Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: As Steve Carell's exit looms, we count down the most brilliant moments of NBC's workplace comedy
10. “The Duel,” Season 5, Episode 12
Written by Jennifer Celotta, directed by Dean Holland
The first “Office” episode to acknowledge the financial crisis that had engulfed the country, this one finds Michael being summoned to New York to discuss the company’s health with its chief financial officer, and being informed that his branch has the best sales record in the company and that the executives want to know what his secret is. “Roller coaster. Just goes to show you, you leave Scranton, exciting things can happen.” But the episode is mainly about the love triangle between Andy, his reluctant fianc
9. “Performance Review,” Season 2, Episode 8
Written by Larry Wilmore, directed by Paul Feig
“When people say something is mutual, it never is. But this was mutual.” That’s Michael talking about a phone message left by his boss, Jan, at the beginning of this episode, announcing that she’s coming in to conduct Michael’s performance review not long after an impulsive make-out session with him, and that Michael’s job will be “the only topic of discussion.” Michael uses his own performance reviews of his employees to ask their advice on how to deal with Jan, who decided their romantic interlude was a mistake. Michael wants to know if Jan still has feelings for him, or ever had feelings for him, and if there might be a way to get something going with her long-term. This is a classic study of power politics, with Michael exploiting his power over his employees to extract ass-kissing reassurances of his charm and sexual magnetism, and the employees in turn manipulating Michael to improve their own reviews. (Stanley listens to Jan’s voice-mail message and gravely informs Michael that he needs to listen to the pauses. “Did you learn that on the streets?” Michael asks, enthralled. “On the ghetto, in fact,” Stanley replies. He later tells the camera crew, “It’s all about the bonus.”)
The middle of the episode has a classic set piece: Jan sitting in on a staff meeting about the contents of the company’s suggestion box, watching Michael grow increasingly agitated. ”’You need to do something about your coffee breath,’” he reads, then snaps, “I don’t think you people are grasping the concept of the suggestion box!” It’s all just a warm-up to the chilling suggestion that ends the meeting: “Don’t sleep with your boss.”
“Performance Review” is also a strong Dwight episode, opening with a great bit (Dwight lewdly riding an exercise ball at his desk, followed by Jim puncturing it with his scissors), then building a classic Jim prank (convincing Dwight it’s Friday when it’s really Thursday) and spotlighting wonderful instances of Dwight’s eccentricity. The best is probably Dwight’s pre-performance review psych-up routine: He dances and karate-punches to heavy metal in a stairwell, jabbering “inspirational” statements: “You’re giving me this raise! I deserve this raise! Yes! Yes! AAAAAH! The least you can do is keep my salary consistent with inflation!”
8. “Goodbye, Toby,” Season 4, Episode 18 and 19
Written by Paul Lieberstein and Jennifer Celotta, directed by Paul Feig
This hour-long episode, which ended Season 4, is bittersweet, emphasis on “sweet.” Michael has clearly been looking forward to his exit interview with departing human resources manager Toby (Paul Lieberstein, who also co-wrote the episode’s script); he has prepared a list of questions that begins with “Who do you think you are?” and has wrapped a present for Toby — a rock with a note taped to it that reads, “Suck on this.” But Michael’s ire is defused when he instantly falls for Toby’s replacement, future fianc
7. “Gay Witch Hunt,” Season 3, Episode 1
Written by Greg Daniels, directed by Ken Kwapis
Somewhat of a belated follow-up to Season 1′s “Diversity Day,” this one starts with Michael offending Oscar by using the word “faggy,” then cluelessly and arrogantly outing him to the entire office. Michael tries to make amends by leading another one of his horrendously misguided seminars in tolerance, this one focused on sensitivity to homosexuals. The episode’s signature moment finds Michael attempting to prove his non-homophobia by kissing a horrified Oscar on the mouth. This moment was improvised on the spot by Carell, and you can tell by watching the utterly realistic reactions of the other office co-workers, who are torn between horror, confusion, astonishment and a kind of rubbernecker’s excitement. The episode also serves up a bumper crop of incidental pleasures, including Jim’s attempts to establish himself at Dunder-Mifflin’s Stamford branch (where he works with the goofy Andy, played by Ed Helms) and Jim’s gift to Dwight of a “gaydar” device, which beeps when Dwight sweeps it across his own belt buckle.
