After fighting to stay on the air following a ratings-challenged first season, "The Office" made an amazing comeback during Season 2, turning from a little-watched cult favorite into a bona fide hit for NBC. Some credit is due star (and Golden Globe winner) Steve Carell, whose turn in last summer's "40-Year-Old Virgin" brought the show lots of new fans. But watching the show develop this season was like watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon. It's not that the writing improved between the two seasons -- it has always been strong -- or that Carell ramped up his shtick, but through the fall and into the spring, the show cast off the last vestiges of the BBC show it was originally based on and found its wings.
One happy consequence was that as the season progressed, we got to see the show morph into an ensemble production, showcasing the comic gifts of the actors in smaller roles. We learned that Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) is both a poker champion and a drummer in a Police cover band called Scrantonicity, that Oscar (Oscar Nunez) is gay, and that Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and super-uptight Angela (Angela Kinsey) are having a fling.
But "The Office" is really about Jim and Pam, and it always has been. Yes, Carell is great as the shallow, needy, cringe-inducing boss Michael Scott; yes, Dwight, with his gym teacher glasses, never ceases to annoy (Wilson was similarly wacko as Arthur on "Six Feet Under"). But the relationship between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) -- their sweet inside jokes, loyalty and flirtatiousness, their shared devotion to distraction and mischief, and the obvious sexual frisson -- provides the show's main narrative arc. Dwight's dalliance with Angela seems tacked on in comparison, and Michael's relationship with his boss, Jan Levinson (Melora Hardin), is more confusing than compelling -- what does she see in this guy? (It's a question she asks herself during the finale, but can't really bring herself to answer.) When it comes down to it, we all want to know what's going to happen with Jim and Pam, even if any hope of outright romance seems to be doomed.
The season closer on Thursday night, written by Carell, really came through on the Pam and Jim front. In it, everyone gathers for the big Dunder Mifflin Casino Night charity fundraiser, though it's ultimately never decided to which charity the money will actually go. (Michael wants it to go to the Boy Scouts -- they need help because "they don't have cookies like the Girl Scouts.") The risk-taking theme is pretty obvious: Michael risks his pride by asking out his real-estate agent, Carol Stills (Nancy Walls, who's married to Carell); Jan risks her self-esteem by driving two hours to attend the fundraiser and to hang out with Michael (who by then has another date); but the real risk is taken by Jim, who finally gathers the wherewithal -- call it guts, selfishness or honesty -- to tell Pam that he loves her.
There was plenty of buildup to the big ending in the 40-minute episode. With Pam's help, Jim manages to convince Dwight that he has telekinetic powers, and there's a great scene in which Jim and Pam watch the cheeseball audition tapes from wedding bands that Pam's fiancé, Roy (James Denton), has neglected to look at. It underscores the whole weird dynamic of their romance. Pam still seems blissfully unaware of the impact of her own words when she tells the camera afterward, "Jim is great. Being with him just takes away all the stress of planning my wedding." Pam's total cluelessness about her true feelings for Jim is one of the major dramatic engines powering the show.
At the Casino Night (held in the company warehouse), Pam flirts through a few hands of poker with Jim before cleaning him out. Jim seems ready to give up on the night when a conversation with Jan about his plans to transfer out of the company's Scranton office, a move obviously connected to Pam's upcoming nuptials, catalyzes something within him. Finding himself alone with Pam, he decides to show her his hand, dropping his defenses so suddenly it comes as quite a shock -- both to her and us:
"I'm in love with you."
"I'm really sorry if that's weird for you to hear, but I need you to hear it."
Watching Jim's face through the scene, you can't help feeling sorry for the guy, and Pam almost makes you hate her when she says Jim just "misinterpreted things." But then, just when you're about ready to write her off, Pam is back in the office, talking to her mom on the phone about what has just happened. Suddenly, Jim saunters in -- you have to admire his persistence here -- and plants a big one on her. She tenses up at first, but then returns the kiss with a passion that says this is the moment she's been waiting for, too. The show ends with the two of them looking at each other with a mixture of elation and confusion: Now what?