“The Dundies” (season two, episode one; originally aired 9/20/2005)
In which the employees of Dunder Mifflin begin to show the best in every one of them…
First seasons come with a tremendous degree of difficulty. Even a show with pre-established bona fides like the American Office has to sell itself to viewers in its initial set of episodes; I’d say that task was even trickier for this series due to the expectations set by its U.K. predecessor. A character-based comedy like The Office can’t simply jump into telling the types of stories it wants to tell from the word “go”: There are overtures to be made, introductions between viewer and character, establishments of setting and tone and relationship dynamics. The best TV shows elide such table setting by starting off at a full sprint and trusting the audience will will catch up; more often than not, however, a writers’ room has trouble hiding the expository pill in the treat it’s also feeding to the viewers.
The second season, however—that doesn’t appear to be any less difficult, but a show’s sophomore year is very often my favorite. The onus of introduction ought to be lifted by the time a network puts in a second-season order, and there should still be plenty of storytelling territory to explore, so a season two is a prospect of boundless opportunity, a chance to start pushing characters toward one another, a chance to make the world of the show more fully realized, a chance for a do-over on aspects of the series that weren’t quite there in the first batch of episodes.
For the way it utilized these and other opportunities, the second season of The Office is one of my favorite seasons of a recent television program. To take a less-forgiving view of one of the past decade’s defining comedies, The Office would never be as good as it was in the fall of 2005 and the winter and spring of 2006, a creatively fruitful period where Greg Daniels and his team locked into what was truly funny, heartbreaking, relatable, and unique about their version of this story. These are the episodes that made the show worthy of appointment viewing and evangelizing, providing an emotional hook via the evolving relationship between Jim and Pam and shaping a killer supporting ensemble out of personalities that largely drifted through the background of season one.
And it all begins with Michael Scott.
Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly, too: The scene in “The Dundies” where Michael nearly scraps his beloved employee-appreciation awards ceremony is a decisive moment for The Office, one that determines both the course of the series and its take on the man in charge. Many reflections on The Office’s conclusion picked up on the fact that the show wasn’t always consistent in its portrayal of Steve Carell’s character. It’s a testament to the actor’s excellent work in the role (which the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences acknowledged via six consecutive Emmy nominations, the first of which followed season two) that his performance managed to bridge the gap between the idiot/idiot savant, selfish/selfless, caring/careless variations of his character. But the other salvaging consistency that was pumped into Michael first emerges after two of his most vocal critics rally behind him to keep The Dundies on track. In that moment, Jim and Pam’s applause cuts through the perception of Michael as moron with undue levels of authority; they’re clapping and chanting for Michael Scott, human being, and that’s incredibly important for the episodes that will follow.
Curiously, that may have exaggerated my affection for “The Dundies” going into this re-watch. It’s a sweet episode, and its jokes land with greater frequency than most episodes of season one, but I think the meaning it was given by subsequent installments (and the series as a whole) inflates its perceived quality. The idea of The Dundies is crucial to establishing the interoffice culture at Dunder Mifflin Scranton; as an object, it’s existed since the show’s first intro sequence, and Dwight gave it a name in “The Alliance.” (When describing Meredith for the purposes of Michael’s birthday-card joke, the assistant to the regional manager lists her “multiple Dundies.”) But the episode doesn’t click into gear until it gets to Chili’s, and the ceremony itself grows a touch tedious before Jim and Pam (mostly Pam) liven things up. What ultimately matters most about “The Dundies” are the seeds it scatters that The Office will, to varying degrees of success, eventually sow: That quick kiss Pam gives Jim, the tension between Michael and Jan, and Michael’s unrequited/misconstrued affection for Ryan.
The most important seed in the short term is the one involving Pam and Jim, because that little peck, innocent, spontaneous, and impulsive as it is, puts a big hole in a barrier The Office will take great pleasure in breaking down across the next two seasons. Intoxication is an easy shorthand for letting a character speak his or her mind, but “The Dundies” only inches Pam up to the edge of discussing her true feelings with Jim—it’s not rushing to push her over that particular precipice. And we don’t even know if there are true feelings for Jim yet. That kiss could be an indication of such emotions, but the script stops Jenna Fischer short of fully spilling Pam’s guts across that final sequence. Well, technically, The Documentarian’s cameras stop her—which suggests what Pam was going to ask is weightier than “Did you feel God in this Chili’s tonight, too?”, but the mystery is retained nonetheless. Jim’s left hanging by the question that Pam’s not ready to ask—and it’ll be another 40-plus episodes before he responds with a question of his own.
And while Pam’s drunkenness may be a bit of a cheat, the energy Fischer brings to that side of the character is so infectious, it hardly matters. It’s an enjoyable spell of catharsis for someone whose natural instinct is to tamp down her feelings, and at the peak of her margarita-induced euphoria, she’s imbued mostly by the spirit of The Dundies itself. Michael intends the night as a release for his employees, and that’s exactly what Pam gets. (Though this is partially the follow-up to her telling off Roy in the parking lot.) In that regard, the ceremony cuts both ways: Michael’s outward aim is to recognize the people he supervises, but the Dundies host wouldn’t mind some recognition, either. When Pam and Jim pull their co-workers together to support what’s otherwise an unintentionally mean-spirited, offensive celebration of the way Michael runs the office, he finally gets it. And that’s a major turning point for The Office. Turning grudging tolerance into a dash of respect eventually dulls the teeth of the show’s corporate satire, but that’s not what’s engaging about this Office. This Office will be about how a group of people overcomes their differences and makes a terrible workplace somewhere you actually want to visit on a weekly basis, and that transition receives a major boost from “The Dundies.”
