The Office (Classic): “Women’s Appreciation”/“Beach Games”
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The Office (Classic): “Women’s Appreciation”/“Beach Games”

TMI

“Women’s Appreciation” (season three, episode 22; originally aired 5/3/2007)

In which Michael appreciates women, and women appreciate Michael. (Jan excluded.)…

This episode of The Office premiered more than seven years ago, but it could’ve been a product of the cultural conversation in 2014: “Women’s Appreciation” is essentially Dunder Mifflin’s “yes all women” moment. When Phyllis is flashed in the parking lot of the Scranton Business Park, most of her co-workers take the incident extremely seriously. Most offer quiet reassurance. Dwight goes on a mad search for the perpetrator, scrambling into a parking lot that now only harbors cars. (Later, it harbors invisible foes to be flushed out with the improvised stake from “Business School.”) Andy offers to… check the web. (Probably a good idea: Lots of pervs to be found on the Internet.) But only Michael mistakes the episode’s setup for a punchline—and later an excuse to hijack something horrible that happened to Phyllis, making it all about him instead. If it was made nearly a decade later, “Women’s Appreciation” might have been titled “Not All Michaels.”

The episode already focuses enough of its attention on the boss as is. It’d be just as accurately described as “Michael Appreciation,” a half-hour of The Office that works hard to expose some of Michael Scott’s most outrageous hypocrisies and detonate his relationship with Jan. The former is a long-running story the show threaded out for another four years; the latter marks the winding down of a major season-three theme. I’ve been harping on for weeks about the “bad match” motif in these episodes, totally forgetting that Pam, in the middle of the Steamtown summit between Michael and the women of the office, straight up says “It sounds like you’re just wrong for each other.” The quick pan to Karen confirms any suspicion that Pam is talking about other couples in addition to Michael and Jan, which ties into a pattern of characters saying more than they meant to in “Women’s Appreciation.” That applies to nearly all of Michael’s dialogue here, but it’s an aspect of the episode that, once again, is overtly stated by Pam. In a “What if?” talking head about the flasher, Pam begins talking about Phyllis’ traumatic experience, then pivots to Roy, then winds up discussing Jim’s anatomy. The kicker: “Hoo—I am saying a lot of things.”

An act break stops Pam from going any further, but not everyone is so lucky. “Women’s Appreciation” is definitely a TMI installment of The Office, where the big laughs and the most potent emotional material all come from the people onscreen divulging more than the people at home would. This is Michael’s specialty, as evidenced by his attempts to get on top of the flasher situation (that’s what he would’ve said “That’s what she said” about), but he needs a little help to find the truth amid all of his blurting. The Todd Packer side of the character is in control when he chooses the absolute worst moment to pull the old “Pointer finger in an open fly” routine; the real Michael, the one buried under all of the sexist jokes and the macho posturing, is the one who slips “I’m unhappy when I’m with her” into an otherwise superficial list of pros and cons about his and Jan’s relationship. Steve Carell looks and sounds like nothing but honesty during Michael’s food-court epiphany: It’s not exactly a breakthrough, but it moves him toward living in the real world, one where Jan’s predilections and unrealistic beauty standards don’t set his expectations for a relationship.

But both worlds are tough places to live, which gets at the root of what the men of Dunder Mifflin discover while living out Kevin’s “every guy’s fantasy.” Adorned with comfortable places to sit, magazines, and potpourri, the women’s restroom at Dunder Mifflin is set up as a little refuge from the everyday rottenness of Dunder Mifflin. Michael, in his ignorant way, expects that his female employees need to go offsite to feel safe and welcome; the truth is, they can feel that way in a place closer by, one in which Michael isn’t welcome. (At least not without paying for the privilege, like Creed.) In the episode where everyone says too much, within a series that sometimes gives too much away in talking-head confessionals and silent asides to the camera, here’s a cleverly unspoken observation of the Women’s Appreciation Day that Michael unwittingly hosts everyday. This one’s more effective because he doesn’t have an active hand in it.

This is an observation I think I’ve made about other episodes, but “Women’s Appreciation” strikes me as an episode that was staged at exactly the right time in The Office’s run. It goes beyond the fact that it serves as an excellent complement and rejoinder to “Ben Franklin”—even in the fourth season, there would’ve been too much overarching plot mucking about to give the Steamtown scenes any impact. The leads have the big problems, but the supporting characters have been fleshed out enough to offer unique perspectives on those problems; that characterization has yet to get jumbled up in romantic entanglements and professional exploits. What’s already known about Phyllis, Karen, Angela, Kelly, and Meredith allows the characters to get in some choice jokes, but they’re also at a point at which they can sit down with Pam and Michael and have a conversation. Not just as women, but as people, too. Eventually, Michael will start listening to them that way, too.

