“Back From Vacation” (season three, episode 12; originally aired 1/4/2007)
In which maybe it’s Urkel Grue…
Michael Scott is exactly the kind of guy who’d go on a Caribbean vacation and return a “changed” man. He would get one strand of hair beaded, buy a souvenir steel drum, and adopt “No shirt, no shoes, no problem” as a personal motto. The energy Michael brings back from Sandals Jamaica is so well-observed, as if someone in The Office writers’ room (or multiple someones) had a dad or an uncle or a former boss who had some manufactured “island” experience and acted like the second coming of Jimmy Buffett for weeks afterward. It’s an extremely condensed variation on the Tiki craze that swept the United States in the middle of the last century: Images of a paradise beyond the office, a world of endless relaxation, where there are no deadlines or mergers or ex-girlfriends, only bodies in the sand and tropical drinks melting in your hand.
But the secret sadness of “Kokomo” is that the eponymous Shangri-La off the Florida keys doesn’t exist, and neither does the Montego Bay that Michael and Jan visited. The illusory nature of getaways like this is part of why Don Draper could only sell the Royal Hawaiian with an image that evoked suicide; in the golden afterglow of Sandals, Pam tries to bring Michael back down to Earth with this little nugget of statistical realism:
Michael: I got to see how Jamaicans live. It is great. You know, they just relax, they party all the time.
Pam: It’s kind of an impoverished country.
Michael’s distracted reply? “Yeah. Gosh. Great.”
An impulsive, “act first, think second” nature makes Michael Scott a great comedic protagonist, the type who excels at getting in over his head in the middle of an episode and then spends the next 11 minutes frantically clawing his way back to the surface. The premise of “Back From Vacation” is Sitcom 101—Michael has a big secret and can’t keep himself from spilling the beans—updated for the Internet age and geared toward the character transparency of The Office’s mockumentary setup. With a few incorrect keystrokes, Michael inadvertently discloses his burgeoning relationship with Jan, in a much more public manner than either party would’ve preferred. It’s a demonstration of how email has been a boon (and potential pitfall) for contemporary comedy writers: It’s a modern twist on the old sitcom chestnut of sending incriminating evidence to the wrong person, one in which there’s no chance for physical retrieval. (In this instance, “old sitcom chestnut” refers to any premise that wasn’t too musty to eventually show up in an episode of That’s So Raven.)
“Wrong email” plots were already in danger of becoming a cliché by the time “Back From Vacation” premiered, but The Office steps around this dilemma by making this episode about more than just that PG-13-rated shot of Michael and Urkel Grue. “Back From Vacation”’s big reveal is an entry point to the back half of season three, which tells the tale of three couples who shouldn’t be together. Jan and Michael, Pam and Roy, Karen and Jim—they’re bad fits, like Scranton and the majority of the Stamford transfers. (Among the happenings while Michael was away: Hannah quit, a departure and possible deposition that can’t penetrate the boss’ post-vacation bliss.) Jan says as much when she arrives in Scranton—not exactly handing Michael the execution order he was expecting, but not admitting sincere enthusiasm about their new arrangement, either. Recounting the advice of Jan’s therapist (“Who’s Dr. Perry?”) is a bigger shortcut to character motivation than setting her up in a talking-head confessional, but it’s a funny parallel to Dunder Mifflin’s annual warehouse inventory. There are the things we want to do but can’t, the things we want to do but shouldn’t, and the things we have to do but don’t want to, and in the Venn Diagram of all three, the overlap contains Jan being with Michael, Karen moving closer to Jim’s apartment, and the office employees keeping personal tabs on their paper supply.
There’s no plausible explanation for how The Documentarians would catch Michael and Jan’s conversation at the end of the episode (though the spy shots try to establish one), and it’s evel less plausible that the camera could’ve been set up in such a way that it could capture a teary Pam reeling from Karen’s gratitude. But each is a case of The Office wisely valuing emotion over verisimilitude. Jenna Fischer is incredibly affecting in that sequence, and Pam’s heartbroken conversation with Dwight is such a strong moment for the individual characters and their relationship. Dwight’s first instinct is, of course, retribution, and Rainn Wilson wrings such goofy tension out of Dwight removing his suit coat (as if to comfort Pam like she had just fallen through thin ice) before self-consciously wrapping the sleeves around his waist. For Jim and Pam, the merger is a major role reversal, and we’re finally deep enough into the series to watch their will-they/won’t-they arrangement take its toll. Neither party in that non-couple is adept at moving on, which is why Jim’s been so standoffish since he returned to Pennsylvania—it’s also why Pam and Roy are looking so chummy at the end of “Back From Vacation.”
It’s additionally funny that Dwight moves to offer Pam his coat because a lot of “Back From Vacation” hinges on the coldness of the workaday world: Michael playing “Hot Hot Hot” in the snow-covered parking lot, for example. Scranton’s a cold and cruel town—where the only place for steel drums is beneath the wheels of a forklift—one far away from the fantasy world of Sandals Jamaica. At least Michael’s able to bring one piece of his life on the island back to his hometown—even if Jan fully admits that’s a bad idea.
- URKEL GRUE! Say it loud and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like Michael is terrible at making up fake names. It’s more believable than a dentist named Crentist, though.
- Darryl’s lunch—a sandwich and chicken wings?—looks suspiciously like Craig Robinson raiding the craft service table between takes.
- The cold open to this one would make a fantastic radio play (or a good podcast segment): “Dwight, what is that on your stomach? Is that a Muppet Babies tattoo?” “Oh my God, Karen, you’re right—that is Animal from the Muppet Babies.”
