“The Return” (season three, episode 14; originally aired 1/18/2007)
In which “I don’t understand how someone could have so little self-awareness”…
In the process of ’shipping eight-year-old TV arcs last week, I think I wound up over-emphasizing the negative, “shouldn’t be together”s of The Office’s third season. Dwight and Angela aren’t the only perfect couple having their story told in the season’s second half: In the background, the Jim-and-Pam story continues to play out, but there’s also Michael and Dwight. If we’re going to talk about the OTPs of the American Office, the latter is important to the conversation. (This also gives lends some pleasant symmetry to my perspective on season three: While we’re watching three partnerships flame out, there are three others demonstrating why they’re proper fits.)
“The Return” could tip the scales in favor of the show’s cynical side, however: In the process of showing that it’s really Dwight who “completes” Michael, the show has to grind Andy into wall-punching, rejected-by-Michael dust. That’s fine by me, because the cat-and-mouse game Michael and Andy play in “The Return” is a fine example of the American Office’s balance of humor and heart. It’s all in Michael’s definitive explanation of the differences between Dwight and Andy: “I don’t want somebody sucking up to me because they think I can help their career. I want somebody sucking up to me because they love me.” Michael and Andy don’t make sense: Andy’s a lot like Dwight, but he’s too much like Michael, to the point where the boss gets a taste of his own medicine in “The Return.” During the workday depicted in this episode, he’s a constant distraction, showing off his new ringtone, laying out his Wednesday-night plans (“Get my beer on, get my Lost on”), and shadowing Michael so closely that he won’t even let the guy go to the bathroom in peace. It’s smothering, it’s obnoxious (and Ed Helms is truly leaning into the obnoxiousness of Andy’s tics here), and it’s what Michael does every other workday of the year.
Dwight is also an aggressive personality (just like Phyllis, as explained in one of the driest, funniest talking heads of the season), but he’s selfless. He maintains three separate résumés and hovers over his customers at Staples, but he also performed crucial tasks around the office that only The Documentarians could see. “The Return” contains a lot of smart, expertly deployed displays of how no deed goes unnoticed in this world, big stuff (Dwight driving to New York to help Angela) and little stuff (Dwight watering the plants and arranging Michael’s toys) alike. In this respect, there’s some overlap between our world and The Office’s world, too, because even if The Documentarians didn’t follow Michael to Staples, the store’s security cameras—displayed in bookending shots—would’ve captured his apology. It’s a neat gesture, showing that all actions receive some sort of recognition, even if the people performing those actions would rather we not go out of the way to throw them an ethnically insensitive party for their troubles.
That’s exactly what’s going on with Oscar here, as his requests for no special treatment and desire to blend back into the background of the office are granted by an episode called “The Return” that is barely about his return at all. Blind to the “WELCOME BACK OSCAR” banner, Dwight assumes he’s the guest of honor at the party; in teaming up with Pam to drive Andy over the edge, this is also Jim’s belated, unofficial Scranton homecoming. This isn’t Jim and Pam’s year, but they look just right in their matching sombreros at the end of the episode, yet another bad omen for Jim and Karen’s relationship. While “The Return” is a display of all the ways Michael and Andy don’t work together, the big cellphone prank shows the flawlessly calibrated rhythms between Jim and Pam. Appropriate to their story, which has to play out in the background this season, there’s a stealthy, heist-movie vibe to the way Greg Daniels (who directed both “Traveling Salesmen” and “The Return”) photographs the theft of Andy’s phone and its delivery to the drop ceiling. It’s the perfect crime, executed by two partners who have more than one last job left in them.
The outcome of the prank is portrayed in three perfect beats, the barely masked delight on the faces of John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer juxtaposed with the mounting rage embodied by Ed Helms. These scenes are not alone in that quality: There’s some clever juxtaposition in “The Return”’s voiceovers, with Dwight and Michael each delivering monologues from unexpected places. That parallel underlines just how structurally sound this episode is, at least in the cut available on the season-three DVD set, where “Traveling Salesman” transitions directly into “The Return” and Dwight’s job hunt. Some of the storylines—Oscar’s in particular—get short shrift in this abridged form, but I think it makes for a tighter, funnier episode. And it’s not like Oscar to want anyone to make a fuss over him.
