Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Office Season 3 DVD: you must own it!

By Rick Morris

On Tuesday, the Season Three DVD for the American version of The Office was released. Regular listeners to The FDH Lounge have heard me single out the show as my favorite of all time, so needless to say, I obtained my copy promptly and now have all three seasons of this brilliant show on DVD. My set came from Best Buy and I recommend it highly; in addition to the four-disc set, you also receive your own “Dundee” award, a “greeting letter” from Michael Scott to the new arrivals from Stamford and a mini-bobblehead doll of Dwight Schrute based on the one shown on his desk on the program.

The DVD has the usual array of goodies one might expect, from videos, bloopers and many deleted scenes to commentaries by cast members, writers and producers. Wisely, the program caters strongly to its very hardcore fanbase, as few programs on television make more money from downloaded episodes and DVDs. It’s a program that rewards those who watch it closely, as there are so many subtle moments of great writing and sidesplitting comedy. For the sake of those of you not yet acquainted with the greatness of the program, I’m going to provide some background and then outline the third season for you.

Based on the BBC version, which many misguided souls have held up as superior to this one, The Office takes place at the Scranton, PA office of Dunder-Mifflin, a mid-sized regional paper supply company. As with the British version, the concept is that of a show-within-a-show, as it is not a standard sitcom filmed in front of a live audience or with a laugh track. It is a fake documentary, as the characters on the show are followed around the office, and some events outside the office, by a film crew gaining material for a future series. The camera shots we see on the program are the ones used by the “documentary crew,” and one of the main characters, Jim Halpert, is notorious for his mugging for the cameras.

Seasons One and Two of the program followed much the same overall concept, as Season One only consisted of six episodes and was essentially on a tryout basis by NBC. During those seasons, we were treated to the exploits at Dunder-Mifflin as the characters coped with the mundane office life being punctuated by the over-the-top antics of their wacky boss Michael Scott and his annoying kiss-up sidekick Dwight Schrute.

The heart of the show came from salesman Jim Halpert and receptionist Pam Beesley, close friends who provided a rare normal perspective to the office and who were usually the only two able to be able reach the childlike Michael when he went too far. They also enlivened and set the comedic tone in the office with constant pranking of the hapless Dwight. Pam was engaged to Roy, a stereotypical blue-collar meathead in the Dunder-Mifflin warehouse downstairs, much to the consternation of Jim. Although they never crossed any physical lines, Pam and Jim had a very deep connection, about which he was acutely aware and she stayed firmly in denial. Jim rarely pushed matters with Pam, fearful that he would lose what he had with her and confident that time was on his side as Pam seethed through an eternal engagement and Roy’s obliviousness to what she wanted. But, midway through Season Two on the “Booze Cruise,” a drunken Roy impulsively set a wedding date just as Jim was about to overcome his fears and try to win Pam away. The rest of the season was a brutal period for Jim as he tried and failed to be content dating other women and reached a boiling point with the final episode, “Casino Night.” After a company gambling fundraiser, Jim secretly agreed to accept a transfer to Stamford and made an impromptu decision to pour his heart out to Pam before he left. The final ten minutes of the show were among the most painful that I have ever seen, as a shocked Pam initially rejected Jim before he made one last surprise attempt a short while later as the cameras faded to black.

This set the stage for what will go down in the history of the show as a transformational one, as the main subplot of Jim and Pam took the long, winding path to initial completion. Season Three starts with “Gay Witch Hunt,” an episode in which a characteristically socially inept Michael inadvertently outs Oscar from accounting. After a flashback is shown, the viewers are told that Pam reluctantly stuck to her rejection of Jim, but called off her wedding shortly thereafter. Without her saying so, it’s made firmly clear that Jim was the reason she did so – but he took the job in Stamford and she was afraid to call him, sure that he hated or at least resented her. This set the tone for Season Three being the one with “the shoe on the other foot,” as Pam was now forced to pine from a distance and learn what Jim had endured for three years. A heartbroken Jim, trying to put a good face on the situation, cited his promotion as the reason he moved to Stamford with his clear motives very transparent.

The first quarter of the season took place with scenes in both the Scranton and Stamford offices, an awkward premise that the writers characteristically made work in a flawless manner. We were introduced to new characters in Stamford: Josh (the apparently flawless boss and a welcome grown-up counterpoint to Michael), Andy (annoying socially awkward frat boy wanna-be from Cornell) and Karen (very attractive and sharp-witted saleswoman seated behind Jim’s desk). During this part of the season, Jim and Karen started to become friendly, a development with consequences for the rest of the season.

