The Office (Classic): “Health Care”/“The Alliance”
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The Office (Classic): “Health Care”/“The Alliance”

“Health Care” (season one, episode three; originally aired 4/5/2005)

(Available on Netflix and Hulu.)

In which Dwight Schrute is the lion and you’re dead…

“Health Care” is another episode of the U.S. Office with a British antecedent: Dwight’s inquiry into a cheaper, more affordable health care plan contains direct echoes of the “Gareth Keenan Investigates” portion of the U.K. Office’s “Work Experience.” In a smart call to avoid the mistakes of their pilot episode, however, Greg Daniels and company opted to keep the alternative labels for Dwight’s temporary workspace—one of the original Office’s signature gags—to the deleted-scene bin.

But “Health Care” still needs to coast off of the dynamic established by Tim and Dawn’s playful antagonism of their co-worker, because this Office hasn’t quite struck what’s unique about Jim, Pam, and Dwight’s relationship. The episode’s fake-disease sequences—which became Office signatures in their own right—start to feel that out, but there’s nothing in the playful antagonism of “hot dog fingers” and “Count Choculitis” that the employees of Dunder Mifflin can call their own. The show’s breakout character has yet to fully break out, but the pieces are falling into place.

The initial seed of humor within Gareth is the contrast between his authoritative bluster and the meekness of Mackenzie Crook’s performance. Not so with Rainn Wilson. Dwight’s sense of loyalty and respect for the chain of command makes him ultimately ineffectual (hence the immediate shut down when Jan tells him “you are not the manager of anything”), but there’s a glint of crazy in Wilson’s eyes that’s always convinced me Dwight is capable of realizing his tyrannical fantasies. That sense takes hold in “Health Care,” where the smallest scrap of responsibility sends him into overdrive, the office’s No. 1 yes man taking a simple assignment to the absolute extreme, slashing the Dunder Mifflin health care plan “to the bone” and making sacrifices Michael just can’t face. This side of Dwight would eventually lead the show down some cartoonish, show-blocking paths; at this point in the game, it’s just an ideal way of demonstrating the differences between the assistant to the regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton and the man he claims to assist.

If Dwight Schrute’s a tyrannical despot, then Michael Scott is a flip-flopping career politician, the guy who can’t stand to disappoint his constituency—and falters into inaction as a result. Torn from the unpublished pages of Somehow I Manage, “Health Care” offers a glimpse into Michael’s managerial style, a “please everyone and please no one” approach that mistakes deflection for delegation. Later Office storylines moved so far away from the day-to-day hiccups at a failing paper company that it’s a curious experience to revisit the brief period where the show was something of the ur-workplace sitcom. Before it had full-fledged characters from which to spin stories, The Office relied heavily on its satirical jabs at corporate drudgery—which wasn’t always the sharpest tool at the show’s disposal. And so a lot of Michael’s priorities in season one are directed toward soothing fears about downsizing. But what’s engaging about those activities aren’t the parallels to the ups-and-downs of real-world capitalism—it’s the blockheaded way in which Michael deals with those ups and downs. 

It’s easy to forget, but the downsizing plot would hang over The Office until the middle of its third season. But by the time that plot resolved, it was so backgrounded by the strengths of the show’s characters that the consequences were most deeply felt by what they meant to Jim and Pam. How the endpoint of that storyline reflects corporate culture in the mid-’00s is almost a moot point—the emotional core that’s in episodes like “Health Care” takes precedence. This is a Dwight-Michael episode first, a Dwight-Jim episode second, and a Jim-Pam episode third, but the slow, prank-based construction of that will-they/won’t-they is crucial to the show The Office becomes. As elaborated in one of the episode’s talking heads, Michael longs to erase the barrier between “My boss is cool” to “I love my boss,” and Jim hopes for a similar, smaller-scale breakthrough with Pam. 

While establishing the physical space of The Office’s setting, director Ken Whittingham visualizes that tension in the brilliant two shot where the salesman and the receptionist prank Dwight over the phone. The staging compresses the space while the phones make it wider, and the gulf that specific shot creates—which is called back again and again as the series progresses—is hugely important for the story of these two characters. For the time being, it’s just a solid joke, but it gains tremendous poignancy as the series carries on. On one level, “Health Care” is about finding comic catharsis in a relatable workplace frustration (and allowing Rainn Wilson to let it rip with the improvised made-up maladies), but its true importance can be found in the shades it gives to The Office’s core cast. 

“Alliance” (season one, episode four; originally aired 4/12/2005)

(Available on Netflix and Hulu.)