Besides, Michael and Dwight are the crux of “The Return”, and they factor into one of Daniels’ smartest behind-the-camera decisions. As their characters reconcile in the un-romantic fluorescent lighting of a Staples, Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson are separated by a palette of copy paper. They’re surrounded by pops of primary colors, but it’s all just paper. Paper got in the way of their friendship and their working relationship, but it’s just a stupid commodity, bought and sold and barely thought about—unless you’re Dwight Schrute. (Prior to the big confrontation, Dwight is overheard telling a customer “That question is meaningless. Go with the copy paper—it’s your funeral. See how that works out for you.”) The scenery then falls away, and the apology takes place in alternating close ups—between men who are, at this point, not co-workers. In that moment, they’re more than a former boss and his former assistant to the regional manager. They’re two people who know each other in ways no one else does, coming to an understanding. This is a crucial moment in their story, and it’s executed wonderfully.
- Looking back at these episodes in 2014, when we’re closer to the end of The Office than we are to “The Return,” it’s easy to forget that Andy did start out as horrible as he would be in the show’s final season. Anger management and further integration to the regular ensemble would even those attributes out, but they would be exaggerated by the time he was promoted to a more prominent position in the company. And by that point, the whole “personality mirroring” thing came to bite the show in the ass, as a character who’d started out as a cipher showed an inconsistent face from week to week—something he shared with Michael Scott, minus the affection in Steve Carell’s performance.
- The extreme winter weather is factor in both cuts of “The Return,” but it plays a much bigger role in the longer version. I like it as a thematic presence in the DVD cut (storm’s bearing down, and Dunder Mifflin is without the one person who’s most versed in storm preparedness, Dwight), but the version available on Netflix has the liberty of explaining exactly why Michael’s hair is such a mess when he gets to Staples. To prove Dwight wrong about the Sebring’s appropriateness for the Pennsylvania climate, he drove into work with the top down.
- Nice wardrobe touch: Dwight’s ill-fitting, embroidered Battlestar Galactica sweatshirt.
- We’ve seen Angela angry-crying before, but we’ve never seen her as sad as she is at the beginning of “The Return.” It’s jarring, but it adds extra laughs to her whole “certain situations and certain accountants” spiel.
- Yvette Nicole Brown shows up as Dwight’s co-worker at Staples, displaying future shades of Shirley Bennett: “I don’t like him, his giant head, or his beady little eyes. That’s all I got to say on the matter.”
- Dwight continues to make his absence felt when Karen tries to reach the clients she’s inherited from him: “Each file is password protected with a different mythical creature.”
“Ben Franklin” (season three, episode 15; originally aired 2/1/2007)
In which Ben Franklin turns out to be kind of a creep…
The romantic-comedy elements sprinkled throughout The Office’s run make the show an easy fit for “battle of the sexes”-type humor. “Ben Franklin” is one of two such episodes in the latter half of season three (the other being “Women’s Appreciation”), half-hours that don’t indulge Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus/Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man-type dichotomies as much as they seek to upend those philosophies. Separating the cast by gender allows these characters to indulge the worst qualities of their worldviews (Michael can’t stop laughing in the sex shop; Angela shudders at having anything in common with a stripper)—pushing the show toward the maximum potential for discomfort. This Office continues to shake off the traits of its inspiration, but “Ben Franklin” packs plenty of squirmy laughs. Pam sums it up when Elizabeth (Jackie Debatin) says she’d get “so fat” if she worked at Dunder Mifflin rather than stripping: “Yeah? I lose my appetite all the time.”
