“Gay Witch Hunt” (season three, episode one; 9/21/2006)
In which Michael wants you to burn this into your brains…
Michael Scott never looks more like David Brent than he does in the first episode of the American Office’s third season. It’s a weird bit of walking the ball back a few yards after season two did such a great rehab job on the regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton. The Michael in “Gay Witch Hunt” is hurtful and selfish—or, as Oscar more accurately puts it “ignorant and insulting and small.” There’s a great deal of malleability in the characterization of Michael, with Steve Carell’s embodiment of the character serving as the consistency that reconciled the multiple Michaels appearing across multiple episodes. Compare that to Ed Helms as Andy Bernard—who we meet for the first time in “Gay Witch Hunt”—who ended up a man of many faces, but lacked something solid to unite them all. (The caulk filling in those inconsistencies is “Cornell” and “anger.”) In “Gay Witch Hunt,” Carell expresses the desire to be loved that so richly informed Ricky Gervais’ Office persona—but there’s also a tenderness there, a vulnerability that David Brent never exposed to his co-workers. Even when Carell is playing a jerk so oblivious, he outs a co-worker and can’t see what the big deal is.
“Gay Witch Hunt” must have been a difficult episode to make, on multiple counts:
- It was the first new Office produced after season two, a high-water mark for both the series and TV comedy in the 2000s.
- It was the first episode of the “Jim in Stamford” arc, a narrative necessity that temporarily split up some of the show’s best character pairings and left a big hole in the Scranton staff.
- If handled poorly, the A-story could’ve blown up in the show’s face.
Let’s start with what happens to Oscar, a minefield of a storyline that the show escapes nearly unscathed. Oscar’s sexuality was one of the many secrets uncovered by The Documentarians in season two, a truth about the character revealed in order to reinforce Dwight’s general obliviousness. The fact that Oscar is gay isn’t the butt of the joke, and Greg Daniels’ script for “Gay Witch Hunt” uses this as its guiding principle. But that’s a tough line to walk, because any homophobia expressed by the employees of Dunder Mifflin has the potential to reflect back on the show. The third-season premiere harkens back to The Office’s cringe-comedy roots, but it has scattered moments—Dwight stating “all the other office gays should identify themselves” or Angela’s “Watching some of your friends”—that are cringe-inducing for reasons I don’t believe Daniels or any member of his team intended.
And so it comes down to Michael and Oscar—and, to a tremendous extent, the actors playing those characters—to keep this part of the episode afloat. Whereas the cartoonish aspects of Dwight’s breakthrough-character status interfere with Rainn Wilson’s “Gay Witch Hunt” performance, Steve Carell gets at the core of a sheltered, straight, white guy handling this situation as well as he possibly could. It helps that all of his motivations are couched in apology—he wants Oscar’s forgiveness, but his behavior betrays a certain selfishness. The telltale line arrives during the pair’s scene in Michael’s office, delivered with a grace note from Carell’s eyebrows: “Is that the right answer?” Michael lives in a binary world, a place where a fun workplace fights against the stifling professionalism Jan advocates—it’s also a world with very rigid, poorly informed standards of sexuality. Oscar offers a potent challenge to those views, his “I don’t want to touch you. Ever consider that?” raising a question that Michael, in all likelihood, hasn’t considered. It’s the second time Oscar shoves a co-worker in the episode, and with the camera giving the viewer their own seat at the conference table, it’s shocking and uncomfortable to witness. What follows—Michael forcing a kiss on Oscar—is also uncomfortable, but in a hilarious, leavening manner. The confusion, displeasure, and resign expressed by Oscar Nuñez in that moment sells it all.
If I have any major misgivings about “Gay Witch Hunt,” they’re wrapped up in the fact that this isn’t really Oscar’s episode. It’s a story that happens to him and around him, but he’s hardly an active participant in it. The whole episode is roundabout in that way—mostly for the good. Curiosity swirls around the Jim-Pam cliffhanger, but it’s up to The Documentarians to get the answers. As a result, the camera is up in Pam’s grill for much of the premiere, panning to her bare ring finger and catching her reaction to the Gaydar prank in extreme closeup. This is an episode in which one secret spreads through the office with viral intensity, but a tight lid is kept on the “Casino Night” indiscretion. As with Phyllis’ engagement—more big news that’s forced out into the open this week—the missing element is Michael. Pam and Phyllis keep to themselves when the cameras aren’t around, so naturally no one catches on to their opposite nuptial trajectories. Michael, meanwhile, can’t keep his big mouth shut about how he slurred a person he didn’t realize his slur was slurring.
And if that storyline appears to go on for a beat or two longer than it should, my guess is Jim’s new Dunder Mifflin digs have something to do with it. When “Gay Witch Hunt” debuted, I was a few months away from delving deeply into The Office, so I can’t recall if there was much of an uproar about stringing the ’shippers along, but the show takes some time to find its footing once it sends Jim off to Connecticut. It’s necessary for the tension in what was increasingly becoming the show’s primary plot, but I can feel the writers straining to get Jim on the phone with Michael and Dwight early in the episode. But there’s some mighty fine payoff in that tag, as Jim makes his presence felt even when he isn’t physically present in Scranton. It’s another silent Jenna Fischer closeup that speaks volumes, a shot that isolates her character as much as that empty seat in the Stamford conference room isolates Jim. Not being alone at the end of “Gay Witch Hunt” is Oscar’s consolation (aside from that three-month vacation, of course) in the episode that’s about him but not really.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s look back at season three of The Office. Though it was a tumultuous year for Dunder Mifflin, this was the season that saw the show break through in a major way, attracting increased ratings, a pair of hour-long event episodes, and guest directors like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, and Harold Ramis. It’s my pleasure to guide you through these episodes, and I hope you don’t mind the occasional comment about how season two was better.