In which nemeses become allies—absolutely they do…

This week’s episodes make for a bit of a Dwight Schrute double feature: Rainn Wilson’s shedding the skin of the character’s inspiration during the events of “Health Care”; “Alliance” gives him a metaphorical birth scene through one of The Office’s first great sight gags. In the DVD commentary for “Alliance,” Michael Schur describes Dwight bursting through a sealed cardboard box in action-hero terms, but Greg Daniels comes up with a more apt comparison: “It’s like Alien,” Daniels says, and given the fact that Dwight emerges from his cardboard cocoon a stronger, deadlier, better character, he’s right on the money. And that’s without delving into Dwight’s tastes in science fiction…

“Alliance,” meanwhile, is more akin to a newborn deer working the wobbles out of its legs. It’s a milestone for The Office, in that it represents the first time an episode generated so much material it could’ve occupied a full hour of airtime—or one of those “supersized” blocs then-NBC CEO Jeff Zucker loved. That practice—like Dwight’s quirks—often spelled trouble for an aging Office, and it’s difficult to say whether or not it would’ve benefited the show’s fourth episode. The half-hour splits its time between the reality-show-tweaking team-up between Jim and Dwight, and Michael’s ill-advised attempts at boosting morale with an early birthday party for Meredith, and while both storylines have their moments, they’d be stretched mighty thin as the two halves of a full hour of The Office.

In one of the few compelling arguments I read in favor of The Office’s decision to introduce its unseen documentarians in season nine, New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz wrote “the horrible realization makes [the characters] self-conscious in a way they haven’t been since (one imagines, vainly applying logic) the first time a crew member miked them for sound.” Now, I’m still of the mind that the intrusion of Brian The Boom-Mic Guy is one of the worst things to ever happen to this show—because when was the “documentary” element ever anything more than a filmmaking conceit?—but “Alliance,” with its allusions to Survivor and other participants in the reality-TV boom of the 2000s, lends further credence to Seitz’s observations. The Office was only a half-successful skewering of reality fare (just as it’s only a half-successful skewering of corporate bumbling), this episode shows that, at one point, at least, behaving like castaways and wannabe-Apprentices was in the DNA of Dunder Mifflin’s employees.

And so Dwight shows off his similarities to Richard Hatch and Michael says he doesn’t want to be like Donald Trump, but like the mockumentary formatting itself, I only see these elements of “Alliance” as window dressing. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that the name under the “written by” credit belongs to Michael Schur, who’s gone on to elaborate how Parks And Recreation merely uses the mockumentary style as a means to an end. On that show, the format is less a way of depicting a series of events as if they actually happened and more of a conduit to connecting with an audience and drawing out the differences between a character’s private and public behavior. Those views certainly weren’t in place this early in The Office’s run, yet when “Alliance” succeeds, it’s not because Dwight’s treating the threat of downsizing like a Survivor scenario. It succeeds because that point of view is so in line with what we know about the character so far, and the buttons it gives Jim and Pam to push.

And that’s why I don’t think Michael’s plot could’ve propped up an entire episode—it’s pretty solidly rooted in downsizing worries. Steve Carell’s up to the task of getting laughs from Michael’s comedic failings, but I just don’t want to spend this much time with this version of the character. It comes from his flop-sweat-drenched desperation to amuse as well as his coworkers grim reactions: Part of the character’s post-season-two rehabilitation involved letting Michael’s employees be bewildered and amused by his inappropriate behavior. At this point, the default response to Michael, say, reading out his list of rejected birthday greetings for Meredith is straight faces and staring at the carpet. It absolutely sucks the energy out of the show whenever it happens; if what we’re seeing in any given episode of The Office is supposed to be what The Documentarians handpicked, then these moments suggest they to are still learning some lessons about pacing and rhythm.

Here’s the thing: It’s a next-to-impossible task to craft a workplace comedy about a workplace no one would ever want to visit. By some strange alchemy of measured cynicism and genuinely cringe-inducing interactions, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant managed to get 12 near-perfect episodes (and a pair of decent Christmas specials) out of such a setting, but even they’ve had difficulty replicating that winning formula. It’s easy to make watchable reality programming out of people who are horrible to one another—Bravo does it every night of the week. A long-running, worthwhile sitcom needs something closer to true alliances between its characters. The Office would find that, in time, but it would require a little more work and a few more episodes.  

Grades:
“Health Care”: B+
“Alliance”: B-

Stray observations:

  • What’s the funniest fake disease from “Health Care”? My pick’s always been spontaneous dental hydroplosion, though that might just be because I appreciate the collaborative effort from Jim and Pam. John Krasinski’s incredulous read on “I thought you said you were inventing diseases” is the pretend-infected cherry on top of the gag.
  • Hey, it’s the mid-’00s!: In “Health Care,” Jim begins to recap Trading Spouses for Pam, before she cuts him off—probably to save her office buddy from dating himself. (Not dating himself…)
  • “Through concentration, I can raise and lower my cholesterol at will.” “Why would want to raise your cholesterol?” “So I can lower it.” Also because he’s Dwight Schrute, for whom even biological functions are games of oneupmanship.  
  • “Alliance” includes the all-important introduction of the Party Planning Committee—the frequent, petty impasses of which (all previous criticisms aside) function as a hilarious sendup of management by committee.
  • Much of the fun of returning to these episodes eight years later is seeing how the tiniest details would eventually color what was to come from The Office. Cases in point: Angela describing green as a “whorish” shade and Kevin’s giggling at the prospect of Michael going to the bathroom.
  • Assertive Pam stops by “Alliance” and drops a priceless soundbite about the Party Planning Committee’s decision-making process: “I suggested we flip a coin, but Angela says she doesn’t like to gamble. Of course, by saying that, she was gambling that I wouldn’t smack her.” 

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