“E-mail Surveillance” (season two, episode nine; originally aired 11/22/2005)
In which Pam feels like somebody’s watching her…
The Documentarians ended up providing fitting bookends to The Office’s final season—but we’re a few years down the line from “Customer Loyalty” and I still can’t abide that episode’s ending because it violates something so pure about one of The Office’s core concepts and opens up little more than a narrative cul de sac. My preferred mode for the people “making” The Office was that of impartial, benevolent observers, a role best served by episodes where they have a guiding hand in the events that unfold—but not a hand that looks like a well-groomed corner in a contrived, 11th-hour love triangle.
Still, The Documentarians are among the select few characters who appear in every episode of The Office, so it’s not as if “New Guys” was the first installment of the show where they made their presence known. What we ended up seeing in season nine was only one facet of The Documentarians personalities: As “E-mail Surveillance” shows, there’s material to be mined from a film crew with a more sinister intent.
“E-mail Surveillance” is a curious episode of The Office—it plays like a transmission from the universe where this show is the premier satire of surveillance culture. All the Dunder Mifflin employees flip their wigs at the thought of Michael reading their electronic correspondence, but they’re missing the part where they’re constantly on-camera and wired for sound. Secrets carry such a potency in the second season because privacy for these characters is a relative term: Pam thrills at the thought of uncovering Dwight and Angela’s undisclosed relationship, but only to the point that she realizes her co-workers (and, by extension, The Documentarians) could be inferring the same things about her and Jim. That type of self-awareness could tear a hole in the fabric of The Office’s reality, so it’s a good thing Pam and her co-workers are TV characters and therefore allowed to forget about this kind of thing when it’s convenient for them.
Pam’s right on the money about Dwight and Angela, but that’s not where the ultimate dramatic irony of “E-mail Surveillance” is located. It’s found in the fact that The Documentarians, with all of the intelligence they’re collecting on their subjects, can only relate that intelligence to another group that has nothing to do with The Office’s outcome: the audience. The camera operator can alert Pam that Dwight is munching on a Baby Ruth bar (the same candy Angela was seen buying by the pair early in the episode), but there’s no telescopic lens nudging Pam closer to Jim while the former is in the latter’s bedroom. That sort of development has to arise organically, and the tension it creates is intoxicating: The Jim and Pam scenes in both of this week’s episodes are prime examples of why TV shows find it so hard to resist the allure of a will-they/won’t-they.
But in an episode that teases the ’shippers to such a degree that it plops Pam down on Jim’s bed, it’s notable that their flirtations never hijack “E-mail Surveillance.” This episode also demonstrates how elegantly second-season Office integrated its overarching stories into its one-off stories. The core of “E-mail Surveillance” is in the logline: Michael pries into the inboxes of his employees, while the employees try to keep him out of the loop with regard to Jim’s barbecue. Yet credited writer Jennifer Celotta wraps that core in threads that have been running through the background of the show for weeks—there are traces of Dwight and Angela’s off-the-books romance in previous episodes, but they’re subtle. (Of course, once you see those Birkenstocks on top of those Crocs, you’ll see nothing but hints littered throughout the first eight episodes of season two.) It’s a strong restatement of season-long priorities, but it also tells a story with laughs, charms, and a tenderness all its own.
Those high-quality standalone attributes are all embedded in Michael’s story, where his desire to be loved collides with his responsibilities as manager. There’s a lack of control there, one that manifests itself in Michael’s installation of the surveillance software in addition to his bulldozer approach to improv comedy. The smartness of Celotta’s script—further boosted by Paul Feig’s looser directing style—comes to the fore when Michael gets to his improv class, an environment he attempts to wrangle through the use of an invisible arsenal. These are fun, funny scenes, but they also do a lot to inform our impression of Michael—and to give us a sense of how he’s viewed when he’s not in a position of authority. His classmates (including Ken Jeong in an early guest-starring role) don’t want to hang out with this guy either, but only because they’re too familiar with his obnoxious, performative side. They feel no obligation to lie to his face—“A private friend who happens to know all of us from different ways is throwing a private birthday thing” is only slightly flimsier than Kevin’s “Alaskan Film Festival” excuse—but they also don’t know him well enough to throw some remorse behind that lie. Jim, however, can recognize that loneliness, and so he ends up playing Kenny Rogers to Michael’s Dolly Parton after Michael crashes the party. It’s a shortcut to a happy ending—one the show’s been using a lot in recent episodes—but Jim’s recognition of his boss’ humanity goes a long way.
