“Booze Cruise” (season two, episode 11; originally aired 1/5/2006)
In which, you know what? Jim would save the receptionist…
There are passages of The Office’s second season that alleviate any sense that the employees of Dunder Mifflin are trapped, episodes like “Office Olympics” or “Christmas Party” that bring out the aspects of the Scranton Business Park that aren’t slowly sucking away its inhabitants’ souls. There needed to be a hint of escape in the show. Their onscreen lives revolve around the workplace, but as subsequent seasons explored (to varying degrees of success), there’s more for them outside the parking-lot gates.
And yet “Booze Cruise” derives so much of its power from confinement. There’s only one way out of Michael’s nautical team-building exercise: Into the chilly depths of Lake Wallenpaupack. The episode differentiates itself from other on-location Offices because the characters have no choice but to come face-to-face with uncomfortable situations. Fittingly, this felt most acutely by the character who feels most confined by his job. With nowhere else to go but the freezing exterior of the boat, Jim is forced to watch as Roy and Pam finally set a date for their wedding. He then makes matters worse for himself by being the jerk who dumps a woman (Amy Adams in her final appearance as Katy) while they’re both, essentially, stranded on a large body of water. These are the types of stressors he can’t relieve by raising his eyebrows at The Documentarians.
Both parts of this week’s Office doubleheader illustrate the show’s shifting priorities. They’re both gut-bustingly hilarious at times, but with “Booze Cruise” in particular, the show’s heartfelt, relationship-drama side is coming into bloom. The tension in that “What’s it like dating a cheerleader?” scene between Jim and Pam is ’shipper catnip, so adept at toying with emotions that even Greg Daniels (who based the episode’s script on an anecdote from B.J. Novak) found himself screaming “Kiss her!” in the editing bay.
With all that going on, “Booze Cruise” is also a reminder that, at certain points, The Office was Steve Carell’s show. The episode affords the actor and his character two lengthy spotlight sequences—the “leader-ship” talk in the conference room and the dance contest aboard the Lake Wallenpaupack Princess—where Michael isn’t so much imparting wisdom to his employees as he is milking his camera time. The dance-contest scene is a fine use of the documentary setup, and it’s also the one truly great sequence with a direct analog in the U.K. Office. They’re deployed for similar purposes: In “Charity,” David Brent dances to upstage corporate slickster Neil; in “Booze Cruise,” Michael wants to get back in front of the office retreat for which he was too cheap to book a private cruise. In the process, he’s playing to two audiences—the people on the boat and the imagined audience of the documentary—convinced that both will by impressed by his wild gyrations and dictionary definition of “dancing.” The unspoken reactions of his fellow passengers tell a different story.
Challenges to Michael’s authority often lifted Carell’s performance to new heights, so it makes sense that he’s especially good when those challenges are coming from multiple angles. There’s Captain Jack and his effortless leadership, but there’s also Brenda, the mostly silent emissary from corporate who’s looking over Michael’s shoulder throughout “Booze Cruise.” The character exists in a nebu-los space herself, serving the same role as Jan but not contributing enough to the story to make any sort of impression. Part of me wonders if Melora Hardin was unavailable; another part makes me thinks adding some Michael-Jan drama would lock up a well-oiled machine of an episode. And then there’s the part of me that knows the way The Office liked to draw these things out and thinks “Oh yeah—Brenda needs to be there as a knock-off Jan because the genuine article is putting as much space between herself and Michael as possible.”
And besides, there’s a more appropriate one-off foil being played by Rob Riggle, who manages to spark an immediate and satisfying rivalry with The Office’s star. Captain Jack taps directly into Michael’s control issues, bringing out a heightened version of the guy who fights so desperately to steer every discussion in the conference room. There’s a bit of a conference-room vibe to the declarations Michael tacks on to Captain Jack’s announcements, starting with a claim he could almost back up (“And I’m your party captain, too!”) before veering into outright lies (“I can marry you as regional manager of Dunder Mifflin!”). By the time he’s mixing motivational analogies with Titanic plot lines, it’s evident that the rest of the world isn’t prepared for the Michael Scott style of management.
