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August 19, 2008 |

By Stacey Nosek | Guides | August 19, 2008 |

Well, we made it: Pajiba’s 20th Best Television Series of the Past 20 Years, the veritable cherry on top of a gooey, 19-layered sundae of sticky, sweet, televisiony goodness. And since number 20 was readers’ choice, I just want to say thank you guys for picking “The Office” Season Two and not a season of “The Sopranos.” Because, quite frankly, I’ve never seen episode one of that show, so it would have been a real stinker of a guide which probably would have gone something like: “‘The Sopranos’ was a show on HBO about mobsters, and I think I saw on ‘Best Week Ever’ one time that one of them was gay.” And then I probably would have just talked about my dogs or something for the next 1,500 or so words. So you guys definitely made the right choice.

I was a huge fan of Ricky Gervais’ original British series. So when I heard “The Office” was being adapted for this side of the pond, like most of you, I was warily suspicious. Aside from the daunting task of taking a show that relied heavily on subtlety, and plonking it down in the watered-down, laugh track-riddled wasteland of American network television, we Americans didn’t exactly have the best track record when it came to British adaptations. So when I caught a few advance episodes online, which basically amounted to Steve Carell hammily overacting the British episodes verbatim, I initially wrote it off. And it wasn’t until much later, when a copy of the Season Two DVDs was shoved forcefully into my hands that I finally clued in. Amazingly, by Season Two, “The Office” truly had come into its own as a series. Aside from the fantastic writing, part of the appeal of the US version of “The Office” is that it’s so damn relatable. The archetypes found here are ones that can be found in virtually any office-type working environment throughout the country: the dipshit boss, who was likely “promoted” to lower-management after proving too incompetent to function as anything else other than a glorified babysitter; the spinster prude who dresses like a grandmother… or possibly a Quaker; the office disgusting guy; the office creepy guy; the not-“out”-in-the-workplace homosexual; the trainwreck office romances and star-crossed crushes; the functioning alcoholics and the old-timers waiting out their pensions — they’re all represented. I know this because I’ve met these people, after having spent five years in a cubicle farm. At the risk of getting off track — I’m not even shitting you — we even had a Dwight. Our Dwight’s name was Brandon, an oafish, moon-faced guy with a middle-parted bowl-cut, whose crippling lack of social skills and tact could be attributed mostly to his being raised by his grandparents in Central PA. The guy even asked his team manager to be the best man in his wedding — a request which sadly, I think, was denied. Brandon sat in a cube facing me for the better part of a year, and not a day went by that I didn’t wish him away. But damned when he finally did leave, didn’t we all miss the motherloving hell out of him? Although, Brandon’s departure in itself provided us with months of fodder, as his move to Prince George’s County, Maryland, coincided with the Beltway shootings, for which we became convinced that he was responsible.

My experience working at a place like that taught me that there’s no greater environment for a melting pot sampling of humankind’s hilariously variant characters quite like an office setting. And that’s what makes not just “The Office,” but particularly Season Two, so great. The series, though it’s still ongoing, was at its best when it relied mainly on the interactions between these characters. And although I still consider it appointment viewing, “The Office” inarguably lost something as it started to become too dependent on implausible antics, gimmicks, and encompassing plotlines. Hell, half the episodes don’t even take place in the actual, you know, office anymore. (My boyfriend refers to these episodes as “field trips.”) And it’s no coincidence that the series’ weakest episodes (“Phyllis’ Wedding” from Season Three; “The Dinner Party,” and “Survivorman” from Season Four) took place outside of the workplace.

In Season Two, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott often straddles the line of believability. And though in later seasons Carell jumped clear over the line and never looked back, his best moments came when the layers of obnoxious blowhard were peeled away to reveal the insecure, lonely man hiding inside. One of the best “Endearing Michael” moments came in the last moments of the episode “Halloween,” after Michael acted like a jerkass all day, pussyfooting over which employee he was going to fire, when he was seen at home forlornly joking around with kids trick or treating. And despite the fact that you’ve spent the previous twenty minutes incredulously loathing him, in that moment your heart just kind of aches for the guy.

Indeed, the greatest episodes of Season Two are the ones that deftly combine humor and heart. “The Dundies” is a perfect example, and an overall stellar episode. In the Season Two premiere, Michael organizes his annual awards show at the Chili’s, which is less about awarding employees and more about his never-ending quest for popularity. But even after unenthusiastically humoring him for the entire night, the rest of the staff winds up rallying around Michael when he admits defeat at the hand of bullies who heckle him from the bar. It’s a consummate slice of humanity, to see people come to the defense of one of their own — even if it happens to be one of their own whom they only grudgingly tolerate. In the end, Michael sort of redeems himself and earns the respect of his employees; he gives Pam the award for “whitest sneakers” instead of his usual award making fun of her long engagement to Roy. This episode is also fantastic for bringing the romantic tension between Jim and Pam — who almost kiss — to a head, even if it’ll ultimately wind up being another twenty-one episodes before viewers get any kind of payoff.