On The Office, character ultimately trumps premise, which is why I still find the end of “E-mail Surveillance” emotionally satisfying. (It helps to know Michael will repay the favor, while potentially spilling Jim’s big secret, in the upcoming “Booze Cruise.”) There’s a freedom to be found in a TV show shedding its initial premise—“E-mail Surveillance” takes root in a workplace-based concept, but its later scenes depend on what these people mean to each other outside of the office (though some of them still don’t know how to talk to one another without bringing up paper). The workplace provided a finite amount of storytelling fodder; the characters would prove the same after a few more seasons. But by the time the show returned to The Documentarian’s line-blurring “E-mail Surveillance” behavior, it was too late to do anything truly interesting or meaningful with it. There’s a roadmap here to an Office that functions well within the conventions of reality television, but playful camerawork would never go as far as Michael Scott pumping his scene partners (even the ones who aren’t in the scene) full of lead.
“Christmas Party” (season two, episode ten; originally aired 12/6/2005)
In which Christmas is the time to tell people how you feel—but not directly…
I’ve floated this theory somewhere else on the Internet, but I can’t remember where, so here it goes again: The Office is a Christmas show. Some TV series are built for Halloween episodes (The Simpsons), some are geared toward Thanksgiving (Josh Schwartz gave this attribute to The OC, then carried it over to Gossip Girl), but The Office, with a heart three sizes too large and a setting with its own Yuletide tradition—the office Christmas party—built in, was born with sugar plums dancing in its head. And “Christmas Party” is its holiday masterpiece.
For me, the key to “Christmas Party” is its tone. Like their eventual Thursday-night companions at 30 Rock, The Office team recognize that Christmas isn’t all smiles and hugs—there’s a lot of humor to be found in the emotions being sequestered and the opinions going unstated around the Christmas tree. But this episode doesn’t default to the cynicism that characterizes some modern holiday comedies—the fact that there are no in-laws to deal with keeps at least one hoary, post-National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation cliché out of the Michael Schur-credited script.
This is an instance where Michael’s personality acts as an antidote to the prevailing comic attitude. In “Christmas Party,” he’s something of an anti-Scrooge. He’s jolly enough to jokingly call Jim “Ebenezer,” and generous enough with the holiday spirit that he converts a chunk of his bonus check into “holiday spirits”—lifting the pall of a cataclysmic gift exchange with the great equalizer: Violating corporate’s policy against serving alcohol at company-sponsored events. The “15 bottles of vodka” exchange with the liquor-store clerk is the episode’s answer to A Christmas Carol’s “prize turkey” sequence, the clerk just as bemused as the kid Scrooge pays to fetch the Cratchit family’s Christmas dinner.
But Michael is yet to have the selfishness scared out of him by a trio of ghosts, and his transformation of Secret Santa into Yankee Swap counts as one of his ugliest moments—the coal in the “Christmas Party” stocking that keeps the episode steeped in The Office’s cringe-comedy roots. Because of the jovial holiday vibe, Michael can indulge in some David Brent-like behavior without it coming off as a lackluster impression or a bad shade on the show. I think that stems from the way “Christmas Party” insulates the Yankee Swap tantrum—there’s a hint that the bonus check was ill-gotten, and the cameras linger on the effects Michael’s impulsiveness and pettiness have on his employees, Phyllis and Angela in particular. Besides, we’ve had more time with Steve Carell’s character, so we know now the sort of pain and rejection that lies beneath these manic mood swings. The box of booze is a bit of a cheat when it comes to giving Michael his retribution, and while we don’t see him apologizing to Phyllis for treating her hand-crafted gift like it’s radioactive, he does at least have the presence of mind to offer the Santa hat to Darryl as the party winds down.