“Sexual Harassment” (season two, episode two; originally aired 9/27/2005)
In which it would be inappropriate for Michael to take a bath with Pam, as much he may want to…
In its old age, The Office’s most dependably amusing asset was a cold open. These pre-credits sequences—which wouldn’t become a regular staple of the show until “Office Olympics,” the episode that follows “Sexual Harassment”—evolved from tangentially related jumping-off points and introductory scenes into self-contained pieces of well-honed sketch comedy. While revisiting the hated season eight earlier this year, I wondered if the show wouldn’t have done itself a few favors by transitioning into a format that strung together five or six such sequences and called it an episode. The show had clearly burned through its stock of story material, but it hadn’t lost its way of spinning established character traits and relationships into quick laughs, so why not while away the twilight years chasing the thrill of the chaotic fire drill that followed Super Bowl XLIII?
I bring this theoretical up because while The Office struggled to make a more vignette-based style work for some of its earliest episodes, “Sexual Harassment” demonstrates that this was a show that reached some of its greatest heights on a moment-by-moment basis. A slightly above average episode, “Sexual Harassment” earns its biggest laughs in digressive fashion, in scenes that spin off from the spine of Dunder Mifflin’s sexual-harassment policy, but don’t really contribute to the overall story. Sure, the series of “That’s what she said” traps that Jim sets for Michael are an outgrowth of the A-story—in which Michael fights a losing battle on behalf of humor in the office. On the other hand, the brilliant, highlight-reel-worthy scene where Dwight takes Toby’s invitation to answer “any questions” has no greater bearing on the episode as a whole. It’s just a great, character-based aside in an episode that has difficulty maintaining the comedic momentum of its main plot.
I’d trace that difficulty back to the show’s varying depictions of its main character. Michael-on-defense must have been a difficult character to write, because there aren’t many good ways of displaying his humanity while he’s also fighting for the right to be an asshole. The themes of “Sexual Harassment” are almost more relevant now than they were in 2005, seven years before “the line” the episode challenges itself to define became a constant source of debate on social media. The topics of the jokes in question are considerably tamer than any of the various wisecracks that have set off tweeted firestorms and vigilant campaigns against the “comedy police,” but the core of the discussion remains the same: No one’s trying to censor the joke teller—they’re only asking the joke teller to consider the target of his jokes.
In Michael’s case, however, the boundaries of free speech are set by corporate policy, legal precedent, and basic employee-employer relationships. His “damn The Man” antics crumble because, as Jan points out, Michael is The Man. “Sexual Harassment” presents us with the latest instance of how Michael sees himself butting up against how the rest of the world sees him, and in this scenario, there are two basic characteristics keeping him from being, to borrow a phrase from Dennis Rodman, as bad as he wants to be.
- He’s the authority, so all pretensions toward breakin’ all the rules ring false.
- For all his “one of the guys” posturing, he’s not and never has been “one of the guys.”
Bringing Michael toward that realization is an important part of the character’s rehabilitation. He’ll never give up on the impossible dream of being father figure, best friend, mentor, and boss to the people of Dunder Mifflin Scranton, but illustrating the differences between Michael Scott and Todd Packer is a big step for The Office. It’s another issue of perception pushed along by the mockumentary style, as well as the way director Ken Kwapis keeps the subjects of Packer’s jibes in the same frame as David Koechner. Michael convinces himself Packer is some sort of god among men, but The Documentarians pick up the truth: Packer’s reprehensible, and no joke’s funny enough to justify the way he treats other people. (The cracks about his DUI are here to let it sink in that, as Michael’s backpedaling hinted in the pilot, Packer is a “horrible, horrible person.”)
Because for Michael to earn the modicum of redemption he gets at the end of “The Dundies,” we need to understand that he’s not Todd Packer. Michael making that realization this early in the series would be death for The Office. But like Pam and her question at the end of the previous episode, the format of the show allows its writers to present the viewer with that subtext without it dictating the big picture. And I really enjoy that, though I can only imagine how hard it is.
That’s what she said.
“The Dundies”: B
“Sexual Harassment”: B-
- The show shifted our perception of Michael in the ways it presented him visually as well: Steve Carell’s sporting a new, more flattering haircut, his wardrobe fits better, and he keeps his suit coat on at all times. Basically, he looks less pitiable in this guise.
- The haughtiness of the Chili’s manager at the end of “The Dundies” just kills me. And it’s delivered in a rare talking head from a non-regular.
- Also rare: The use of a pop song as a soundtrack cue at the end of “The Dundies.” It works here, but I can also tell why it wouldn’t set a trend for future episodes. (Or maybe Elton John and Bernie Taupin just drained any remaining soundtrack budget the show might’ve had.)
- Hey, it’s 2005!: “You a big William Hung fan?”
- The next time we see Pam’s mom, she’ll be a completely different person.
- Michael constantly forgetting that he and Phyllis were part of the same high-school graduation class is an enjoyable little gift the show gave itself.
- A choice excerpt from Pam’s Dundies speech, in support of Michael: “This is a lot harder than it looks. And also because of Dwight.”
- This exchange between Michael and Jim sums up the differences in the way Michael sees his “BFF” and the way other people see him: “Todd Packer can do anything.” “Except pass a breathalyzer test.”