The episode takes a clever dig at the objectification at play on either side of the Phyllis’ bachelorette party/Bob’s bachelor party divide, as no one at Dunder Mifflin sees Elizabeth or Ben Franklin (a.k.a. Gordon a.k.a. TV’s Andy Daly) as a fellow human being. With each booked for three-hours of work, they become additional cogs in the paper-selling machine—though that just amounts to having a pair of zanier presences milling around the main set for the last 11 minutes of “Ben Franklin.” But Debatin, Daly, and fellow guest David Koechner go even further in their appearances here: They provide context and contrast to the regular’s inappropriate behavior. Todd Packer would disappear for years following this episode, so Koechner makes the appearance count—because if it weren’t for The Pac-Man’s noxious influence, Michael wouldn’t have even thought to hire a stripper. He only takes the path leading to the world’s most uncomfortable lap dance because he wants so badly to be “one of the guys.”
But the Ben Franklin impersonator demonstrates that being one of they guys isn’t necessarily something to aspire to. Gordon has the smiley exterior of a “scholastic speaker”—the type of cheap entertainment hired for an elementary- or middle-school assembly—and the twisted, wretched soul of a classic Andy Daly character. This isn’t the proper venue for the “full Daly,” so to speak: Thursday nights on NBC are no place for the depraved fantasies of Don Dimelo or even the tamer misadventures of Forrest MacNeil. But once Gordon catches wind of the unique nature of his booking in “Ben Franklin,” his non-presidential grin turns up at the corners and he gives Pam a blood-curdling wink. It’s a matter of proving everyone’s assumptions incorrect—of the two performers hired for the parties, turns out it’s the stripper who has the heart of gold—but watching Gordon’s awfulness seep forth is one of the great pleasures of “Ben Franklin.” To see him thwart Dwight’s attempts at proving Gordon is another type of fraud— “I don’t care what Jim says—that is not the real Ben Franklin”—is just gravy.
“Ben Franklin” is a Mindy Kaling script; as a writer during The Office’s first three seasons, Kaling excelled at episodes where the employees of Dunder Mifflin display their insanity in the presence of strangers. In one case, “Take Your Daughter To Work Day,” those strangers are children; in “The Dundies”, it’s the entire clientele of a Scranton-area Chili’s. In evidence during all of these episodes is an interest in these characters and how they got the way they are—how they’re warped by the insular nature of Dunder Mifflin, how time spent together under one roof makes them a de facto family. The best service a guest character can provide is the reminder of why these characters are funny and engaging in the first place.
Though she appears in nearly every episode of season three, Karen Filippelli is as much of an outsider as Gordon or Elizabeth. And staring with “Ben Franklin,” she’s totally alone in that “familiar stranger” role: With Andy off at anger management, she is the last Stamford transfer standing, and she’s just received the news that her boyfriend still has feelings for the receptionist. Rashida Jones’ Office role is a bum assignment: Jones and the writers invested Karen with a lot of life, but she’s ultimately an obstacle to a blissful romantic pairing eagerly anticipated by the show’s viewership. This is another place where Kaling’s individual strengths and interests presumably helped “Ben Franklin,” as the future creator of a rom-com-obsessed sitcom ratchets the tension of season three’s big love triangle without sending Pam and Karen to war over Jim. Instead, the conflict is filtered through two Office favorites: Clumsy speech and vertical blinds.
There’s some masterful juggling of true feelings and polite fronts in Pam and Karen’s “I was confused by your phrasing” exchange, a private conversation photographed through the windows in the doors that lead from the office to the kitchen to the annex. The scene is another example of outsiders peering in on Dunder Mifflin: Like many private conversations on The Office, this one is set up as a stolen moment captured by The Documentarians thanks to long zoom lenses and the partial cover of the blinds—but the moment isn’t as happy as others. It’s no wonder this place makes Pam lose her appetite so often: You can’t even go to the fridge without someone else happening upon your secrets. To paraphrase that bit of advice that Michael receives from Elizabeth, secrets are no fun—in fact, they might end up hurting someone.
- I alluded to it above, but if you enjoy Andy Daly’s performance in “Ben Franklin,” then I highly recommend that you check out Comedy Central’s Review. The show had one of the funniest first seasons for a TV comedy in a long, long time, and the whole thing’s available on Hulu Plus and Amazon.
- Until next time, here’s some important biographical information about Benjamin Franklin, courtesy of Rainn Wilson and Andy Daly: