Today I'll be talking about my ten favorite episodes of one of my all-time favorite TV series, the US version of The Office (The original UK one is great too, but I'm partial to the American remake). For nine years (six of them consistently excellent) The Office reigned as one of the most beloved shows on television. Who can't relate to an awkward boss, dysfunctional co-workers, and office crushes (My wife and I met in much the same fashion as Pam & Jim, three years earlier, so this arc resonated with us on a profound level)? The show had it all - memorable characters, palpable tension between its romantic leads, engaging storylines, and above all, truckloads of uncomfortably hilarious moments. It lost its way a bit toward the end, as most sitcoms do, but taken as a whole The Office holds up as one of the great TV shows of the past thirty years.
But which episodes are the cream of the crop? Well it's a difficult question to answer since a) there were so many and b) some of the best story arcs on the show took place over multiple episodes (The Michael Scott Paper Company saga for example). But I think I've narrowed it down to my ten favorites, in chronological order. Here goes.....
1. The Dundies
For my money Season 2 was the show's best. The abbreviated first season wasn't quite enough time for the show to find its true voice and set itself apart from the UK version (though it did have some great episodes in its own right). But in the second season all the actors fully settled into their characters, the Jim-Pam storyline surged to the next level, and we were treated to a bevy of classic episodes. The first, and possibly my favorite single episode in the show's entire run, was the season premiere, "The Dundies," wherein Michael and his employees have an outing/awards show at the local Chili's. Pam gets hammered (Pammered?) and flirts with Jim all night, Michael bombs as the Dundies host, and we get to see all the characters outside their work setting. This episode is probably the one that got me hooked.
Best Moment: A shitfaced Pam yelling into the camera, "I would just like to say that this was the BEST. DUNDIES. EVER!! WOOOOOOO!!!"
2. The Fire
Another laid-back scenario from Season 2, "The Fire" sees our office workers stranded outside the building after a fire breaks out in the kitchen, and numerous parlor games ensue, including "Desert Island Movies" and "Who Would You Do?" We also see Jim interacting with his new girlfriend Katy (Amy Adams, introduced in Season 1), Michael trying desperately to become Ryan's mentor, and Dwight discovering the source of the fire: Ryan's cheese pita, prompting the best line in the episode.
Best Moment: Dwight, presenting the charred cheese pita to the camera, performs a revamped verse of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire": "Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television, North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Mon-roe, RYAN STARTED THE FI-YAH!!"
3. Christmas Party
The first Christmas episode of the series (one of three such episodes on this list - hey, I'm a sucker for holiday-themed sitcom episodes) sees the office holding a Secret Santa party. Jim gets Pam in the drawing for the first time and buys her a teapot, but stuffs it with little personal gifts like his high school photo (which she found hilarious when she first saw it). He also includes a card that expresses his hidden feelings for her. But Michael throws a wrench into the works when after receiving a hand-knitted oven mitt from Phyllis, he changes the Secret Santa into a Yankee Swap. Now everyone's gifts are up for stealing, and Jim's thoughtful gift to Pam finds its way into Dwight's hands. The entire office rejects Michael's self-absorbed power play and abandons the proceedings, after which Michael makes a liquor store run to win them back. This is yet another episode where we get to see everyone interacting in a more informal setting (Apparently I really like episodes like this) and it really captures the mood of office holiday parties. Of course in the end, Pam, who had ended up with an iPod (Michael flagrantly overspent on his Secret Santa gift) trades it back to Dwight so she can have Jim's teapot, but Jim chickens out about the tell-all greeting card and secretly removes it from the box. His confessional would have to wait until our next entry....
Best Moment: Michael opens his gift from Dwight, a bag of paintball pellets and a piece of paper entitling him to two paintball sessions with Dwight. Michael gripes, "How is that better than an iPod?" and Dwight replies, "I never said it was better than an iPod." Michael then takes Dwight's rubber elf ears off him and bounces them off Dwight's face before storming off.
4. Casino Night
One of the most significant episodes in terms of moving the story threads along, the Season 2 finale sees our gang enjoying the Dunder-Mifflin-sponsored "casino night" in the warehouse. We get more mood-setting moments of the characters interacting socially, plus Michael's awkwardly hilarious juggling of the two women he's invited to hang out with him - his realtor Carol and his boss Jan (with whom he hooked up several months earlier). More importantly though, Jim has decided to transfer to the Stamford branch to get away from the engaged Pam and start over, but at the end of the episode finally reveals his romantic feelings for her. Taken aback, she reflexively turns him down (in a beautifully restrained scene) and he tearfully walks away. But the episode ends, back in the office, with them kissing. This sets up multiple arcs in Season 3 while leaving a major cliffhanger. One of the best episode endings in the entire series.
