The Office is one of the best TV redemption stories of the last decade. And I don’t just mean the redemption of Michael Scott, a character introduced as a petty workplace bully and sent off into the sunset as a salt-and-pepper-haired mentor who finally found a family outside the walls of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. I’m also talking about the transformation The Office underwent between its first season and its second, in which a half-formed adaptation of a classic Britcom blossomed into its own, distinctly American take on how our work shapes our lives—and vice versa. In the twilight of the broadcast networks, the American Office became the final standard bearer of the Must See TV lineage, a show that paved the way for sitcoms of similarly high quality and inventiveness, but one that still drew an impressive number of eyeballs. It was never a blockbuster of the Cosby Show/Cheers/Seinfeld order, but it did follow the measured ascent to success previously taken by the last two shows on that list.
But before all that, the show had to survive a shaky first season. The first six episodes of The Office aren’t bad, per se—the show dug a big hole for itself with its pilot, but it nearly emerges from those depths by the end of its second episode. The assumption Greg Daniels and his team seemed to make with the pilot was that too much diversion from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original version would doom their adaptation; “Diversity Day” acknowledges its debts but functions like those responsible know they couldn’t just make the original Office all over again. Steve Carell is not Gervais, and Michael Scott was not David Brent. And just as those characters would find what they were looking for when they stopped pretending to be different people, the American Office would reach new heights of satisfaction when Daniels and company discovered what made their Office their Office. It just took a handful of episodes to do so.
“Pilot” (season one, episode one; originally aired 3/24/2005)
In which this seems familiar, vaguely familiar…
Watching the pilot of the American Office, you have to ignore the original—but the episode doesn’t allow you to forget the original. The fatal flaw of this episode—though it could’ve been a proviso in the licensing agreement signed by Gervais and Merchant—involves dropping reminders of the U.K. Office’s pilot left and right. The boss mistakes a female client for a man, the sales-staff joker suspends the assistant to the regional manager’s supplies in Jell-O, the receptionist is upset by a practical joke gone too far: These are all encore performances of material from the first installment of Gervais and Merchant’s Office. If you’ve seen that episode, this episode pales in comparison. If you haven’t seen that episode, there’s a sense these are the wrong people telling the right jokes. And that makes them the wrong jokes.
The pilot’s failings to live up to its predecessor are well-documented; at least one account has already run on this website. For the purposes of this review, however, I’m much more interested in what works—independent of what worked for Dunder Mifflin’s counterparts at Wernham Hogg. Amid the off-kilter pacing and the regurgitated punchlines, it occurred to me that the slice-of-work-life style of The Office’s pilot is an ideal way of introducing this setting and these characters. The show quickly ditched the stitched-together vignettes that shore up the series première’s “documentary” bona fides—which made it all the more jarring when the documentary and the people making it became such a major part of the show’s final season—but they do a great job of establishing the world of The Office without straining to tell a full story with characters we don’t yet know. Appropriate for a workplace comedy where the setting’s right there in the title, The Office’s first priority is to give a good sense of, you know, the office.
If the pilot is an introductory tour of Dunder Mifflin, that makes Michael Scott our guide—for better and worse, mostly the latter. It’s curious that the more noxious, abrasive version of Michael Scott never suited Steve Carell, considering he made a name for himself by playing a noxious, abrasive caricature of cable-news correspondents on The Daily Show. But he has no Stephen Colbert to bounce off of here, nor unwitting interview subjects from which to draw unintentional laughs. In the pilot, Michael’s a high-status character within the confines of Dunder Mifflin, and though he fancies himself a friend and colleague to his employees, that status puts an unconscious venom into his attempts to gibe them. The “fake firing” gag that closes the pilot is a deliciously wicked piece of discomfort humor, but the wild-eyed manner in which Carell plays Michael at this juncture makes it look like he set out to hurt Pam’s feelings. (See also: That face he makes in “Diversity Day” while showing off his “Daffy Duck” signature to the camera. Chilling stuff.)