But “Christmas Party” needs to cut corners, because there’s so much going on in this episode. At times, the volume of story and scenes makes it feel like one of The Office’s hour-long installments—but that tradition wouldn’t begin until the following season’s Christmas episode. In another instance where the episode hits a target the first season usually missed, it takes on a more vignette-driven style and makes it work in the show’s favor. The party’s disastrous pileup is told in short snippets, the fuller stories—Michael’s self-centered charity, Jim’s battle to get the teapot to Pam—playing nicely with Angela’s gradual meltdown and Dwight’s commitment to his elf duties. I love that tiny sequence of Angela asking for help with a table cloth she keeps pulling out of Pam’s reach—maybe this is another aspect of the show that only works once we know more about the characters.
Jim’s teapot quest leads to one of the most quietly touching moments of their courtship, as Pam trades away the party’s big-ticket item—a video (!) iPod—while Jim makes the final Yankee Swap by stealing back the most personal component of his gift. It’s such a smart move to keep the contents of that letter a secret, one that would last through the end of the series and beyond. Jim doesn’t have to spill the details of his feelings for Pam—he shows those feelings every day, and he’s better off, in the long run, waiting for her to notice those feelings on her own.
So why the sudden reversal? It’s certainly important for maintaining the momentum of a storyline that was beginning to draw more and more viewers to the show. For all The Documentarians do to juxtapose Jim’s thoughtfulness with Roy’s complacency (what’s he going to buy Pam now that he’s saving so much money by not buying an iPod? “Like a sweater or something?”), taking the letter back also feeds into the episode’s main Christmas message: We can attach a lot of meaning to them, but presents are just stuff in the end. Though they can have some incredibly delicate emotions associated with them, they’re not a way of quantifying affections (as one of Michael’s funniest wrongheaded talking-head declarations suggests). An office-party Secret Santa exchange is a great device for reinforcing how little these co-workers actually know about one another, an illustration of how one man’s inside-joke-stuffed love letter is another man’s neti pot. Once they move past that, they actually start to have a good time. That makes for a funny, tender episode of The Office, a tone that’s right for both the show and the holiday it was so good at celebrating.
“E-mail Surveillance”: B+
“Christmas Party”: A-
- On a personal note: I’ll always have a particular fondness for “Christmas Party” because it’s the episode that made me fall in love with this version of The Office. I’d seen a few previous episodes—I distinctly remember seeing “Basketball” first run—but on the suggestion of my younger brother, I checked out the second airing of “Christmas Party” and spent the remainder of the 2005 holiday season randomly shouting “YAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-nkee Swap!” It would be a while before I caught all the way up with the rest of season two, but I wouldn’t have had the incentive to do so without this particular episode.
- The fifth-generation iPod’s placement in “Christmas Party” is no coincidence: It was around the time of this episode’s debut that iTunes began carrying episodes of The Office, and its popularity on that platform gave NBC reason to order a full second season of the show. Here’s a vintage Mo Ryan piece about how viewers who weren’t watching The Office on their TVs (imagine that!) wound up saving The Office.
- There’s one explicit British Office parallel in “Christmas Party”: Kevin, like his U.K. equivalent Keith, plays the part of Yuletide DJ.
- Jim really likes that old Favor bike and motorcycle poster: There’s a copy of it hanging by his stairway and one hanging in his room.
- Hey, it’s 2005!: Indie darlings of the summer of ’05, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, make a cameo appearance via Jim’s barbecue playlist. This was a Huge Internet Deal at the time.