Spencer Watches The Office: Season 1
I have a deep, deep love for The Office. I love television as a medium, but I’m extraordinarily picky in which shows I watch. I don’t really tune in regularly for anything other than sports. Regardless, The Office was scheduled viewing every Thursday night for eight years. (I joined the bandwagon for Season Two.) In the days before Netflix binge watching, or even a simple way to watch shows without a DVR, having watched every episode of any series was something to boast about. And that’s what I did. I watched the final eight seasons of The Office as it aired, week by week. It seems unfathomable now.
It’s always something I have in the “Recently Watched” section of Netflix, but I’ve never made the effort to watch it episode-by-episode front to back again. I decided it was worth a shot, and I wanted to write about it. I know the show inside and out, so it’ll be fun to pick it apart piece by piece.
Plenty of sitcoms have loyal, devoted fans, but very few can enter that higher realm of cultural iconicism that shows like Seinfeld and Friends have. NBC managed to catch lightning in a bottle. Looking at, say, season seven or eight of the show, the success may seem obvious. By the time the show hit its home stretch in 2013, it had spent years as the face of NBC comedy and featured a laundry list of recognizable faces. The truest testament to the show and the genius team that created it comes when you look through a 2005 lens. Steve Carell, now recognized as a comedy kingpin, was the face of the fledgling series which was ordered as a mid-season replacement by NBC. It was designed to fill a hole left by a cancelled show. Most series don’t premiere in late March.
At the time he signed onto the show, Carell was a writer on The Daily Show and was most recognized as buffoon television anchor Evan Baxter in Bruce Almighty (for which he was given credit as “Steven Carell”). By the time the show hit the air, he had also starred in Anchorman, but that’s about it as far as huge roles go. This was even before The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine. Carell, the face of the series, was pretty green. Never mind the rest of the cast, who were essentially unknowns. Rainn Wilson, playing Dwight Schrute, had a role on HBO’s Six Feet Under. John Krasinski, playing Jim Halpert, and Jenna Fischer, playing Pam Beesly, were unrecognizable faces. And these were the main characters.
Mid-seasons replacements are, by definition, low-risk. The network wants to plug a hole and hope for the best. Whatever it’s replacing was a dud, so the execs are just hoping to cut their losses and try to strike gold on something random. The show was a British adaptation, and given the success of NBC’s last British adaptation (Coupling crashed and burned after four episodes in 2003) it’s kind of a wonder The Office even made it to air. Suffice it to say, there was plenty of reason to doubt the show’s potential.
On March 24, 2005, NBC stuck the pilot episode behind My Name Is Earl, in the Tuesday 9:30 PM slot. Reviews of the premiere, which was nearly a scene-for-scene remake of the British show, were tepid, but the ratings were impressive. 11.2 million viewers tuned in, and they were off to the races.
We’re introduced to the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in the Pilot. For fans of the series, the differences between seasons two through nine and this opener are already apparent. The fact that you’re watching a British adaptation is much more obvious, as this is the driest, bleakest season by a long shot. If you dislike dry humor, you’ve turned off this episode in the first ten minutes. It’s brilliant — at least in hindsight — but in a kind of depressing way. Even the cinematography serves to support that vibe, as the shots are longer and the colors are more muted than in the rest of the series. The lower budget is also clear. The Office hadn’t yet opened the huge money pipeline it did in later seasons. This seems like a mom-and-pop operation compared to the show at its peak.
The first “big laugh” comes as Michael wraps up a phone call with a client: “Thank you very much sir! You are a gentleman and a scholar.” He backtracks and apologizes before hanging up the phone to reveal he was speaking with a woman. “She has a very low voice. Probably a smoker.”
The characterization of Michael presented here (and in the next few episodes) isn’t exactly out of line with the rest of the series, but it isn’t totally consistent either. While Michael becomes known as a bumbling, but caring, boss, he’s presented here as competent (at one point bragging about increased profits and cut expenses) but with a pronounced narcissistic and selfish streak. He’s doesn’t seem bad at his job, but he’s a jerk. At some point fairly early on, the writers decided to make him a lovable, albeit annoying, idiot. I think they made the right call.