6. “Niagara, Parts 1 and 2,” Season 6, Episodes 4 and 5
Written by Greg Daniels and Mindy Kaling, directed by Paul Feig
Arguably the greatest of the show’s “off-campus” episodes, the two-part “Niagara” takes the entire office, plus relatives and friends, to Niagara Falls, where Jim and Pam are getting married. There are great bits by guest stars, especially Peggy Stewart as Pam’s battleax grandmother, Meemaw, who’s not supposed to know that Pam is pregnant, and Linda Purl as Pam’s mother, Helene, who’s depressed that her ex-husband William (Rick Overton) has shown up with a 20-something girlfriend. And there are plenty of grand bits of comic business, including Oscar recoiling in horror when Pam’s sister assumes that Kevin is his boyfriend; Dwight’s seduction of and subsequent rebuff by one of Pam’s bridesmaids; and Michael’s desperate attempts to crash with other guests when he can’t get a room at the hotel. (He sets up a base of operations in the snack room next to the ice machine.)
“Niagara” might also be the best expression of the show’s buried romantic streak. Jim and Pam’s response to the increasingly disastrous event is ingenious: They disappear for an hour in the run-up to the ceremony, get hitched on the Maid of the Mist, and return to the chapel to reenact their vows and keep everyone else happy, never letting on that they’re already married. And Jim’s reaction when he finds Pam depressed over her torn bridal veil is one of the finest expressions of marital solidarity in sitcom history: He whips out the trusty scissors he always carries (even to his own wedding!) and cuts off the end of his necktie.
5. “Cafe Disco,” Season 5, Episode 27
Written by Warren Lieberstein and Halsted Sullivan, directed by Randall Einhorn
One of the most sheerly pleasurable episodes of “The Office” finds Michael refurbishing the former office of the aborted Michael Scott Paper Co. as a “Cafe Disco” where employees can let off steam. At first the gambit seems doomed to failure — especially when the Cafe Disco’s first patron, Phyllis, injures herself while dancing — but over time, it slowly but surely fills up with revelers drawn from all over the regional office. It’s an episode composed almost entirely of strange, sweet or surprising moments: an employee of Vance Refrigeration spotting Erin and Kelly dancing, then entreating one of his co-workers to stop loading the truck and party with him because “there are girls there”; Phyllis trying to invite her co-worker husband, Bob Vance, and getting weird vibes from his new secretary, who’s physically a ringer for Phyllis; the injured Phyllis getting a massage from Dwight based on the miracle his dad worked on an injured horse; Kelly and Andy’s dance-off. Best of all is the Jim and Pam subplot: They arrive at the office planning to run off and get married privately, to avoid the stress and possible embarrassment of an official ceremony, but after stopping at Cafe Disco on the way out, they have such a good time that they decide to have a traditional ceremony and reception after all.
“A lot of people doubted Cafe Disco at first,” Michael says. “But it is a magical place. You have to give it a chance. If these walls could talk, they would say, ‘This is a magical place. You are safe here. We have talking walls. We’re not going to eat you.’”
4. “Diversity Day,” Season 1, Episode 2
Written by B.J. Novak, directed by Ken Kwapis
“Let’s go around and everybody, everybody, name a race you are attracted to sexually. I will go last.” That’s no way to start a diversity seminar, but that’s how Michael Scott kicks one off in this classic early episode, the first installment of the American “Office” with a script not derived from the British series. American “Office” co-writer Larry Wilmore, the creator and executive producer of Fox’s animated series “The PJ’s,” plays the diversity consultant brought in to enlighten the office staff. When Michael learns that the trainer’s name is Mr. Brown, he announces, “I will not call you that.” “It’s my name, it’s not a test,” Mr. Brown replies. When Mr. Brown informs Michael that he’s there for him and him alone — thanks to Michael’s rendition of a notorious Chris Rock routine — the half-embarrassed, half-defiant regional office manager signs the company’s diversity pledge “Daffy Duck,” then stages his own seminar, “Diversity Tomorrow,” so titled “because today is almost over.”
“Abraham Lincoln once said that ‘If you’re a racist, I will attack you with the North,’” Michael explains, “and these are the principles I carry with me in the workplace.”
“Diversity Day” shows that the U.S. sitcom could be as mortifying as its predecessor, but in a different way. Michael is an ignorant, preening racist, but where Ricky Gervais’ David Brent was aware of his own insensitivity but tried to redefine it as honesty or rude wit, Michael is convinced (like so many Americans) that he’s a deeply sensitive person. He believes this even while he’s repeating the Rock routine during the diversity seminar in a screechy “Chris Rock” voice (“Watchoo want, a cookie?”), then having his employees tape notecards scrawled with the names of ethnic groups to their foreheads and try to guess who they are based on other people’s recitation of stereotypical traits.
Pam to Dwight, who’s got an “Asian” card: “Based on stereotypes that are totally untrue and I do not agree with, you would maybe not be a very good driver.”
Dwight: “Oh, man — Am I a woman?”