Michael spends all of “Booze Cruise” trying to motivate his staff, but he’s going about it the wrong way. He’s not Captain Jack, and he’s not the boss of dancing—he’s a guy who did a job well enough to receive a promotion, but the regional manager’s chair is the largest seat of authority he’s qualified to fill. And even then he’s usually out of his depths, relying on hackneyed analogies and borrowed advice to lead his troops. If there’s anything about Rob Riggle’s character that truly gets under his skin, it’s the fact that Jack has legitimate guidance to offer, informed by different life circumstances than Michael’s. When he’s giving pointers to Roy, he’s doing so to someone he doesn’t even know—Michael can’t speak half that knowledgeably to people with whom he spends 40 hours a week.
Except, that is, when he’s speaking from the heart. The most important moment of “Booze Cruise” isn’t the dance contest or Roy setting the wedding date or Dwight “steering” the ship—it’s Michael putting all his bullshit aside to motivate, inspire, and cheer up a colleague. Hands tied, captain’s cap stripped away, all he has are his instincts. His advice to Jim—“Never ever, ever, ever give up”—still reeks of cliché, but it also hits the target Michael’s been aiming for all episode. The next line—“It’s a fake wheel, dummy”—consciously cuts through the treacle, but the sentiment lingers. “Booze Cruise” is a culmination of several threads, but it’s the beginning of a new phase in Jim and Michael’s relationship. The pair strikes a very, very delicate balance Michael tests almost immediately, but their conversation makes good on weeks of knowing glances and similar experiences between manager and employee.
But those classifications are irrelevant. The scene became a crucial part of Office lore not because of what it meant to Michael’s management acumen, but what it meant to his ability to be a friend. At a deeper level, that’s the aim he truly cares about.
“The Injury” (season two, episode 12; originally aired 1/12/2006)
In which Michael doesn’t (read: does) want to be treated any differently…
To play off an analogy from “Booze Cruise”: If a building containing all of modern American pop culture was burning down, I’d save the TV sitcom. Sure, I might humor myself into thinking I’d grab soul, funk, and rap (I could get by with strictly European contributions to rock and electronic music) or an armful of movies produced from the height of the studio system’s power to, say, Ghostbusters. But if I’m being completely honest, my heart and soul belong to the situation comedy. And that’s because of episodes like “The Injury,” half-hour stories packed with fine-tuned jokes (and a little warmth) told by characters that beg to be visited on a weekly or nightly basis—no matter how obnoxious some of them may be.
Revisiting and reviewing these first three seasons of The Office is a particular challenge to my critical faculties, because with the possible exception of Arrested Development and Twin Peaks’ complete runs, there’s no chunk of TV I’ve watched and rewatched more times. These are works I love unconditionally and to which I’ve attached many fond remembrances. I will never not chuckle at Dwight, in the throes of a concussion, saying to Jim “I don’t work in this van!” Depending on the day, I might go as far as to call “The Injury” my favorite episode of any TV show I’ve seen.
So take this with a grain of salt, but I’m also resolute in thinking that “The Injury” is an ideal example of its form. Nothing is wasted, all the jokes land, and it’s premise-driven enough that a drop-in viewer could enjoy it with little to no background information on The Office. With no exposition, it’s easy enough to glean what’s funny about the way Michael and Dwight are behaving: Michael’s speaker-phone cries for help sell the concept that he’s selfish and a little bit starved for attention. There are enough cues from Jim and Pam to get a grasp on Dwight’s day-to-day personality and understand how his bonkers conduct in “The Injury” deviates from that personality. All that’s needed to get Ryan and Michael’s relationship is the way B.J. Novak walks into frame during the cold open and immediately backs out. And who could resist the comic hook of the phrase “I burned my foot, very badly, on my Foreman Grill”?
Yet the more it moves past the premise and digs more into Michael’s petulance and the Bizzaro World where Pam and Dwight are “kinda” friends, the more “The Injury” finds its bearings within the universe of The Office. The reveal that title applies equally to the regional manager and the assistant to the regional manager isn’t the episode’s first bait-and-switch—“The Injury” sets itself up as an old-school, high-concept laffer, then shows its true, character-driven stripes. There are moments where the pacing of the episode is so propulsive, it seems more like a perfect sitcom episode and less like a perfect episode of this particular sitcom. But then the action arrives at something like the gorgeously patient sequence between Ryan, Toby, and Michael in the kitchen—captured by director Bryan Gordon in a single take and a handful of whip pans—and the episode finds its feet firmly planted in familiar, Scrantonian soil.