Right off the bat we’re introduced to a major early-series plot line: downsizing. It becomes a buzzword in Season One. Word has come down from corporate that a branch of Dunder Mifflin is getting the axe. Michael learns of this but ultimately decides against sharing this information with his employees, wanting to avoid inciting panic. He rationalizes this choice, saying, “As a doctor, you would not tell a patient if they had cancer.”
Unsurprisingly, the downsizing rumors leak through the office. Everyone is understandably concerned, save Jim and Pam, who giggle about Angela’s upcoming cat party. This hints at a major early theme: The pair’s unwillingness to allow their roots at Dunder Mifflin to get too deep. “I don’t think it’s many girls’ dream to be a receptionist,” says Pam.
“If I advance any higher in this company, then this would be my career. And, well, if this were my career? I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” — Jim Halpert
Jim and Pam, seemingly trapped here, have their sights set higher. The rest of the office is filled with dead-end types. Seriously, Season One is really depressing in a lot of ways. It’s oddly existential for a sitcom.
The icing on the depressing cake is this early version of Michael. Among other things, he:
Does a terrible Hitler impression. “I’m Hitler! Adolf Hilter!”
Lists his heroes as Bob Hope, Abraham Lincoln, Bono, and… God.
Pulls a “prank” on Pam, wherein he fake fires her, reducing her to tears.
Tells a story of a Guatemalan immigrant who once worked in his office. He says the man asked him to be the godfather of his child, before adding that he “had to let him go. He sucked.”
We get our first taste of the Jim-Dwight rivalry in the form of an argument over desk space. Jim sets up a #2 pencil barrier around his desk, but Dwight contends that someone could fall and “pierce an organ.” We also get one of the most iconic moments of the entire series, as Dwight opens a drawer to discover his stapler floating in a dome of yellow Jell-O. The camera pans to Jim, eating a cup of Jell-O, with a mouth full of Jell-O, offering the question, “How do you know it was me?” Brilliant.
Pam explains her engagement to Roy, who works in the warehouse. They’ve been engaged for three years, but there’s no wedding in sight. For those taking notes at home, feel free to write “dead-end relationship” underneath “dead-end job” on Pam’s resume. Roy and Jim have their first of many uncomfortable encounters, and the first substantial seeds of the Jim-Pam romance are planted when Jim mentions he knows Pam’s favorite flavor of yogurt: mixed berry.
The poor feedback on this episode is understandable. Unless you love dry humor and giggling at the uncomfortable interactions and misfortunes of strangers, this episode wasn’t exactly a thrill-ride of laughter. That said, it has a special place in my heart for planting the seeds that grew into my favorite show ever. It seems so quaint and unassuming in hindsight.
The first episode of The Office I ever saw was Diversity Day. Compared to the bone-dry humor of the pilot, this one is a never-ending train of laughs.
After a re-telling of an off-color Chris Rock routine by Michael, a sensitivity trainer comes to the office to educate employees. Michael, seemingly unaware that he’s the reason for the training session, repeatedly hijacks the spotlight. “Everybody say a race that you are attracted to sexually.” Dwight volunteers to go first. “I have two. White and Indian.” He’s sitting next to Kelly Kapoor.
Eventually the group is able to complete the session (which is just an hour long), but Michael refuses to sign a contract saying he learned something. He eventually succumbs before revealing he signed it “Daffy Duck.” Even for Michael, this is immature. His character hasn’t quite grown into itself yet.
The Jim-Dwight rivalry escalates quickly. Jim explains his upcoming sales call with a huge client, which has been netting him 25% of his annual sales commission. In step with the soul-sucking, depressing vibe of Season One, his co-workers continually distract from his closing of the sale before Dwight swoops in behind his back and steals it from him.
With the sensitivity trainer gone, Michael decides to conduct his own training. He calls a meeting in the conference room, at which point we get the introduction of one of my favorite running jokes from the series. Toby jokingly asks if they’ll be sitting in a circle, Indian style, to which Michael quickly replies, “Get out.”
