season-finale extravaganza that feels deserving of the hullaballoo Michael pays for with money pulled from his shoe.

“Cafe Disco” (season five, episode 25): At the end of a not-particularly-fruitful arc that only made partial use of Idris Elba’s considerable intimidation faculties, the office workers blow off steam in the utility space that housed Michael’s short-lived Dunder Mifflin competitor. (See what we mean by not particularly fruitful?) The scenes in Michael’s Cafe Disco put all of the office workers on an even playing field, an increasingly tricky bit of acrobatics given the expansion of the main cast through additions like Ellie Kemper’s Erin. One of the benefits of growing an ensemble, however, is turning up surprisingly great character combinations, which is exactly what “Cafe Disco” does with a weird little side plot where Dwight bonds with an injured Phyllis.

“Goodbye, Michael” (season seven, episode 21): The episode that should’ve ended The Office didn’t even end the show’s seventh season—but it still makes a fitting cap to Carell’s time on the show. The benefits of the show’s second-season makeover, and the time it was granted to cultivate its relationships truly pays off, as the Michael introduced in the pilot wouldn’t deserve a send-off this warmhearted. His co-workers wouldn’t have wanted to give it to him, either—the least of whom Pam, who plays hooky on what turns out to be Michael’s last day and must race to catch him at the airport. Carell’s final scene with Jenna Fischer is one for the highlight reels, as is his final, un-mic’ed utterance of an Office catchphrase. The character may have evolved over the course of seven seasons, but he still can’t bring himself to turn down a laugh that easy.

“Work Bus” (season nine, episode four): The Office’s final season hasn’t been the return to form fans have hoped for; it has, however, proven to be adept at the art of saying goodbye. Turns out that’s an act that can be wrung for maximum emotional payoff when it’s performed among people who’ve spent much of the last nine years in the same room. After “Work Bus” humorously plays the mob mentality of Dunder Mifflin Scranton against itself, Jim and Dwight talk through the difficulties of moving on—even when the people being left behind are ones they occasionally don’t feel affection for. Regardless of dips in quality undergone by recent seasons of the show, it’ll still be tough to close the door on The Office—an achievement in and of itself.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Basketball” (season one, episode five); “The Dundies” (season two, episode one) “Office Olympics” (season two, episode three); “Christmas Party” (season two, episode 10); “Traveling Salesmen” (season three, episode 12) “Did I Stutter?” (season four, episode 12); “Frame Toby” (season five, episode eight); “Niagara” (season six, episode four/five); “Scott’s Tots” (season six, episode 12); “Michael’s Last Dundies” (season seven, episode 20)

Availability: The first eight seasons of the series are available on DVD and are streaming on Netflix; seasons five and later are available on Blu-ray.

Next time: Will Harris presents 10 individual arguments for why The Middle is one of TV’s best ongoing comedies—even if preconceived notions about a family sitcom on ABC or about Patricia Heaton’s politics say otherwise.

More TV Club 10