- I might be wrong about this, but I recall reading that Oscar’s time away from Dunder Mifflin was written into the show to accommodate for Halfway Home, a series Oscar Nuñez was in the process of selling to Comedy Central when he auditioned for The Office. An improvised half-hour comedy about a group of ex-convicts re-entering society, Halfway Home is now best remembered for co-starring future Oscar winner Octavia Spencer—and for being one of the many, many single-season shows Comedy Central threw on the wood pile in its futile attempt to find its next Chappelle’s Show.
- Jim answers a client’s difficult question: “I can’t say Dunder Mifflin paper is less flammable, sir, but I can assure that it’s certainly not more flammable.”
- All-time great Stanley line reading from Leslie David Baker: “Now my house has got two toasters.”
- And here’s Roy’s mugshot, which would’ve been the main image for this review if, you know, it was more than just a hilarious cutaway gag:
“The Convention” (season three, episode two; 9/28/2006)
In which Michael and Jim used to work together—now they’re friends…
The ripples of Jim’s Stamford sojourn extend beyond romantic concerns. I mean it when I write that his transfer disrupts “some of the show’s best character pairings”—emphasis on the plural. The Office’s second season hit such great heights of quality because it plugged into the potential of Jim and Pam… and Jim and Dwight… and Jim and Michael (and so on and so forth). So essential to the energy of the show, two of these pairings are revisited only one episode after they were broken up. “The Convention” is little more than a 22 minute “Are we good?” conversation, but it’s worth it to get to the exchange between Steve Carell and John Krasinski at the episode’s end.
Distance, separation, and reunion are key themes to season three, and Michael Scott is uniquely equipped to process and render those themes. “The Convention” is a “petulant Michael” episode, and that requires Carell to be pouty and petty throughout—not my favorite mode for the actor, but one that neatly mirrors the emotional dregs played by Krasinski whenever Pam’s name comes up. It’s all a bit of low-key farce, a sense heightened by the hotel setting, with its ample opportunities for misinterpreted “friendship” and surprises behind locked doors. Michael’s real beef isn’t with Josh, the Stamford manager played by Charles “Please, ‘Chip’ Was My Whose Line Name” Esten—it’s with Jim, whose departure for Connecticut is taken as a personal slight by Michael. Thus ensues the escalating, one-sided pissing match of paper airplanes and $100 tips, actions that make sense only to Michael. Then again, Jim’s actions only make sense to himself, as well—when he finally tells someone that he left Scranton because of Pam, it returns both men to the understanding they first struck on the waters of Lake Wallenpaupack. We don’t necessarily need Jim to say the “now we’re friends” line at the end of “The Convention,” because it’s implied by the fact that he’s opening himself back up to Michael.
There’s an accordion effect that happens in the first half of The Office’s third season, a spreading out of the principals before November sweeps slammed them all together. There’s that emphasis on isolation in “Gay Witch Hunt,” and it’s kicked up a few notches in “The Convention,” in which Michael and Dwight are depicted as being stranded amid the teeming crowds of the Annual Northeastern Midmarket Office Supply Convention. Even among colleagues, they’re alone: When Team Scranton arrives in Philadelphia, their dorky Dunder Mifflin polos set them aside from Jim and Josh’s ties-off, after-work look. Michael, all protests to the contrary, is usually set aside from Jan in these sequences as well. When he’s finally, legitimately alone in his hotel room—with nothing but the self-aware sleaze of Captain Ahab’s “Girls Gone Wild to keep him company—it’s evident that Pam isn’t the only one feeling marooned in Scranton.
The office segments in “The Convention” feed into this sense, as the employees of Dunder Mifflin pass Pam some uninspiring advice for her lukewarm date with a local cartoonist. She’s not fully committed to returning to the dating pool, and while the plot is set up like “Oh no, what if she hits it off with the guy?”, there’s a lack of investment that betrays the show’s intentions here. (Besides, Rashida Jones is hanging out with Andy back in Stamford, and she wouldn’t have gotten a talking head in the premiere if her character wasn’t poised to muck about with the show’s will-they/won’t-they…) Pam’s “I’ll just kind of know” is reserved for a guy who isn’t making jokes about freedom fries in 2006—a guy who likes her, but isn’t staring down her shirt at what appears to be Lima, Ohio’s favorite casual-dining establishment, Breadstix. In terms of the season-three accordion, this is an instance of the show putting too much effort into pulling people apart.
The crucial work performed by “The Convention,” then, involves putting Michael on the defensive. Dunder Mifflin’s financial woes are no joke anymore—well, they were a joke when Oscar sarcastically remarks on how “cool” he is during “Gay Witch Hunt”—and the threat of a branch closing is starting to feel real. Jan asks Michael what he’s been “generating,” and Josh presumptuously extends an olive branch in anticipation of a branch merger. If Michael seems flustered here, it might be because he’s feeling more isolated than normal—but it could also be because he suddenly feels like his job is being threatened. In an episode that has a lot of heavy emotional stuff, those under-pressure spoonerisms (“The progidal—my son has returned!”) and mixed metaphors (“Find out if there are any skeletons in his attic”) slip through cracks in his confidence. And he’ll have even more reason to worry next week.
- Michael admits to talking to himself at home: “Poor little guy has been working under Josh—the poor man’s Michael Scott, as he is known around my condo.”
- In a week of uncomfortable Office jokes, this one is the most painful: “I love inside jokes. I’d love to be a part of one someday.”