“This is an environment of welcoming and you should just get the hell out of here.” — Michael Scott
Michael’s version of sensitivity training carries on with predictable results. At one point he asks Oscar if there’s something he’d prefer to be called other than Mexican. “Something less offensive?” Eventually things escalate to Michael delivering a boisterous and crass impression of a stereotypical Indian convenience store owner. Kelly slaps him across the face.
The highlight, and the scene that hooked me, features the employees interacting with each other while wearing note cards (of Michael’s design) on their foreheads. They’re told to treat others like the race listed on their card, while attempting to deduce their own race. Stanley’s is “black.” Kevin’s is “Italian.” Angela’s is “Jamaican.” Dwight, working off a clue that his race carries the stereotype of being a bad driver, guesses that he his card must say “woman.”
The Jim-Pam romance takes its next small step in the closing scene. As the employees sit around listening to Michael babble about the events of the day, Pam falls asleep on Jim’s shoulder. Jim, having just lost 25% of his annual commission, now has his dream girl resting her head on his shoulder. “Not a bad day,” he says.
We finally start to see Michael grow into his own in the third episode of the first season. The sexist, racist jerk is gone, replaced by the Michael we know and love. In Health Care, Michael is tasked by Jan with cutting costs in the company’s new employee health care plan. If there’s one thing Michael hates, it’s making the tough decisions and being the bad guy. It’s a recurring theme we see from Michael throughout the series, and this is where it begins. Rather than make the hard decisions his job requires, Michael attempts to pawn the work off on his employees. He first comes to Jim, who wisely deflects onto Dwight, who’s thrilled to take over. Michael skirting responsibility, chasing the friendship of his employees, and making Dwight do his dirty work is something we see throughout the series.
Dwight, predictably, chooses a health care plan with almost no coverage. After all, he doesn’t need it. He can “raise and lower his cholesterol at will.” Michael, who at this point barricaded in his office, literally hiding from his responsibilities, tries to regain the favor of a frustrated office by promising a big surprise by the end of the day. Spoiler alert: The big surprise is ice cream sandwiches. They are not, to Ryan’s dismay, the kind with the cookies. Michael, true to his character, is a huge letdown. He talked himself into something he can’t deliver on, which is textbook Michael.
While Michael fears being the bad guy, Dwight embraces it. Now closing in on his final health care plan decision, he needs everyone in the office to write down which ailments and diseases they’d like covered. It’s a classic Office alley-oop, and you know there’s gonna be a payoff. Among the listed health issues are “leprosy, flesh-eating bacteria, hot dog fingers, government-created killer nanorobot infection, and Count Choculitis.” Also listed are “anal fissures,” which Dwight assures are not a real thing. “That’s a real thing,” says Kevin. “Someone has it…”
This is the first episode where I feel like things started to pull together and resemble the show that would run for nearly a decade. The episode was written by actor/writer Paul Lieberstein, so I guess we can thank Toby for helping shape the series.
Talk of downsizing is heating up. Realizing that most information is passed around the water-cooler yet he brings his own water to work, Dwight seeks out Jim to form a team to protect their jobs. The Alliance sees Jim and Dwight join forces in another classic Season One story line. Jim takes advantage of Dwight’s paranoia, convincing him to hide inside of a cardboard box in the warehouse and later bleach his hair in my favorite punchline of the season.
Michael realizes that the rumors have cast a shadow over the office. Rather than combat them head-on with improved performance, he elects to throw a birthday party for a member of the office to boost morale. The soonest birthday is Meredith’s, which isn’t until next month. That’ll work.
Clearly unable to allow attention away from himself, the birthday party gives Michael plenty of opportunity to be selfish. He approaches the Party Planning Committee (their first appearance) about his preferred cake choice. Despite Meredith being lactose intolerance, Michael demands an ice cream cake. “Mint chocolate chip!” Later, after it finally hits him that she can’t enjoy her own birthday cake, Michael tells her, “If I were allergic to dairy, I think I’d kill myself.”
