“Basketball” (season one, episode five; originally aired 4/19/2005)
In which it’s definitely about whether you win or lose—and how you play the game…
It’s telling that none of Michael Scott’s talking heads about basketball mention team play. They mention his being a basketball machine, they mention the way his skills wowed the warehouse guys—but it’s all about Michael in those moments. Michael’s abilities on the court, Michael’s parroted analogy about football being rock ’n’ roll and basketball being jazz; eventually, the boss man is solely responsible for the upstairs staff losing its mid-stakes bet with their downstairs colleagues. In this stage of the game that involves Dunder Mifflin Scranton ducking the downsizing, all the regional manager is worried about is being able to stay the regional manager. That doesn’t mean he's looking out for his people, necessarily—he’s just covering his own ass.
Those are difficult notes for any sitcom to play, let alone one that’s still only on its fifth episode. There’s no time—either within “Basketball” or the episodes that have preceded it—for The Office to step back and show us that, no Michael Scott isn’t a complete asshole. He’s just acting this way because of this, that, and another reason. He’s a level-one hypocrite now, espousing the desire to maintain a happy, familial environment in the office, but really only doing that because that’s what he wants. When Dwight acts this way at this point in the series, it’s funny because he’s wielding authority he doesn’t have. Jim underlines the theme of “Health Care” after Dwight is assigned to schedule vacations and weekend workdays: “This is the smallest amount of power I’ve ever seen go to someone’s head.”
Michael, on the other hand, could truly force Darryl and his staff to work on Saturdays, and he truly could fire them for winning the basketball game. But that would be an outrageous abuse of legitimate power, which isn’t funny. Dwight was a petty tyrant in last week’s episodes, but Michael’s the full-fledged thing here. He prods the basketball game into existence and keeps his most eager colleagues off the court because of a need to proclaim his dominance. And megalomania, at this level, just isn’t fun to watch.
The scenes that give “Basketball” its title hinder the episode as well. What happens on the court is of consequence to the Jim-Pam-Roy love triangle, but the scenes of the cast going back and forth and back and forth again would be endless no matter how many great jokes were packed into them. This is another instance when an episode’s original cut ran too long to air, and it’s obvious where the basketball scenes boxed out other threads of the episode. Angela and Dwight’s awkwardly inserted exchange of words about the first-aid kit has an eight-year-long tail, but thanks to “Basketball”’s warehouse scenes, you might just forget it by the time Dwight destroys an ice pack. This isn’t Friday Night Lights: Basketball is not these characters’ lives, and for everything we glean about them on the court—Michael’s empty bluster, Dwight’s greater capability to think and act for himself, Jim’s hidden competitive streak—there’s a lot of dead-air dribbling.
And when something actually happens during the game, it circles back to the most unfortunate aspects of a character who’s still in need of a little work. In one of the show’s most toxic examples of cringe humor, Michael is elbowed in the nose by Matt DeCaro’s warehouse guy, and spins the ensuing tantrum into a declaration of hostility and an excuse to call the game—which, conveniently, Team Upstairs is winning at the time. There’s genuine apology in DeCaro’s voice, and he appears physically cowed in the moment—it’s gut-wrenching to watch him, in grungy sweats and a white T-shirt, work for the forgiveness of a big baby in shiny gym threads and a previously unseen Livestrong band. It’s Michael’s authority being thrown around in the most uncomfortable ways all over again, and I don’t know if it’s Carell’s performance, the conception of the character at this point in the series, or both, but it’s the one scene of the series I have a truly hard time watching. The bully gets his comeuppance from the intimidating trio of Craig Robinson, David Denman, and Patrice O’Neal, but there’s a nastiness in that scene—and the ones where Michael can’t stomach the thought of Phyllis playing basketball or cheerleading—the source of which we just don’t understand yet.
That’s to the ultimate detriment of “Basketball,” which has its moments—like Stanley’s dribbling, a fine piece of physical comedy from Leslie David Baker—when they’re not being crowded out by time constraints or the ugly side of season-one Michael. Fortunately, that guys only around for one more episode—what comes out on the other side of “Hot Girl” is a portrayal of the character who’s much more of a team player, within the context of the office and within the context of the show.
