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Thu May 16, 2013
A Farewell To 'The Office': The 10 Best Episodes
It really only hit yesterday: It's the end of The Office.
After nine seasons, Dunder Mifflin is going dark Thursday night, with an hour-long retrospective at 8:00 and a 75-minute episode at 9:00 that may or may not feature a cameo from Steve Carell. There have been denials of an appearance from him that could be read as emphatic or tiptoeing, depending on whether you focus on the obvious implications of those denials or the technicalities that might allow for wiggle room.
But either way, it's over after tonight.
The general trajectory is well known, but to recap: Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's U.K. series — which only had 12 episodes plus a two-part Christmas special, by the way — comes to the U.S., struggles in its first season, takes off in part because of iTunes, and runs for eight years. Jim and Pam become a supercouple. The show wins Emmys. Steve Carell becomes a movie star. The show struggles creatively, Carell leaves, it runs for two more seasons, NBC declines a spin-off featuring Rainn Wilson's Dwight, and the end arrives.
It was uneven, it got increasingly uneven as it went on, and yes, the decision to sub in Ed Helms for Carell in too-similar stories in the last two seasons didn't work. It could be frustrating and meandering, and there were mistakes.
But in between, boy, they did some beautiful, beautiful work. Here are my 10 favorite episodes, in chronological order.
1. "Health Care." A legend grew up eventually that the entire first six-episode season was something of a throwaway, but "Health Care" remains an absolute gem, the episode that cemented Jim and Dwight's hilariously contentious relationship. (When Jim locks Dwight in the "Dwight Schrute Workspace," their ensuing phone call is much funnier than you might remember.) The giddy playfulness of the writing comes out when Dwight angrily reads a list of diseases people have claimed to have, including "hot dog fingers," a turn of phrase so funny that even Angela cracks up. And the slow horror of Meredith explaining her hysterectomy proves that she was funny well before she became an outrageous drunk. It's also a great episode for Michael's terrible cowardice, as he both pushes a bad insurance situation onto others and pretends to have a great surprise in store for the employees when he doesn't.
2. "Office Olympics." If "Health Care" is the episode that established the Jim/Dwight dynamic, "Office Olympics" was the clearest yet explanation of a theme that would bubble underneath the entire series through this last season: Jim's position as an affable guy wasting his life in a job he doesn't care about, buoyed only by his affection for Pam and his fondness for horsing around. While there's also a lovely and sweet note of kindness toward Michael when everyone gives him a medal at the "closing ceremonies," the most important moment comes when Pam says: "The thing about Jim is when he's excited about something like the Office Olympics, he gets really into it and he does a really great job. But the problem with Jim is that he works here. So that hardly ever happens." Even now, several years into their marriage, this is still what they're dealing with.
3. "The Injury." The setup for this one is fairly simple: Michael hurts his foot and limps around on crutches all day. It's complicated, however, when Dwight rushes off to help and gets into a car accident. "The Injury" includes some of the best one-liners the writers ever popped off, including Michael holding out his foot, swathed in bubble wrap, insisting that he's disabled, demanding, "What does this look like to you, Stanley?" and Stanley saying, "Mailboxes Etcetera?" But it's also a showcase for horrified looks, especially from B.J. Novak (Ryan) as Michael, from inside the bathroom, demands that Ryan come in to rescue him. ("He's ... dead," Toby says helpfully.) There's less here than in some of my other favorites when it comes to interpersonal dynamics, but this one is really, really funny.
4. "Drug Testing." I questioned whether to include "Drug Testing," since the actual drug testing storyline (Dwight finds a discarded joint outside in the parking lot and launches an investigation) is a little dopey. But Dwight's investigations were an important part of his character, his sacrifices on Michael's behalf are both sad and funny, and this is the episode that brings both Jim's impression of Stanley and the related B-plot in which Jim loses at "jinx" and can't talk all day. It turns into a great Jim and Pam episode, a great Dwight and Michael episode, and a good day for all-around Dunder Mifflin weirdness: "What a terrible day to not be able to talk," Jim tells us. "Dwight was literally carrying around his own urine dressed like one of the Village People."
