The A.V. Club launched TV Club in 2007, which meant we missed out on recapping earlier seasons of a few of our favorite shows. In some cases—like the retrospective recap that follows—we’ve gone back to fill in the gaps.
“The Coup” (season three, episode three; originally aired 10/5/2006)
In which Dwight goes to see “the dentist”…
If “The Coup” was a classic-era Simpsons episode, it would be called “Michael The Dwight.” It’s a masterfully handled role reversal in the vein of that show’s “Homer The Smithers,” if less obvious in the way Michael Scott winds up donning the mustard dress shirt of his devoted lackey. (Metaphorically speaking.) The role reversal is more a function of the story than the story itself: When Michael discovers that Dwight has gone behind his back in an effort to seize control of Dunder Mifflin, he double crosses the double crosser. He’s sneaky, he’s underhanded, and he wields the power of his job as a frightening weapon. In a word, he’s Schrute-like.
Steve Carell’s ability to mimic these qualities is another chapter in the continuing story of Dwight Schrute turning into a cartoon. It’s a natural process for a long-running television show, one acknowledged by Greg Daniels’ former Simpsons colleague, Matt Groening. (Daniels directed “The Coup,” from a script by Paul Lieberstein.) On the audio commentary for that show’s “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” Groening acknowledges viewers who grumbled that Homer Simpson grew increasingly stupid with each passing season. But this is unavoidable in Groening’s view: As a TV comedy ages, writers and producers aim to heighten and escalate certain character attributes. It’s a creative process intended to refresh the sense of surprise that leads to laughter. Taken cumulatively, it appears that Homer is devolving into a hairless ape or Dwight is transforming into the Snidely Whiplash of the Scranton Office Park. Daniels, Lieberstein, and their Office cohorts needed to push Dwight toward greater heights of madness and power lust as time went on.
As a consequence of this need, he’d begin to feel less “real” compared to the rest of The Office. The show’s reality would eventually catch up with Rainn Wilson’s character, matching him for broadness, volume, and cartoonishness. Unfortunately, that’s the result of some very funny work in one of season three’s funniest episodes: The writers and Wilson are pushing Dwight toward fantasy, but it’s worth it to watch him wolf down that big breakfast or showcase a superhuman (and super creepy) knowledge of Jan’s wardrobe. The flexing of his malevolent-dictator muscles scores, so the show’s staff can’t be blamed for wanting to return to that well again and again over the course of the show’s run. (Return trips that will include the season-three finale, for which the latter acts of “The Coup” feel like a dry run.)
“The Coup” is a Dwight episode through and through, down to the way his personal preoccupations define the Stamford plot as well. It’s not just that Josh and his team while away the hours playing Call Of Duty; they also choose to play for the same side Dwight might: the Germans. The pastime is smartly integrated; with Jim and Pam living in separate states, The Office filled a void for an overarching story by depicting the tragicomic decline of Dunder Mifflin. The show is no stranger to wasted time, but work has never been ignored so passively as it is during “The Coup.” When Jan discovers that Michael is using half-hour installments of Varsity Blues to “increase productivity,” she’s incensed. Imagine how she’d react upon discovering that Josh, Andy, and Jim are taking meetings to discuss Call Of Duty strategies. Maybe Dunder Mifflin isn’t selling any paper because Dunder Mifflin isn’t selling any paper.
As far as visually engaging timesucks go, a computer game falls just short of an office-wide olympiad. The Call Of Duty sequences pull “The Coup” into an alternate reality (a second life, if you will), one that Jim just doesn’t comprehend. It’s not that Scranton didn’t prepare him for simulated combat; it didn’t prepare him for the proper form of simulated combat. The character’s poor choices of weaponry—sniper rifle, smoke grenade—make for quick laughs, but they’re thematically rich, too. These are the tools and tactics that a veteran of Dunder Mifflin Scranton would employ. They’re geared toward covert operations, like schemes, plots, and backhanded deals. Jim’s accustomed to working in secret, and when he has to dive right into to combat, he winds up running into a wall.
That’s why, to win the war at home, Michael has to go Dwight. He has to create the illusion that he’s been demoted, and he must lie to his closest ally. It’s one of the show’s best laid traps, but because Michael isn’t Dwight, he can only go so far. His is a pride that’s more vulnerable to attack, so when Dwight turns down the keys to the company car, the façade drops. “Not my style” Dwight says of the Sebring, fully articulating the differences between the two characters. I love that this is what finally forces Michael to take direct action. To deny the allure of the Sebring, to insult the practicality of its convertible roof, is a bridge too far—the type of bridge that would only affect Michael Scott. The Office is so frequently a comedy of reactions, and Steve Carell puts on a spectacular mask of concealed fury when Michael is at his breaking point. The shrewdness of Lieberstein’s script is in the Entourage callback, but the true demonstration of how well he and Daniels knew their characters is in the direction of that climactic confrontation. Rainn Wilson’s blocked for cocky confidence, wearing a shit-eating grin and sitting at a jaunty angle. When the Sebring bomb is dropped, Carell becomes incrementally smaller in the frame. When he can finally take no more, he occupies the whole shot. There’s not enough screen to contain his emotion at that point—not in an aesthetically pleasing way, at least. At that moment, he remembers he’s Michael, not Dwight, and he remembers who’s actually in charge. And then he channels Ari Gold—because he is, again, no longer Michael the Dwight. He’s Michael the Michael, and he’s seen that episode of Entourage six times.