A plot line running throughout the episode is Meredith’s birthday card. Incorrectly assuming that a clever quip would save the office, Michael spends all day coming up with the perfect joke. He lands on perhaps the most insensitive comment possible: “Meredith, let’s hope the only downsizing that happens to you is that someone downsizes your age.” Seeing that it was received poorly, he offers a replacement.
“Hey Meredith, Liz Taylor called, she wants her age back and her divorces back. ’Cause Meredith’s been divorced like, twice.” — Michael Scott
We also get our first fight between Jim and Roy when Roy walks in on Jim standing behind Pam’s desk, giggling about Dwight.
Oh, and Michael accidentally donates $25 (per mile) to Oscar’s nephew’s charity walk-a-thon. “Last year, he walked 18 miles.” Michael, after realizing what he’s done, regrets his mistake, although he asserts “it isn’t about the money. It’s the ethics of the thing.”
Despite being just six episodes, the first season somehow runs out of steam after four. The last two episodes are two of the least-compelling in the first six or seven seasons. You can see this reflected in the ratings, as viewers steadily decreased before hitting a low for the series finale.
Michael gets the office workers into a basketball game with the warehouse workers, eventually escalating it to not-so-friendly wager: The losing team has to work on Saturday. If you thought Health Care was frustrating, wait until you watch Basketball.
Again, Michael remains offensive. He picks Stanley for the basketball team, “of course.” Phyllis, who played in high school, is denied. When she later volunteers to be a cheerleader, Michael is disgusted. “Yuck. That’s even worse than you playing.”
In charge of setting the weekend work schedule, Michael decides he’d rather not and instead makes Dwight do it. “This is the smallest amount of power I’ve ever seen go to someone’s head,” Jim tells Dwight.
When it comes time to play the game, Michael and Stanley are predictably terrible. Dwight, decked out in a face mask and an anime shirt, joins Jim as the team’s MVP and carries the team to a late lead. Michael gets hurt, quits the game, and then backs down when the warehouse workers bully him about working Saturday.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Michael made a promise he can’t keep and let the entire office down.
Nothing has the ability to shake up the office more than a Hot Girl. Guest starring Amy Adams (before her roles in films such as Talladega Nights, Enchanted, Her, and American Hustle) as a traveling purse salesman named Katy, Michael and Dwight flex their complete lack of tact with women. When Toby and Katy strike up a friendly conversation, Michael interjects to remind the room that Toby is recently divorced.
Jan tells Michael he has $1,000 to spend on a prize to be awarded to the top salesman of the month. Michael, operating under the assumption that Katy is obsessed with coffee, buys a deluxe Starbucks coffee maker.
The lone highlight of the episode comes when Jim is able to convince Dwight that GQ says purses are like “mini-briefcases,” leading to Dwight buying a purse from Katy and wearing it around the office the rest of the day.
The only real way this episode is able to advance the story is through the Jim-Pam-Roy love triangle. Relationship issues surface when Roy openly lusts after Katy. When Jim successfully asks Katy on a date, Pam is shown at her desk putting on lip gloss. It’s the first we’ve seen Pam care about her appearance around the office. Interesting that it comes after everyone, most notably Jim, has been swept off their feet by Katy.
Hot Girl sends Season One out with a whimper. It’s a soft ending, even for a mid-season replacement. It garnered just 4.8 million viewers, setting a low for the series that wouldn’t be matched until the latter half of Season Eight. Many predicted this flop of a finale would be the death sentence for the series. “NBC aired the season finale of Office on Tuesday night at 9:30, and it delivered a series low 2.2 rating among viewers 18–49 … all but assuring the episode was also the series finale,” wrote Media Life Magazine in 2005. “Though NBC is desperate for comedies, The Office just hasn’t shown enough signs of life to return.”
How disappointing would that have been? Season One is okay in hindsight, but wildly underwhelming in a vacuum. Had it gotten canned here, nobody would’ve remembered The Office for anything more than a few odd episodes and some awkward laughs.
Against all odds, and (perhaps fittingly) against common sense, NBC renewed The Office for a second season.