5. "Initiation." You've got Dwight taking Ryan to the Schrute family beet farm for a terrifying encounter with cousin Mose. You've got Stanley freaking out over Pretzel Day and Pam tracking everything Michael does on Jan's instructions. And at the end, you've got Jim and Pam finally connecting by phone after months of separation. It's a good one.
6. "Beach Games"/"The Job." Yes, yes, this is cheating — it's counting two as one. But this is the pair of episodes that wrapped up the third season and ended the will-they-or-won't-they part of Jim and Pam's relationship (which, in TV terms, hadn't actually gone on for all that long). Poor Karen (Rashida Jones) was pretty much doomed from the start, and we all knew it, but she was such a nice person and so funny and not-that-wrong for Jim that it made for a braver presentation of this kind of story than you often get. Jim's discovery of the yogurt lid/medal that Pam tucked away for him, followed by Pam's ecstatic grin when he returns and asks her out for dinner, make it just as satisfying as people who had followed that relationship needed it to be, and honored the fact that if this were a real documentary, you'd only see pieces of a relationship forming, and you probably wouldn't be invited to film the good parts. (There's a lovely callback to this in the next season opener, "Fun Run," but the rest of that episode is pretty bleh.)
7. "Dinner Party." Melora Hardin (Jan) was an underappreciated ensemble member, I think, and the horror show that is "Dinner Party" is one of her finest hours. It's so agonizing as Jan shows them around her scented-candle workspace, belittles an apparently (but perhaps not actually) oblivious Michael, and freaks out at Pam for eating before the hours-long osso buco preparation project is completed. Michael's tiny flat-screen TV, Jan's dancing to the music of Hunter, her ex-assistant, and the eventual knock-down drag-out that finally brings an end to Jan and Michael ... it's awful even before Michael starts explaining the number of times that he's gotten a vasectomy and had it reversed. Yes, the second season was probably the strongest, and the show was already getting a little more uneven, but "Dinner Party" is the really, truly cringe-iest episode this particular comedy ever produced. (From the same era, I almost chose "The Deposition," one of Steve Carell's finest hours, emotionally speaking.)
8. "Customer Survey." I love "Customer Survey" for two reasons: Dwight finally suspects evil is afoot and is right, and Jim and Pam wear tiny Bluetooth devices that allow them to talk all day. While sending Pam to New York wound up feeling like a misfire much of the time (though they paid it off with the charming proposal episode "Weight Loss"), the moment when Pam, who you've forgotten by then is on the phone, hears Kelly say "Get out of my nook!,", freaks out and starts bouncing in her chair, saying "That's what she said THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID" is a legitimately different comedy note for Jenna Fischer than the ones she usually got to play, and it's wonderful.
9. "Broke." Oh, "Broke." Michael's great triumph, where he begins as a guy on the ropes, doing early morning deliveries in a van that used to belong to the Alleluia Church Of Scranton ("it was either this or an old school bus with an owl living in it," Pam says). He ends by finding the right thing to say to David Wallace at the right moment, so that he can sell his failing company with the help of Jim, who (unethically but awesomely) keeps Dunder Mifflin from figuring out that the Michael Scott Paper Company is about to collapse until after they've already paid it to go away. The MSPC story seemed like it was going to be a road to nowhere, but it was kind of great for Michael and especially Pam, who was never the receptionist again.
10. "Goodbye, Michael." If you needed proof that The Office could still produce, Steve Carell's last episode provided it. It's just a beaut from top to bottom, and it demonstrated that while Michael was still kind of a dweeb, he had grown close to these people, especially Jim and Pam, both of whom had hard-won bonds with him.
It's hard not to include "Garage Sale," which has Michael and Holly's fantastic proposal, or "Weight Loss," which has Jim and Pam's fantastic proposal, or "Niagara," which has their wedding. There are individual moments from the series that are at least as great as these. And if I were a betting person, I'd bet the finale Thursday night will include a few more.