In November, following the obligatory sweeps month arc, the long-awaited decision about which of the two branches would be closed was reached. Initially, Scranton was to be closed, a decision which viewers were led to believe was due in part to animosity from the boss, Jan Levinson, when Michael stopped pursuing her. But then Josh, in a classic double-cross out of nowhere, leveraged his new status as Northeast Regional Uber-Boss to obtain a choice management position at Staples and the company was forced to change course and consolidate Stamford with the Scranton office. Jan offered Jim yet another promotion as #2 in the enlarged Scranton office if he would go back, but he didn’t accept until the seeds were planted in his mind that Karen’s evident affection for him could be useful. She would serve for the rest of the season as his “Pam-shield.”

“The Merger” was one of the most hilarious culture-clash episodes in the history of television, as the employees from the professionally-operated Stamford office were forced to confront the lunacy of life under Michael Scott. At the same time, a hopeful Pam, who believed she had been delivered a second chance with Jim out of nowhere, found his return highly unsatisfactory as she came to believe he had moved on with Karen. This event also set the tone for the rest of the season as Pam believed everything was too late with Jim and Jim clung to Karen like a life preserver because he believed that Pam was only interested in him as a friend.

Pam’s desperation mounted throughout the season, especially after a false alarm when she and Jim pulled a great prank on Andy and their celebration seemed to foreshadow a conversation that would allow them to get on the same page. But a newly clingy and assertive Karen, by now aware of Jim and Pam’s past connection, was able to reel Jim back in as his fear of rejection by Pam kept him from taking another chance. Pam’s downward spiral was made complete during “Phyllis’ Wedding,” when her anger over co-worker Phyllis’ theft of all of her abandoned wedding ideas collided with her loneliness and despair over watching an apparently happy Jim and Karen and led her to leave the wedding with Roy. The look of devastation on Jim’s face when he saw Pam leave with Roy (right after a cameraman posed a “hypothetical” question to him about if Pam were interested in him and he gave a transparently thrilled response) was completely reminiscent of “Casino Night,” and was the result of some great writing. At the time, though, I found the episode so disturbing as to make the apparent story arc ridiculous, as I stated on The FDH Lounge program that the writers had probably crossed the line by making Pam completely unsympathetic by her reaction and that most guys would have probably just written her off at that point. But the writers were, as usual, one step ahead of the fanbase and presented the rest of the season in a very believable fashion.

All season long, Roy had been trying to prove that he was a changed man and somebody who would appreciate Pam if he had another chance. From the start of their short-lived reunion, however, viewers could see that he was incapable of doing much more than faking that kind of evolution. Also during this period, Pam overheard some friends characterize her as lacking in honesty and courage, which made her decision to settle for Roy that much tougher to swallow. Their final breakup came when Pam, trying to make the best of a fresh start with Roy if she couldn’t have Jim, told him about “Casino Night” and that she had kissed Jim and had feelings for him. An enraged Roy trashed the bar they were sitting in as a troubled Pam left him for good – and the final shot of the show was of Roy vowing to kill Jim Halpert. Thus ensued a mini-cliffhanger, as The Office was in reruns for six weeks after the February sweeps. The situation resolved itself when Roy walked up to the office and charged at Jim. The heavy subject matter was characteristically dealt with in The Office’s humorous fashion as unlikely hero Dwight pepper-sprayed Roy before he could get to Jim. A bitter Jim, who had pretty much avoided Pam during her reunion with Roy, blew off her heartfelt apology for Roy’s attempted attack and her vow that she would never get back together with Roy during another hugely compelling scene.

This set the stage for the final arc of the season, as Pam watched Jim settle into life with Karen. While it was apparent that Karen was calling many of the shots in the relationship, Pam had no reason to believe that Jim was that dissatisfied with matters. In the season’s penultimate episode “Beach Games,” Pam was pushed so far by Michael’s usual bad behavior and the stronger-than-ever evidence that Jim really had moved on that she took the opportunity to walk over coals (an activity that Michael had arranged for the group) to prove to herself that she did have courage – and then, hopped up on adrenaline, she proved her honesty by confronting Jim in front of everyone and telling him that he was the reason she called off her wedding. Inhibited by Karen’s presence, she did not make a completely blatant play for him, instead telling him that she missed having fun with him like she used to, but everyone in the office was able to read between the lines, even, at long last, Jim.