“Hot Girl” (season one, episode six; originally aired 4/26/2005)
In which in order to be a ladies’ man, it’s imperative that people don’t know you’re a ladies’ man…
With the ears of the world bending in our direction, we are rarely the people we purport to be. This is the great tragedy (and, in turn, the great comedy) of Michael Gary Scott. His is not a “fake it ’til you make it” existence, because he believes too deeply in what he’s faking—though, sadly, being the genuine, outgoing-but-lonely person beneath the disguise is better than making it to the fulfillment of his desperate fantasies. This part of his persona takes the character to unflattering depths of cruelty in “Basketball”; in “Hot Girl,” he grasps at an effortless allure that’s as phony as the Drakkar Noir “smell-alike” Ryan finds on the floor of Michael’s prized Chrysler Sebring.
Michael’s not the kind of slickster who can sweep Katy the purse girl (Amy Adams) off her feet with flattery, bad-boy posturing, and a few bad coffee jokes. He’s not a maverick ladies’ man who can drop big bank on a fancy espresso machine—he’s the cowardly middle manager who makes a mess of that machine (check out the dirty rags piled on top of the Starbucks Digital Barista near the end of the episode) who sleeps on a futon. To wake the character up to this reality would endanger some of The Office’s essential elements—a risk the show was willing to take in the episodes that followed “Hot Girl.”
But first, Amy Adams has to turn the men of Dunder Mifflin into wolves in a Tex Avery cartoon. It’s evident from the title of “Hot Girl” just what her character is here to do. From what we’ve learned about male-female interactions under the Michael Scott administration, we can jump to conclusions about how Michael will react to Katy’s presence, and assume some ill-suited suitor will take a pass at her as well—which is exactly what happens, with Dwight playing the part of the sap. Save for some important revelations about Michael’s bachelor pad and that priceless scene of boss and temp cleaning out the former’s car, this is the less-interesting end of the first-season finale. For developments with longer-range implications and an illuminated path toward the second season, The Office plops its soon-to-be-award-nominated guest star in the middle of a plot that’s been slowly simmering for five episodes.
Driving a possible wedge between Jim and Pam is Katy’s other primary purpose in “Hot Girl.” Adams does what she can to make her a full-fledged character, but beyond providing a target for some of Michael and Dwight’s foulest behavior—okay, maybe just Michael’s, because Dwight’s kind of adorable in his haplessness—she’s here to create that wonderful, teasing tension at the break-room table. It’s easy to forgot, some six years after the spark of the Jim-Pam relationship started to fizzle, but scenes like the one where Pam prods Jim into talking with Katy were once a primary reason for watching The Office.
It’s easy to slip back into that mindset watching the bubbling chemistry between Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski in “Hot Girl.” Here’s where credited writer Mindy Kaling’s rom-com know-how truly pays off: The flirtatious patter, the longing looks, the mentions of Pam’s three-year engagement and Jim’s brother-like role in her life. This type of will-they/won’t-they is inevitably prone to diminishing returns, particularly as the obstacles stack up and a show’s writers strain to contrive reasons to keep its lovebirds apart. That strain wouldn’t start to show until Jim and Pam got together, and one of the great joys of revisiting these early passages of The Office is reliving the anguish of “Hot Girl”’s final scene or the tiny victory Jim scores in the “Basketball” tag. The show wants its viewers to root for these crazy kids—Fischer and Krasinski actually gave us reason to do so.
The former especially. After a few seasons, Krasinski tended to coast on his naturally affable charms and signature takes to the camera, but Fischer helped build her character’s arc every step of the way, staying tapped in to the vulnerable persona seen in these episodes—which made it all the more thrilling when she asserted herself in episodes like season three’s “Beach Games.”“Hot Girl,” however, is about reinforcing the indications that Pam is less than happy in her current situation. Director Amy Heckerling (who knows from injecting romantic anguish into big laughs—see also Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Clueless) gives Fischer a highlight-reel-worthy moment when the camera catches Pam dabbing on lip gloss at her desk. These sorts of spy shots would fall away as the mockumentary format became less of The Office’s raison d’être, but the technique is put to perfect use in this moment, as Pam is caught doing something she’s not proud of—and unlike most of her co-workers, possesses the self-awareness to know how her actions might look onscreen.