- There’s a feeling that the writers wanted to get to know who Jim and Pam were when they weren’t Jim-and-Pam, and I think that wound up working better for Pam (and Jenna Fischer) in the long run. By illustrating the reasons why she is the way she is at work, the character and her performer solidified into the glue that would help hold future seasons together. Something like the “new wardrobe” plot here would build toward the cathartic moment she’d receive in “Beach Games,” too.
- Dwight’s slow-dawning realization that he’s been caught will never cease to amuse me: “Sounds like a good dentist.” “Oh yeah.” “What’s his name?” [Beat.] “Crentist.”
“Grief Counseling” (season three, episode four; originally aired 10/12/2006)
In which a bird’s corpse weighs a ton…
Despite its heavy subject matter, “Grief Counseling” is a fundamentally lightweight episode of The Office. There are antics in Scranton involving an out-of-proportion reaction from Michael, and there’s an incremental advance in Jim and Karen’s courtship. It’s not the funniest episode of the series, but it’s not without solid laughs, either: Creed’s story about Ed Truck’s death (which is never verified as Ed’s actual cause of death) is amusingly grotesque, and there’s a fun conference-room game involving movie deaths being passed off as real-life ones. Aside from killing off a character we’d previously met, it leaves no lasting impact. Any importance the episode has is present in an invisible touch, tied up in small gestures extended between co-workers.
There’s a hidden loneliness within ensemble sitcoms, though some hide it better than others. The Office expresses its characters’ isolation quite frequently in these early seasons, but that sense would be reinforced down the line by the way the characters remain romantically sealed off from the rest of the world. Of the couples that would leave the series intact, none met outside of work. (Phyllis and Bob are as closes as it gets, and even then they still work in the same complex.) Since Michael and his absentee girlfriend, Carol, met through a real estate transaction, the circle had yet to tighten around The Office by season three. But Michael met Jan through Dunder Mifflin, just as Kelly met Ryan and Angela met her “D.” And it’s how Jim and Karen came together, however briefly.
“Grief Counseling” demonstrates how such loneliness can be alleviated by small kindnesses. There’s a lot of reaching out going on here, and from short distances: Roy pulls Pam out of Michael’s “counseling” session to give her a break from the boss and bullshit about the new car. (Punchline: Michael puts the breaks on the session until Pam returns, because when you’re at Dunder Mifflin, you’re family.) In Stamford, meanwhile, Jim goes the extra mile to get a bag of Karen’s favorite chips. Most importantly, the whole Scranton branch eventually pulls together once Pam recognizes the symbolic weight of the dead bird outside the door.
These are crucial interpersonal interactions because The Office starts from a nasty little premise: This is how people really behave at work. The Documentarians are present to expose the sorts of petty beefs and incompetent mistakes that are papered over in annual reports and performance reviews. Characters say to the confessional camera what they’d never say to one another—unless couched in sarcasm, like Pam, Ryan, and Kevin’s grief-counseling invocations of Million Dollar Baby, The Lion King, and Weekend At Bernie’s. The funniest stuff in Jennifer Celotta’s script is also the most biting: The grotesquerie of Ed’s reputed decapitation, or the sight gag of Dwight trying to shove a dead bird through the pop-top lid of a soda can. In order for the sentimentality of “Grief Counseling” to work properly, the episode’s sense of humor must run in the complete opposite direction.
The deepest of that sentimentality is reserved for Michael, who feels the loss of Ed Truck so acutely because he fears his own death will be greeted by the shrugs of ex-colleagues. Or, worse: an elaborate story of a gruesome demise fabricated by a former member of The Grass Roots. (I don’t feel like any of the episode is undermined if Creed’s making it all up—it only just occurred to me that he might be.) As such, the arc of the episode is traced along Michael’s journey through the five stages of grieving he’s just read about on his computer screen. Bargaining’s the only one that he doesn’t truly get to—but it’s not Michael’s style to offer himself up in Ed’s place. At least not until he’s assured that it would mean something to someone else. And so he bats for .800: Denial (“We lost Ed Truck” “Okay, let me see if I have his cell”), anger (“Do you think that this is a game?” “Well, there is a ball”), depression (really, this is like steps two through four for the mopey regional manager), and acceptance (bird funeral).
If “Grief Counseling” winds up feeling a little bit airy, it’s because it puts Michael through a lengthy process in a very short period of time. He’s grieving for less than eight hours, a portion of the workday that’s then condensed to 22 minutes. It’s rushed, but it’s sweet, too: The amusement Jenna Fischer expresses in her “You never can tell what your day is going to turn into” talking head does an excellent job of summing that up. Like “Office Olympics”—and unlike “The Coup”—“Grief Counseling” depicts the type of wasted day at Dunder Mifflin that pulls employees together rather than setting them at odds. If it’s light, it’s light like those salt-and-vinegar chips that Karen wants so badly: With a sharp bite at the start and a satisfying finish.
- A future cold open centering on Michael’s Netflix queue would also draw its punchline from Million Dollar Baby, illustrating that someone in the writers’ room found that Clint Eastwood boxing tragedy absolutely hilarious. (This episode’s cold open, however, demonstrates that Michael still finds the first Austin Powers absolutely hilarious.)