- The photo of Michael and Jan is viral, at least by the “Toby’s divorce” metric: “Nine different people emailed me that photo, including my ex wife—and we don’t talk.”
“Traveling Salesmen” (season three, episode 13; originally aired 1/11/2007)
In which it’s like we’re touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and we’re falling off one by one…
Andy Bernard is bad news. Chalk it up to the general affability of Ed Helms: It was hard to spot the outright villainy of his Office character until it was too late. Andy’s just as much as a power-hungry schemer as Dwight is, but he lacks the vulnerability that was masked by Rainn Wilson’s stone-faced exterior. Besides, Dwight is the underdog; Andy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he coasted through too much of his life get anything out of those advantages. Practically all we’ve ever needed to know about Andy is summed up in the “four years”/“never studied once”/“drunk the whole time” monologue from “Gay Witch Hunt.” Andy Bernard believes he’s entitled to Willy Wonka’s riches, which makes him more of a Veruca Salt than the Charlie Bucket he believes himself to be.
Then again, Charlie Bucket never had a master plan to drown Augustus Gloop in his own chocolate river—which is, metaphorically speaking, what Andy does to Dwight in “Traveling Salesmen.” With one expertly deployed callback to “The Betrayal,” co-writers Michael Schur, Lee Eisenberg, and Gene Stupnitsky set off a chain reaction that temporarily gives Andy everything he wants—robbing Dwight Schrute of one of his greatest dreams.
There’s some breathtaking tension in the later scenes of “Traveling Salesmen,” but most of the episode plays like part one of a cliffhanger that’d be better served as the first half-hour of a complete, hour-long episode. That’s just how “Traveling Salesmen” and “The Return” (which is being reviewed next week) reran for a sweeps week broadcast in the spring of 2007, fleshed out with deleted and expanded scenes. On its own, there’s barely enough space to get to the meat of Dwight and Angela’s story while also following Michael, Jim, Karen et al. on their sales calls. What Dwight did for Angela comes out in dribs and drabs throughout the episode, calibrated so that it’s full impact isn’t felt until the final moments. It’s a good story told well, and the sales calls skillfully illustrate working relationships among the sales staff (Jim and Dwight in particularly)—but these aspects are too busy wrestling over the episode’s spotlight to ever work in tandem.
In addition to serving the story purposes of getting Andy alone with Michael—the better for his plan to take root—the sales calls are one of The Office’s periodic reminders that these people can legitimately perform their jobs under the right circumstances. There’s strategy and savvy at play in all of those scenes, even when it’s the prankster’s savvy deployed by Stanley when Ryan asks to take the lead on their call. Andy’s strategy, meanwhile, is the selfish type, the sort deployed only to improve his standing and not the standing of Dunder Mifflin. The glint in Helms’ eye starts to look more devilish when Andy woodenly speaks of “Schrutting it,” as well as when he brings up Dwight’s past transgressions. That one pretty much falls in his lap, which is the Andy Bernard way—kind of like sniping a shark from the crow’s nest of his dad’s boat. He’s not one for the hard work and decency Michael alludes to.
In light of Andy’s Willy Wonka talk, it’s important to note that he’s setting himself for his own big, painful fall here. That’s what Angela’s doing hovering over his shoulder in the final talking-head—a fun use of the conference room set that reinforces the emotional stakes of “Traveling Salesmen.” I’ll amend my statement from above: The second half of season three is the story of three couples that shouldn’t be together and one couple that should—absolutely they should. Would anyone else in those partnerships do what Dwight does here, first risking his job to save Angela’s, then resigning in order to keep their relationship a secret? It might be a touch too chivalric, but that’s the kind of thing Angela’s into—and nobody in this week’s episodes is showing their significant other that kind of respect, trust, or honor. For crying out loud, Karen has to remind Jim that she left Connecticut for him—technically for her job, but also so that she could find out where this good thing with the floppy-haired goofball from sales is going. Jim not letting her know about his old feelings for Pam is the second red flag in two weeks.
But all of these details are in a losing battle for airtime, and in a sentiment that Scranton’s No. 1 hair-metal fan would appreciate, “Traveling Salesmen” don’t know what it’s got ’til it’s gone. The fallout has to wait until next week; until then we get that sweet hug between Jim and Dwight and the sinister look in Angela Kinsey’s eyes. Andy Bernard might have a glint of menace in him, but Angela looks like she’d burn Cornell to the ground to get revenge for her D.
- The Dwight-Angela plot and the sales calls do share the title of “Traveling Salesmen” well, at least. Dwight’s a traveling salesmen on three counts: He’s driving to New York, he’s on the road selling paper, and then he’s leaving Dunder Mifflin.
- Watch closely during Andy and Michael’s driving scenes and you might be able to spot one of Scranton’s increasingly rare palm trees.
- Pam attempts to incept Angela: “You seem so happy. I bet you wish you were like this all the time.”
- There’s a lot of information packed into Dwight’s business cards: “Here’s my card. It’s got my cell number, my pager number, my home number, and my other pager number. I never take vacations, I never get sick, and I don’t celebrate any major holidays.” On second thought, that sounds a lot like a stealth cover letter. Is it foreshadowing for the rest of the episode?
- I wonder if Dwight’s cover is any relation to one-time Jeff Winger squeeze Nonaya Beeswax. “Dwight’s name is on the security sign-in sheet but I don’t know who he met with. And where it asks you to state your business, he wrote ‘Beeswax, None Of Yours Incorporated.’”