Jim and Pam’s bittersweet romance was, of course, one of the primary reasons why Season Two could never be topped. Obviously, you can’t have that kind of dynamic between two characters go on for too long or it becomes tiresome, and if you put them together too soon you’ll wind up blowing your load. But as Season Two unfolded, it allowed for just enough time for the relationship to bloom without getting too contrived, until the final, oh my God, lump in your throat, did that really just happen, I’ve-got-something-in-my-eye kiss in the season finale. Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski really sold the hell out of those characters. I swore that John Krasinski would never match my undying love for Martin Freeman, but it didn’t take long to win me over with those big, brown doe-eyes of his. And as much as I love Lucy Davis as an actress, Jenna Fischer brought a complexity to the character, which I think was kind of missing in the British version. The two of them have fantastic charisma together, and make the relationship believable without making it come off as too cutesy. Although they do occasionally approach such territory, such as in “The Christmas Party” when Pam traded the iPod so she could have the teapot Jim bought for her. But still, how great was it when Pam beamed and said, “I think I made the right choice”? Loved it. One of the greatest moments in the Jim and Pam saga didn’t even involve Jenna Fischer; it involved instead Michael’s uncharacteristically sincere speech to Jim in “Booze Cruise” after Jim reveals his love for Pam, which foreshadows Jim’s eventual confession in the finale. This is one of the most heart-flutteringly “Office” scenes ever:

Michael: Yep, yep. Well, Pam is cute.

Jim: Yeah. She’s really funny. And she’s warm. And she’s just— I dunno.

Michael: Well if you like her so much, don’t give up.

Jim: She’s engaged.

Michael: BFD. Engaged ain’t married.

Jim: Huh.

Michael: Never, ever, ever give up.

See? That’s another reason why it was great not to have Michael be a total buffoon all the time, because occasionally the character could pull off genuine poignancy. Of course, you can only expect so much from the guy, which is why he goes on to blow Jim’s confession to the whole staff two episodes later in “The Secret.” But it’s nice to see that other guy shine through now and then.

Now, I couldn’t go without mentioning the other fiery relationship of Season Two: The epic, ongoing Dwight-Jim conflict. Jim and Dwight’s scenes together, which invariably involve some level of Jim tormenting Dwight, consist of some of the most hilarious of the series. In fact, I’m pretty much convinced that Rainn Wilson is a comedic genius, and I really hope he doesn’t fall into the trap of playing a caricature of himself starring in one after another in a long line of mediocre films to make me regret saying that. But here, Wilson is at the top of his game. How often does a television character come along whom you relish watching get tormented, but at the same time genuinely root for? When Dwight is tricked into doing something embarrassing, we laugh. But when Dwight is sad, we’re sad. And when Dwight triumphs, we’re really, honest-to-goodness happy for him. Seriously, think about it. How incredible is that? In Season Two, there were so loads of outstanding Dwight moments, falling into all three categories. Like how about his “I am awesome” dance/motivational speech getting pumped up for his review? Or the countless times he cowered from Angela’s disapproving glare? Oh, and then of course, the entire episode of “the Fire” was pretty much one Dwight moment after another, from Dwight sitting in his car listening to “Everybody Hurts” to his spirited rendition of “Ryan Started the Fire.” Another fantastic episode is “The Injury,” when Dwight crashes his car and develops a Flowers for Algernon-esque condition which renders him nice to everyone for a day due to a concussion. And then of course, there’s the best Dwight moment of all, when Jim speech-coaches him based on speeches of historical dictators and he winds up killing. Dwight Schrute is undoubtedly one of the best television characters of all time.

The success of ” The Office” is also due in no small part to the rich supporting cast surrounding the dynamic of the four central characters, some of whom also serve as writers: B.J. Novak, Mindy Kaling and Paul Lieberstein. Novak and Kaling are spot on as the dry, kind of assholish Ryan the temp and Kelly Kapoor, who begins an ill-fated office romance over the course of the season. Lieberstein is wonderful as the sad-sack Toby, who taken an uncanny amount of abuse at the hands of Michael. Other outstanding members of the ensemble cast include slow-witted Kevin (Scrantonicity!) who can make me laugh without saying anything, and makes me laugh really hard when he does say something; puritanical Angela whose ongoing secret relationship with Dwight was one of the recurring comedic highlights of the season; slow as molasses, “I don’t think that’s very funny” Stanley; and skeevy old Creed who has a penchant for “mung beans” and no real job description to speak of. All in all, Season Two of “The Office” is just about as perfect as a standout season of television can be, with not a single bad episode in the lot. Rewatching it recently for the purpose of this guide, there wasn’t a single instance where I wanted to skip over one episode, because they’re just all that damn good. As far as exceptional television seasons go, Season Two of “The Office” is as rock solid as they come.

(That’s what she said!)

Stacey Nosek is the world’s most articulate idiot, and a television columnist for Pajiba. You can also find her ripping on celebrities at Webster’s Is My Bitch.

Guides | August 19, 2008 |

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