In the final episode of the season, “The Job,” Michael, Jim and Karen all interviewed for a position at the corporate office in New York. Jim was forced to confront the fact that he had a choice: stay with Karen and move to New York with her (a development which the more-threatened-than-ever Karen insisted upon regardless of who got the job) or go back to Scranton and take the opportunity he always wanted with Pam. A subtle long-distance nudge from Pam, which was a callback to “Office Olympics” in Season Two, helped push Jim in the right direction as he ended the episode by driving back to Scranton after dumping Karen and making a dinner date with Pam.

It’s worth noting that most of my friends who watch The Office to any degree profess to identify greatly with Jim. It’s easy, and very self-flattering to do so on the surface. He’s a great guy, generally kind to other people and very loyal to his own (after Josh backstabbed the Stamford office at the very end, a disillusioned Jim, who had looked up to Josh, said it very well: “Say what you will about Michael Scott, he would never do anything like that.”). Women generally find him attractive, notwithstanding his unmade-bed hair and a somewhat bulbous nose and he’s always the most clever and funny guy in the room with his constant pranks. He also uses his humor to subtly deflate others when warranted. But I would say that a great many of us men are like Jim in the ways we are happy about as well as those we might prefer to forget. His long period of pining after an unavailable woman, coupled with his insecurities, indecision and worries about how to balance his desire for what he wants with what has remained of his dignity all hit home to many men.

The writing of the Jim and Pam characters is so believable that The Office is the only show I’ve ever watched where I personally identified with the plight of the characters and felt that it was completely lifelike. I never bought into the Ross-and-Rachel saga of “Friends,” nor any other cartoonish Hollywood attempt to capture the minefield of interpersonal relationships. As a writer, I strongly believe that that is the single most difficult aspect of life to capture accurately in any fictional setting. But the unparalleled crew of The Office carries this off in a way that looks effortless. Perhaps the greatest example of this came on “Casino Night,” when it became apparent to Pam that Jim was going to force once and for all the issue that had been just under the surface for so long. Fearful of the ramifications of ending a relationship with her live-in fiancĂ©e that had been ongoing since high school with her wedding day looming, Pam panicked and gave Jim the answer that neither she nor Jim really wanted to come out of her mouth – but the writing here was key. She said, “I’m sorry you misinterpreted our friendship.” Most guys can tell you the effect that the words “misinterpret” and “friendship” have when a man tries to make a move on a female friend. They force you to change everything you thought you knew about what was developing – and that’s what happened to Jim in Season Three. No matter how obvious Pam’s interest in Jim was to the viewers, until he heard that he had not misinterpreted anything, he could not feel free to put himself on the line for Pam again. This almost universal sense of identification that men can feel with the position Jim found himself in this past season is a big reason for the show’s success.

For that matter, many women can relate to Pam as well. Although not at all a stylish dresser and an introverted person with some apparent self-esteem issues, Pam is an attractive woman in a low-key way with a great sense of humor. The show accurately captures what ten years of a steadily failing relationship with her only real previous love interest could do to the psyche of such a person and it explains completely why Pam couldn’t summon the courage to take on the beautiful and flashy Karen until the end of the season.

But the Jim-and-Pam subplot of the show is not even close to being the only evidence of the show’s greatness. The comedy is constant, with many references so subtle that they are only detectible after numerous viewings (which helps explain why the show is among the most downloaded on television). This type of humor comes in equal parts from the dry humor of some of the characters, especially some less-prominent ones, as well as silent comedy from a variety of reaction looks directed at the documentary cameras. Pam is a huge and valuable part of the subtle humor of the show. As the lowest-ranking person in an office where people don’t hesitate to throw their weight around, she has to suffer a spate of job-related indignities as well as inappropriate appreciative comments from Michael and occasionally Kevin about her breasts. The resulting soft-spoken passive-aggressive utterances that come from her and similar subtle put-upon glances at the camera, are comedy gold and hopefully will remain a part of the show even as this character gains in confidence and maturity. Fittingly, the other character who delivers subtle humor week in and week out is Jim, whose constantly bemused glances at the camera communicate a vital part of the narrative.