Best Moment: Obviously Jim's reveal of his feelings for Pam. This scene is note-perfect and heartbreaking, twisting the knife but leaving the ray of hope so we'd tune in next season.
5. A Benihana Christmas
Okay, moving on to Season 3, my second favorite of the series. Season 3 took the fairly simple foundation that had been set up in 2 and blew up certain aspects of it, presenting a much more complex, multi-layered story arc. Jim was now in Stamford and we were introduced to two major characters from that branch, Andy Bernard and Karen Filippelli. In the bigger picture, the company would announce that the Scranton branch would be closing and Stamford would absorb them, a plan that was nullified when Stamford's manager Josh opted to take a job at Staples. Instead Scranton would absorb Stamford, returning Jim to the situation he'd just left (Now as the second-ranking employee). Jim and Karen begin dating, complicating the situation with Pam, who had broken off her engagement to Roy. Also Michael and Jan would officially start dating, complicating their working relationship. This was all great world-building stuff that expanded on the previous season and put the characters in new situations. Season 3 served as an outstanding sequel to Season 2, nearly its equal.
The first S3 episode on this list is another Christmas one, where Michael has just been dumped by Carol, and Andy, Jim and Dwight take him out to lunch at Benihana to get his mind off things. While at the restaurant, Michael and Andy flirt with two of the waitresses and invite them back to the office party. Meanwhile Pam and Karen, fed up with Angela's bossiness on the Party Planning Committee, form their own committee and invite everyone to their Christmas party instead. "A Benihana Christmas" is another showcase for interpersonal mingling among our beloved characters, and it's an annual watch for me at Christmastime.
Best Moment: Really hard to pick just one; this episode is full of great moments. But there's one that never fails to crack me up: after Carol dumps Michael he announces to the office that the Christmas party has been cancelled. His delivery of the line "It doesn't seem right to celebrate under the circumstances" is so brilliantly hilarious I don't know how the cast got through the take without corpsing.
6. Traveling Salesmen/The Return
This is I guess a two-part episode but it's basically one long one (and the DVD presents it as such). It requires quite a bit of setup to explain. Dwight shows up significantly late to work, having made a special, secret trip to corporate in New York to drop off sales reports Angela forgot to mail. Not wanting the office to know about his and Angela's relationship, Dwight makes up a bogus cover story. The sales staff is paired up for onsite customer visits, and Andy, in an attempt to both suck up to Michael and get rid of his rival Dwight, buzzes in Michael's ear about the last time Dwight mysteriously missed hours of work (to have a secret meeting with Jan about taking Michael's job). Michael gives Dwight an ultimatum: reveal his real reason for being late or be fired. Dwight quits, preserving the secretive nature of his romantic situation. Karen also finds out that Jim once had a crush on Pam.
In the second half we learn Dwight has taken a floor job at Staples, while Andy is relentless in his efforts to win Michael over, pestering him constantly and following him around the office. He also repeatedly tries to buddy up to Jim, with cringe-inducing results. Jim and Pam concoct a scheme to steal Andy's phone, on which he's programmed a self-produced a cappella recording as his ringtone. Jim hides the phone in the ceiling and he and Pam take turns calling it, as Andy frantically searches for it. Andy eventually snaps and punches a hole in the wall, resulting in his being sent to anger management training. Jim and Pam's chemistry becomes visibly obvious to Karen, and Jim admits to her that he still has feelings for Pam. Meanwhile a guilt-ridden Angela tells Michael that Dwight was late because he was delivering the sales reports to corporate, prompting Michael to ask Dwight back to Dunder-Mifflin. This is an eventful episode that experiments with the established format. What if Dwight left DM? What if Andy became Michael's sidekick instead? What if Andy became the new thorn in Jim's side? All great stuff.
Best Moment: The stuff with Andy's missing cellphone is classic.
7. Beach Games
As the third season hurtles toward its finale, Dunder-Mifflin announces an open senior management position at corporate, and Michael has been asked to interview for it. Michael presumes he'll be a shoo-in and takes the Scranton employees out for their annual Beach Day, with the ulterior motive of trying to determine his successor as the branch manager. He forces the entire office to participate in various competitions that have literally nothing to do with managing an office, and hijinks ensue (not to mention shenanigans and tomfoolery). Surprise, another one of my favorite episodes involves the gang outside their normal work environment. Jim, Dwight, Andy and Stanley are named as team captains, while Pam is tasked with taking notes about the competition. Late in the episode Jim and Karen announce they'll also be interviewing for the corporate job, while Pam finally confesses to Jim (in front of everyone) that he was the reason she called off her engagement. "Beach Games" is yet another character-driven episode, and an essential part of the Jim & Pam arc.