In time, Carell would make Michael his own person; his endearing turn in 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin unlocked many of the characteristics that made the character the kind of presence you would want in your living room for a full 30 minutes. And some of those characteristics are present within the pilot. One of the episode’s best gags is his botched read on the word “incalculable,” a humbling mistake that reveals the earnestness in Michael’s desire to be liked and admired. Private moments like these are the great advantage of the mockumentary format, a shortcut to displaying the gulf between how a character perceives themselves and how they’re perceived by others. It’s a characterization crutch The Office would be guilty of placing too much weight on in the future, but it does wonders for the show’s first impressions of Michael Scott. The truth of the character lies somewhere in that perception gap, an image that came into sharper focus as the series went on: A man who’d been laughed at his entire life seeking the people who would finally laugh with him.
And the pilot makes it immediately evident why Michael might harbor an envy toward a person like Jim Halpert: The only laugh heard from dour, timid receptionist Pam Beesly is the one prompted by her co-worker’s superb, gelatin-based practical joke. As the target of that prank, Rainn Wilson’s still-gestating Dwight Schrute rightly points out that some people in the office “take advantage” of the relaxed, jokey atmosphere Michael encourages—it’s just that Jim does so in the way Michael and Dwight only wish they could. It comes down to a question of motivation: Michael and Dwight act this way because they want their co-workers to think they’re cool and worthy of the stature granted to them by corporate or themselves. (The bloom inevitably came off the “assistant to the regional manager” refrain, but it’s one of the jokes that fared best in its transatlantic journey.) In turn, that makes their co-workers feel smaller. Jim enjoys the attention and affection his antics earn him (from one person in particular), but he’s actively trying to make the workday better for everyone around him (again, for one person in particular). He has nothing to prove (to anyone but the receptionist).
Pam doesn’t just represent the toughest, most sought-after laugh in the office. She’s also the embodiment of a certain grounded, de-glamorized look and tone these early episodes sold well—before subsequent seasons dropped them along with the most obvious concessions to the “workplace documentary” conceit. And that makes sense because, honestly, as refreshing as it is to watch a network sitcom that looks like its wardrobe department is located within the local Marshalls, this thing was never going to go 200 episodes with such a drab color palette. For a short time, however, its leads were allowed not to look like TV stars, and that had a certain thrill to it. As off-putting as that choice may have been for viewers accustomed to traditional sitcom aesthetics, the abundance of beige in The Office’s first season is a smart complement to the muted reactions and modest ambitions of Pam Beesly. As a figure who yearned for more but made do with what she had, Jenna Fischer’s character was a crucial contrast to the madness surrounding her. And when things finally started going her way, she still helped keep The Office’s feet on the ground—but where those feet started made those positive developments feel all the more satisfying.
“Diversity Day” (season one, episode two; originally aired 3/29/2005)
In which things get ugly, things get real…
“Diversity Day” started an unfortunate trend for The Office’s first season, in which the show made considerable leaps in terms of confidence and quality while its ratings took a tumble. Like a lot of TV shows, The Office would never match the numbers garnered by its première: 11.2 million overall viewers and a 5.0 in the advertiser-preferred demographic of adults under 50—figures that were nearly halved when the series returned the following week. Perhaps the cult following for the original bolted at the sound of carbon-copied jokes; perhaps curious drop-in viewers were turned-off by the rougher edges of the show’s first-season incarnation. And if they didn’t like watching Michael Scott make his receptionist cry, they certainly weren’t going to enjoy him ethnic-slurring his way into one loud, cathartic slap.
And that’s too bad, because as difficult as the content of “Diversity Day” is, this is a very, very funny episode of television—painfully so. This is not how a boss should behave, and this is not how people should talk to one another, and that appropriate/inappropriate juxtaposition makes for an unapologetically acidic style of comedy that wasn’t often seen on the broadcast networks in 2005. At least not with the kind of warmth and heart obscured by Michael Scott’s most offensive bouts of cluelessness: Arrested Development was doing a tighter, more madcap variation on such themes over on Fox, while the flourishing Two And A Half Men was busy helping a generation of CBS comedies forget Everybody Loves Raymond’s lessons about tempering bile with tenderness.
That balance still hasn’t taken a hold of Michael yet. He’s still in petulant-child mode in “Diversity Day,” lashing out at a corporate-mandated sensitivity seminar he interprets as The Man making an official ruling on what is and isn’t comedy. This rebellious edge of the character is less explicit than in the second-season episode “Sexual Harassment,” but it echoes a statement he makes in the pilot—in an inappropriately caricatured voice, to boot. Michael Scott, the loneliest man in all of Scranton, sees his workplace as a homestead, and his employees as a family. And decrees from corporate about which Chris Rock routines he can and cannot parrot in his “home” are perceived as challenges to his authority—hence the skepticism and outright disdain felt toward hapless, corporate-connected human-resources rep Toby Flenderson. That’s another aspect of Michael’s character that’s made more pronounced in “Sexual Harassment,” though it takes root in the “Diversity Day” scene where Paul Lieberstein’s character is barred from the conference room for making light of an activity Michael himself refuses to take seriously.