It’s a great way of demonstrating the effect Katy’s presence has on Pam without resorting to the base, catfight showdown the Kevin Malones of the world want to see (and the Michael Scotts pretend they want to see, so they’ll seem cool). And it’s a much more suitable fit for the Amy Adams of 2005, a few months away from the film that earned her first Oscar nod and several years before she was playing bigger and broader in the likes of Enchanted and The Muppets. Straight out of Junebug’s Sundance debut, Adams demonstrates her comedic range as the straight woman on a deadpan sitcom, shaping wry asides and reactions—like her “Please come back” to Pam after Michael returns to the conference room—into its biggest laugh lines.
It’d be all too easy for Katy to devolve into an object of lust and jealousy, but the confidence of Adams’ performance and some hidden compartments in Kaling’s script give the character legitimate agency. She’s an alluring toy placed in the Dunder Mifflin playpen—until the talking head where she reveals her true shrewdness: By pushing her clueless male customers toward the gaudiest (and therefore most expensive) of her wares, she’s the best salesperson featured in The Office’s first six episodes. Katy’s not reserved with her feelings about her time among the paper suppliers, either. Her parting line to her clients—“nice to meet some of you”—betrays a brutal honesty that Michael’s employees gave up on several Chris Rock routines ago.
It’s not an honesty that escapes Pam when she absolutely needs it, though. At the tail end of a horrible conversation with Kevin, Pam pushes timidity aside to deliver another of this week’s mission statements/mottos: “That’s a rude thing to say, Kevin.” Pam hears the things her co-workers say about her, but that doesn’t mean she has to put up with them. Likewise, she doesn’t need to put up with a fiancé who pulls the saucer-eyed predator routine when Katy’s in the office—she has options in her life, and a big part of what’s to come from The Office is wrapped up in those options. Suffice it to say, when the next season ends, it’ll be a different “New and improved Pam” with whom Jim fades into the credits.
“Hot Girl”: B+
- In a mailbag postmortem on The Office, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald singled out Jenna Fischer as the “show MVP,” and as this re-watch transitions from season one to season two, I’m inclined to agree with him. In these early episodes, when the search for character caused some of her castmates to paint their performances in broad strokes, Fischer’s strengths are all in the subtleties, like that smirk she flashes at the end of the “someone else to, um, interact with” talking head.
- Craig Robinson appears in the background of “The Alliance,” but he receives his first lines in “Basketball,” the second of which—a timeline of Michael’s nicknames for Darryl—is a perfectly underplayed, peeved summary of Darryl’s opinion of Michael: Ryan: “Darryl Rogers?” “No, Philbin. Then Regis. Then Reege. Then Roger. Then Mithtah Rogers…”
- Roy’s WaveRunners are an interesting biological detail that come up a few more times in the series. SPOILER ALERT: Eventually, they’re the impetus for huge, earth-and-mirror-shattering developments in the third season.
- I can’t say if anyone has sincerely referred to Starbucks as “The Bucks” before or after this episode, but Michael’s lame “Thought I spotted another addict” joke only reinforces my opinion that jokes about coffee and caffeine dependency are the realm of the creatively bankrupt.
- Michael tries to cover up his big, coffee-brewing purchase, poorly and hilariously: Stanley: “I thought that was the incentive prize for the top salesperson.” Michael: “Very easy to clean.”
- Because of this episode, I’ll forever associate The Office with two restaurant chains: Ryan: “Wow, how many Filet-O-Fishes did you eat?” Michael: “That’s over several months, Ryan.” Ryan: “Still…”
- Next week introduces yet another favorite, franchised spot of The Office principals, as the beginning of season two takes us to the fabulous Chili’s of Scranton for the eighth-annual Dundie Awards. Keep your acceptance speeches short; Dwight has “wrap it up” music, and he’s not afraid to use it.