3. “Stress Relief, Parts 1 & 2,” Season 5, Episodes 14 and 15
Written by Paul Lieberstein, directed by Jeffrey Blitz
My pick for the most riotously funny episode of “The Office,” “Stress Relief” starts with a tour-de-force slapstick sequence that shows Dwight, the designated fire safety officer, avenging himself on his co-workers by staging an elaborate fake fire to punish them for not listening to his instructions; he even sets a fire in a wastebasket to produce smoke and heats doorknobs with a blowtorch to simulate fires on the other sides of the doors. Full-scale panic ensues, capped by a gag involving a shrieking (obviously fake) cat and Stanley Hudson suffering a heart attack.
The madness continues from there. Dwight butchers a Red Cross safety dummy and uses its sliced-office face to do a Hannibal Lecter impersonation; he also refuses to properly apologize for the fire drill disaster and uses underhanded measures to get signatures on his non-apology apology letter. Michael leads an uncomfortable office “meditation” session and causes Stanley’s stress detector to beep faster the closer he gets to him. There’s a priceless running gag with Andy watching a bootleg of a nonexistent May-December romance starring Jack Black and Cloris Leachman, and weeping uncontrollably during the finale. (The fake movie illuminates a subplot about Pam’s dad separating from Pam’s mom because of a stray comment made by Jim; Pam fears it was negative or hurtful, but it turns out to be a typically irresistible declaration of love by a man who specializes in them.)
The episode’s second half is equally strong, though far less manic. Michael accepts that he’s personally responsible for most of the stress at the office and stages a roast of himself in the branch’s warehouse. Problem is, Michael isn’t good at taking criticism of any kind, and sits through the whole ceremony with a constipated and sometimes horrified expression, cutting off speakers, trying to declare certain types of humor off-limits, and ultimately fleeing the event. His final counter-roast of the other employees — a succession of rushed-through, monotone insults, each capped with “Boom roasted” — is comedy gold.
2. “Fun Run,” Season 4, Episode 1 & 2
Written and directed by Greg Daniels
“I have flaws,” Michael tells us. “What are they? I sing in the shower. Sometimes I spend too much time volunteering. Occasionally I’ll hit somebody with my car. So sue me. No, don’t sue me … That’s the opposite of the point I was trying to make.”
Another epic two-parter, “Fun Run” is so sprawling, and so thorough in its depiction of a diverse cross section of humanity, that it’s almost panoramic. It starts with one of the show’s funniest cold openings — Michael in a car telling us how good life is, then running over one of his employees, Meredith. Then it slowly morphs into one of Michael’s more bizarre attempts at self-justification. Michael at first insists that the accident is part of an office “curse,” but when Meredith is diagnosed with rabies while hospitalized, he interprets it as divine providence and anoints himself a crusader charged with eradicating the scourge of rabies from the world. There’s also a creepy subplot wherein Angela entrusts Dwight with looking in on her terminally ill cat, and Dwight decides to perform a mercy killing. “Cat heaven is a beautiful place,” Angela says, “but you don’t get there if you’re euthanized.” And we incidentally learn that Creed is an expert on painkillers and has plenty of experience with cults: “I’ve been involved in a number of cults as both a leader and a follower. You have more fun as a follower, but you make more money as a leader.”
The “Fun Run for Rabies” occupies most of the episode’s second half. It’s a keeper, not just for its spot-on psychological observations (such as Michael subconsciously punishing himself for his misdeed by loading up on fettuccine alfredo beforehand and refusing all water) but for its marvelous small touches: Dwight using a .44 Magnum as a starter’s pistol; Jim and Pam turning the race into a laid-back lovers’ stroll; Andy taping over his sensitive nipples to prevent chafing; and Oscar, Stanley and Creed sneaking off to a bar for a few hours, then piling out of a cab at the finish line. “I’m like Forrest Gump,” Michael proclaims, “except I am not an idiot.”
1. “Dinner Party,” Season 4, Episode 13
Written by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupintsky, directed by Paul Feig
Perfect in its horrifying way, “Dinner Party” is a textbook illustration of the Comedy of Discomfort. It perfectly captures the feeling of being forced to bear witness to other people’s misery and feeling unable to look away, much less escape. The plot is simple: Michael and his girlfriend Jan throw a dinner party. Guests include Andy and Angela, Jim and Pam, and Dwight, who crashes the party with a “date,” a former childhood baby sitter. “Purely carnal,” Dwight says. “That’s all you need to know.”
As the guests spend time in Michael and Jan’s house, they get much more information about Michael and Jan’s troubled relationship than they ever needed or wanted. Among other things, they learn that Jan completely controls almost every aspect of the couple’s life together, including the d
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.