While it takes on a topic with just as much potential to inflame, “Sexual Harassment” is a gentler spiritual sequel to “Diversity Day”—and it would have to be gentler, because there’s no way The Office could’ve lasted as long as it did if every episode was this nasty. This is the foundation of the show’s eventual rehabilitation, a working environment so dysfunctional that no one voices any objection to Michael’s twisted version of blind man’s bluff. Though he doesn’t stick around for the entire episode, guest star and consulting producer Larry Wilmore helps deepen the show’s setting with his reactions to the responses his “Diversity Today” seminar prompts. Attitudes like the ones Michael, Dwight, and Kevin express during “Diversity Day” are the reason people like Mr. Brown have a job; they’re also a good argument that Scranton is probably the Dunder Mifflin branch that deserves the ax.
It’d be all too easy for The Office to coast by on the impression that Dunder Mifflin is a trap, an unsalvageable corporate hellscape sucking its employees’ souls in darkly comedic ways. But what eventually distinguished the show from its British inspiration was the sense of escape implied by Jim’s runner in “Diversity Day.” In these early goings, when Michael’s still a remorseless ass, Pam’s just kind of there, and no one else is really a character yet, reluctant paper salesman Jim Halpert is The Office’s main audience surrogate. He’s the worker bee who’s yet to let a job he doesn’t enjoy completely beat him down, a feeling to which plenty of people in the audience could relate. His crowning achievement in doing just enough to get by is the one, dependable sale that accounts for 25 percent of his commission every year—a sale on which Dwight undercuts him at the end of “Diversity Day.” Dejected and defeated, he shuffles to the conference room, where Pam promptly dozes off on his shoulder. What follows is Jim’s relationship to Dunder Mifflin in microcosm: He wants to leave, but he can’t leave, because there’s this promise, this hope that all of this little gestures and flirtations from Pam are leading somewhere that will make all the drudgery worthwhile.
You could view the fact that The Office never matched the caustic heights of “Diversity Day” as sign of the show selling out its connection to the uncompromising, unvarnished vision of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. And yet “Diversity Day” would go on to be one of the series’ defining episodes, an installment that put a more hopeful spin on the original Office’s views on accepting the disparity between our dreams and our realities. What kept the doors of this Office open for so long was the view that someone like Jim could shape his reality to more closely resemble his dreams. The lives of these characters would never be ideal, but that’s just perfect for a show that couldn’t hope to live up to the standards other people set for it. When The Office redefined those standards, it became a truly great television series.
“Diversity Day”: B+
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s coverage of The Office, part of our ongoing effort to make sure TV Club has registered an opinion of every season of the section’s most popular shows—even if those seasons predate the section’s existence. Coverage will move at a two-episodes-per-week clip, with the intention of getting to the end of season two by mid-September. At that point, the feature will break for new fall programming (and the return of Home Movies reviews); we’ll come full circle with the third season of The Office—and Andy Bernard—in early 2014.
- Many of Steve Carell’s biggest laughs in these early episodes come from weird quirks of recitation or phrasing. I love the pregnant pause he takes while trying to sell Mr. Brown on the “diversity” of Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s staff: “Oscar works in… here.”
- As Mindy Kaling told The A.V. Club in 2007, the big slap in “Diversity Day” was a last-minute addition to the episode. It’s still an effective moment, but the 11th-hour nature of its writing is evident in the nervousness on Kaling’s face as Kelly steps toward her boss with the intention to smack some sense into (and then back out of) him.
- Dwight defines a H.E.R.O. and a superhero—and says a lot about himself—in one line : “A hero kills people, people that wish him harm. A hero is part human and part supernatural. A hero is born out of a childhood trauma, or out of a disaster, and must be avenged.”
- And so the great Michael-Toby War (which is really just a one-sided assault conducted by Michael) begins: “This is an environment of welcoming and you should just get the hell out of here.”