Stray observations:

  • Pam rendering a glasses-less, mustachioed Dwight as the flasher is another example of “Women’s Appreciation” telling its jokes at the expense of people butting in where they don’t belong. The topper, naturally, involves Dwight discovering the truth in a place where he shouldn’t be.
  • Angela’s quest for clothes that actually fit goes to ludicrous places, but “clothes for large colonial dolls” is such a specific, wonderful turn of phrase that I can’t fault “Women’s Appreciation” for veering into the absurd.
  • Dwight knows what you’re thinking about his very sensible proposal to install flood lights in the parking lot: “Won’t that just shed more light on the penises?”

“Beach Games” (season three, episode 23; originally aired 5/10/2007)

In which Michael seeks someone with the leadership qualities of a Bynes or a Hope

It’s easy to understate—because of what the show ultimately became and how little these aspects would define that show—but The Office is formally a reality show. It’s of the type that’s since been euphemized as an “unscripted series” or a “docudrama,” but when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original Office debuted at the turn of the 21st century, it was recognizably a product of a reality-TV age. As such, it’s always mystified me that a wider American audience didn’t catch on to this version of The Office sooner. Stateside, Survivor was a hit from the word “Go”; what is The Office’s third season if not an iteration of Survivor in which the castaways can go home every night, one in which the various acts of betrayal, fabrication, and sabotage are more explicitly manipulated by the people behind the cameras?

“Beach Games” advances that concept, beginning as the most boring episode of Survivor in franchise history—before introducing the real stakes and legitimate tension that make Dunder Mifflin’s potentially lucrative day at the beach more than just an “Office Olympics” clone. During the egg race and the lead-up to the hot-dog eating contest, it’s tempting to draw those comparisons. In “Office Olympics,” the games are beside the point: They’re meaningless distractions from a job that’s more meaningless, and that’s part of the episode’s charm. Presented as an impediment to a good time, the competitions of “Beach Game” don’t get taken seriously—frustrating to both Michael and the viewer, because only we know what the team captains are truly competing for.

And then, a glorious turn in the script from Jennifer Celotta and Greg Daniels: Michael’s patience gives way, and he drops the Joe Millionaire subterfuge from his Survivor riff in order to earn the investment of Jim, Dwight, Andy, Stanley, and their teammates. (Given the themes of the last episode, it seems a waste that Karen isn’t in contention, but that would’ve required… some commitments The Office wasn’t prepared to make.) The energy of the hot-dog eating contest enlivens the remainder of the episode, with each subsequent passage going bigger and better than the last. It takes a while to get there, but “Beach Games” eventually emulates the thrilling gamesmanship of its inspiration.

Given his love of alliances (a Survivor shoutout from prior in The Office), we would expect Dwight to be the most at home with the lakeside gauntlet. However, it’s Michael who relishes his role to the greatest extremes, looking positively Jeff Probstian in the light of the tiki torches—and sounding a little like Probst in his addresses to the staff and to the cameras. “Beach Games” not only reframes portions of season three as landlocked Survivor installments, but it also sheds light on the way Michael presents himself as a manager and self-styled entertainer. Amid all of these identities he’s trying to sell to the outside world, there’s a man serving simultaneously as the leader of the office and the host of the show about that office. That presentational air he takes on each and every time he speaks in front of a large group of people—there’s some Bob Hope in that persona, but there are bits of Probst and other emcees of a more contemporary vintage.

Which brings us to Pam and her role in the second half of what’s a very much a Pam-and-Michael double feature. She participates in her own piece of reality tradition: The big, cathartic gut-spilling in front of the whole cast. To reach for another Survivor analog, it’s a “rat and snake” speech from the last person you’d expect to give a “rat and snake” speech. In this particular instance, however, it’s not someone seizing their big moments in front of the camera—those are emotional moments, too, but there’s a shrewdness at play that doesn’t factor into what Pam does here. The roots of Honest Pam were set down in “Cocktails,” so there’s a lot built up behind her run across the coals and her address to the Dunder Mifflin staff. And it works, so, so well: I still get chills when Pam tells Jim that she misses him, a sentiment she’s been waiting to share since he returned from Stamford. Like Michael in the food court, it’s played completely genuine, a tone that The Office afforded itself by aping a style of TV that purports to be nonstop genuine.

Of course, that address benefits from the professional writers who crafted it and the talented actress who delivered it. That’s the thing about The Office’s reality play—it could mimic the genre, but obviously it wasn’t beholden to the unpredictability of a reality-show cast, because its cast is playing fictional people. In episodes like “Women’s Appreciation” and “Beach Games,” Greg Daniels and company were great at manufacturing that unpredictability, but maybe it wasn’t enough for viewers accustomed to the “real” thing. Their loss.

Stray observations:

  • Watch out for Michael’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 reference after he gets off the bus: “Watch out for snakes!” Does this mean Michael’s a MSTie?
  • Ed Helms’ greatest achievement in the role of Andy Bernard is the hapless flapping he does as he floats away in the sumo suit.
  • Naturally, Dwight tells “The Aristocrats” like a ghost story.
  • Next week: The big season finale, “The Job.” And after that: There is no more American Office for The A.V. Club to review.

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