But if you love broad, insane comedy, The Office has that as well. The insane reign over the office of Michael Scott provides numerous belly laughs each week. Having been warped by a strange mother in his formative years, he never outgrew his childlook outlook on life and is obsessed with being everyone’s friend (except Toby; more about that below). He wants to be adored by all and fancies himself a top-flight entertainer and comedian when in fact he is funny in a laughing-at-you-not-with-you way. While he is too consumed with being liked and a bit too lazy to be a good boss, he is also an excellent salesman and is able to keep his job by summoning this skill at critical and unexpected moments. During the course of Season Three, he concluded a disastrous relationship with his real estate agent and found himself in a dysfunctional on-again, off-again relationship with his erstwhile boss, Jan. Having gotten herself fired at the end of the season right after she got a breast enlargement to win Michael back, Jan ended up moving in with him – the logical culmination to a season in which this apparently normal but tightly-wound character completely disintegrated under the strain of her inexplicable attraction to Michael. Jan’s replacement at the end of Season Three: the former temp and unsuccessful salesman Ryan, who leapfrogged all other contenders on the strength of his newly secured MBA. He leaves behind in Scranton his screechy and annoying girlfriend Kelly Kapoor (who he had only been using for sex) and also Michael, who’s comical but intense “man-crush” on the long-suffering Ryan has been a point of emphasis for most of the show’s history.

Most of the show’s other over-the-top comedy comes from the man constantly brown-nosing Michael, beet farmer and ace salesman Dwight K. Schrute. During Season Three, Dwight has his usual array of outrageous moments in his capacity as a “Legend-In-His-Own-Mind-Would-Be-Authority-Figure,” but he is also humanized at some key junctures by his real love of his job and his strange-but-endearing ultra-secret relationship with fellow office weirdo, the uptight Angela. Dwight’s acrimony with Stamford arrival Andy makes for some classic comedy as well.

Many other characters are actually given a chance to shine this season, among them grumpy middle-aged Stanley (whose fondness for soft pretzels steals the show in one key episode), quiet and sweet Phyllis (who always refers to her new husband by his first and last names), the classic weird old guy Creed, the always-yammering and celebrity-obsessed Kelly, the gay Hispanic accountant Oscar (whose minority status in two categories gives Michael twice the opportunities to make inappropriate jokes), Darryl the warehouse manager (who takes advantage, for his own entertainment, of Michael’s dependence on him for knowledge of “black culture” to trick Michael into acting even more stupid), the hilariously immature Kevin (for whom Pam and Jim once bought 69 cups of noodle soup – so that he could have his favorite lunch and his favorite number all in one) and Toby in Human Resources (a quiet, meek divorced man whom Michael considers his only enemy in the world and about whom Michael routinely makes astonishingly vicious comments). This ensemble is among the deepest in terms of talent that the medium has ever seen, due in large part to an acting team as great as the creative talent writing for it. Jenna Fischer, John Krasinski and Steve Carell draw the lion’s share of attention for their awesome portrayals of Pam, Jim and Michael respectively, but the entire cast is great top-to-bottom.

Ultimately, it’s the blend of all of these elements that makes the American version of The Office the greatest in television history in my opinion. Some of my past favorites have included “Dallas,” “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” (before the rampant plot recycling of recent seasons), but none of these shows have combined broad humor, subtle humor and such a keen grasp of the frailties that play into human relationships like this program. The Season Three DVD is a great piece of entertainment and it contains many of what will probably go down as the most transformational episodes in the show’s history. The deleted scenes, which the writers have taken great pains to emphasize publicly that they consider canon, provide countless additional laughs and help paint the broad story of the season also. The writers had wanted to present Karen as a viable rival to Pam throughout the season, so Karen was generally presented in a positive light for most of the season. However, her behavior in the final episode foreshadowed Jim’s eventual choice, and the DVD fleshes this out somewhat with deleted scenes that will perhaps keep you from feeling as bad for somebody who got caught in the middle of a very unfortunate situation. What the writers and producers of the DVD really did was to bring together every bit material that they could for their grateful fans – much as they did with the DVDs for the two previous seasons – and it’s this approach that keeps the followers coming back eagerly for more. Season Three, along with Seasons One and Two before it, comes highly recommended.

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