Best Moment: Pam's speech is probably best from a storytelling standpoint, but the one that kills me every time is Michael's high-pitched rendition of "The Gambler" on the bus. Absolutely hysterical, and I can never hear that song the same way again.
8. The Job
The Season 3 finale ties together all the story threads introduced thus far, while kicking off multiple new plot developments. Michael, Jim and Karen all go to New York to interview for the corporate job, while Dwight, having been named Michael's successor, begins to reshape the office to his liking (including handing out meritorious "Schrute bucks," holding lectures about the history of paper, and painting his new office black). Pam, having unburdened herself to Jim, is now at peace about the two of them never getting together, and is also recruited as Dwight's "Secret Assistant to the Regional Manager." Michael learns at his interview that the position he's actually applied for is Jan's, as the company has decided to let her go. Jan makes a public scene upon learning she's been fired, and Michael withdraws his application. Jim seems to be on track to get the job, but during his interview he sees a note Pam left in his sales reports, and he races back to Scranton to ask her on a date, finally paying off the glorious three-season flirtation. In the end the corporate job goes to Ryan Howard, setting up a major shakeup for Season 4. This episode might be the most pivotal in the entire series, juggling so many elements with such conviction and dexterity. As season finales go it's quite a masterpiece.
Best Moment: I love Pam's reaction when Jim finally asks her out - a mix of surprise, joy, flattered embarrassment and restraint. Jenna Fischer rides the line between being caught up in the moment and not totally showing her hand because she's being interviewed. It's the big culmination we were all awaiting for two years and it gave us just enough to want more, but was subtle enough to avoid falling into the Ross & Rachel trap where we'd lose interest once they hooked up. One of the best moments in the series.
9. The Lover
Okay, we're skipping to Season 6 for these final two picks. Seasons 4 and 5 are both great but it's hard to pick out specific episodes that stand above the pack; their greatness is tied more closely to multi-episode arcs than to single shows. Season 6 is really where the series decline began, right around the time of Dunder-Mifflin's sale to Sabre. The setup for that storyline was interesting but I never felt like they followed it through very well; I was never terribly interested in the Sabre stuff, though Kathy Bates was quite good as Sabre's CEO Jo Bennett. The Gabe character not so much; he was pretty insufferable. I also found the Andy-Erin romance kind of a tired, torturous retread of Jim & Pam and didn't much care whether or not they got together. And of course once Steve Carell left in Season 7 the show was never the same. But the first half of Season 6 is still pretty great, and the first selection on this list is "The Lover," when Jim and Pam return from their honeymoon to learn that Michael has been dating Pam's mother, after hooking up with her at the wedding. Pam is of course horrified and spends the rest of the episode seething with resentment, both at Michael for shtupping her mom, and at Jim for not being outraged about it. I love the juxtaposition of Pam's character, from an easygoing, soft-spoken people pleaser to an enraged rabble rouser who disrupts meetings and openly insults Michael. Mean-spirited Pam is fantastically hilarious.
Best Moment: After Michael justifies the situation by saying "I assumed that you want me to be happy because I want you to be happy," Pam replies, "Michael. Let me make this very easy for you. I COULD GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR HAPPINESS! STOP DATING MY MOTHER!"
10. Secret Santa
My last pick is, what a shock, ANOTHER Christmas episode, also from Season 6, where Jim grants Phyllis's request to dress as the office Santa, much to Michael's chagrin. He spends about half the episode competing with her for the role (including demanding that Kevin sit on his lap, which he immediately regrets), and when the office votes him out as Santa he instead dresses as Jesus and heckles the Secret Santa party. This episode sees Michael at his most self-indulgent douchiness and it's comic gold, particularly the extended cut, which includes....
Best Moment: After Kevin sits on Michael's lap (during which multiple cast members in the background are clearly trying their damndest not to laugh), Michael spends a solid minute trying to resume the use of his legs. Pants-pissingly awesome.
And there are my ten favorite Office episodes. There won't ever be a show quite like it; for nine seasons these were the coworkers I wished were mine. When the show ended I felt like it was time to find a new job.....
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