“The Injury” is an out-of-character moment for The Office, but the show needed such an episode at this point in the second season. It’s a breathlessly paced breather from the kind of material “Booze Cruise” runs on, a digression that breaks from the Jim-Pam romance and puts the brakes on Jim coming to understand Michael. My only real criticism of “The Injury,” and it’s a minor one, involves the jarring inclusion of Jim’s “I’d like to clamp Michael’s face in a Foreman Grill” so soon after those two have their bonding moment on the boat. (He’ll have a much better reason to feel that way next week.) It still retains some ties to ongoing arcs, however, sneakily integrating scenes about Dwight and Angela’s relationship without coming out and saying, “Yes, you haven’t been imagining Dwight and Angela’s relationship.” (Again: Next week.)
Much as “Booze Cruise” belongs to Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson runs away with “The Injury.” The episode is a departure for The Office in general and Wilson specifically, granting him the chance to play a softer, less severe version of his character—one that’s the result of a head injury, sure, but these are still different notes that Wilson plays splendidly. They hint at the fact that there’s something human behind those wire-rim specs, a person who could legitimately befriend Jim and Pam if he didn’t always have his guard up. Concussion Dwight gets the kind of information out of the character that would typically come out in a talking head; it’s great to see the show circumvent a convention it was always in danger of using as a crutch. Wilson’s performance even stays fun and funny after the script requires him to go full-on loopy. If “that’s what she said” wasn’t already established as part of the Office lexicon in “Sexual Harassment,” it certainly was by the time Concussion Dwight steals Michael’s favorite joke—and actually manages to get a laugh with it.
Everything lines up just as it should in “The Injury”: Tremendous performances, a great script packed with quotable lines (“Part of my duties are to”), bold directing choices—just one of these qualities would make for an episode worthy of repeat viewing. The episode initiates a “rising tides lift all boats” scenario, where even a throwaway line like “I found the pudding cups you wanted at a gas station in Carbondale!” has stuck with me through the years. (It’s all in Novak’s reading on that one, his sarcasm masking the fact that Ryan clearly loves having the excuse to get out of the office.) The Office would never deliver another episode this funny, which is not to say it peaked too soon: Being wall-to-wall funny was already becoming less important to the show at this point. That’s not to say humor is the only measure of quality for the ideal sitcom episode, either. “The Injury” gets in its emotional beats, too—hear the tinge of sadness in Jenna Fischer’s voice when Pam says “goodbye” to Concussion Dwight? Fortunately, we never have to say anything similar to “The Injury.” It’s always there, ready to zoom toward your television screen like Dwight’s Trans Am into a telephone pole.
“Booze Cruise”: A-
“The Injury”: A
- I imagine “Booze Cruise” was a fairly costly episode—it can’t be cheap to rent a boat of that size for multiple nights of shooting. It was shot in Long Beach Harbor—maybe the city cut them a deal on the location fee?
- Brenda is played by Brenda Withers, one-time writing partner of Mindy Kaling with whom she collaborated on and starred with in the theatrical satire Matt & Ben. It’s about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck happening upon the Good Will Hunting script (when it falls from the ceiling of their apartment)—here’s an excerpt from the play presented by the old ESPN morning show Cold Pizza. And if you want to spill further down the YouTube rabbit hole, here’s the intro to Mindy And Brenda, a pilot written by Kaling and Withers that failed to square their comedic sensibility with a multi-cam, live-studio-audience format. It wasn’t picked up, and you’ll understand why the minute Noureen DeWulf takes a stab at talking like Mindy Kaling.
- Ryan and Michael’s “gas station in Carbondale” exchange demonstrates the important role that specificity plays in a gag like that. Mentioning the gas station is in another town makes the trip seem that much more arduous—even if Google Maps lists the longest route between Scranton and Carbondale as being 35 minutes long. Carbondale just sounds far away—like it’s practically in a different century.
- Favorite tip-off that Dwight’s suffered some sort of traumatic injury to the noggin: I’ve always loved the visual gag of him typing “DWIGHT DWIGHT DWIGHT” over and over (as the name of a folder on his desktop, nonetheless), but there’s a subtlety to calling Pam “Pan” that gets me every time. It helps that Pam’s slow-burning in-scene reaction mirrors the viewer’s: “Pan?”