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The Office (Classic): “Office Olympics”/“The Fire”

Illustration for article titled iThe Office (Classic)/i: “Office Olympics”/“The Fire”
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“Office Olympics” (season two, episode three; originally aired 10/4/2005)

(Available on Netflix and Hulu.)

In which there are two kinds of closing ceremonies

Let’s kick things off this week by paying attention to a major pillar of The Office who’s been largely ignored by this feature so far: Jim Halpert. We’ve talked a lot about John Krasinski’s charming, underachieving office cutup in terms of his relationships with Michael, Dwight, and especially Pam, but I feel like I’ve been remiss in addressing one of the show’s lead characters on his own. And “Office Olympics” feels like a good place to do that, because this is an episode that shows us what a unifying force Jim is, and puts some of his most highly relatable flaws on display.


Yet, to paraphrase one of the most telling talking heads of “Office Olympics,” the problem with Jim is that he’s kind of dull on his own. He’s an important ingredient in three of the show’s most fruitful relationships, and he’s also the driving force behind this, the first perfect summation of everything this Office can be. But it’s a good thing he’s part of an ensemble and one corner of a love triangle, because for all the great stuff John Krasinski got out of what will surely be his signature character, I don’t think that character could carry a whole show on his own. Part of that problem is where the show is at in terms of building its profile of Jim: As the old saying goes, only boring people get bored.

Jim begins from a solid blueprint, and it’s one I suspect we’ll keep seeing so long as 20-somethings enter the workforce and spend the first few years casting about for how they really want to spend the rest of their careers. It’s an archetype from which New Girl in particular earns significant mileage: The fitfully driven young man. But whereas Nick Miller derives his motivation from misplaced anger, Jim’s engine is a touch more mundane: He’s just bored. Bored in the office, bored outside of the office. Pam lays out her diagnosis in that aforementioned talking head: “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.”


I imagine that one of the greatest challenges of making any version of The Office involves suggesting that the main setting, for all its unremarkable qualities, can be an exciting, vibrant place. One half of “Office Olympics” is devoted to a thread that was introduced last week—removing these characters from behind their desks and watching how they interact with the real world—but the A-story is fully invested in cracking open Dunder Mifflin Scranton and explaining why it’s an environment worth setting a television show in. Finding humor in the drudgery is an important component to this Office (less so than its predecessor), but “Office Olympics” brings forth those efforts and puts them up on the medal platform beside Michael, Dwight, and Jim. It’s a clear early-season signal from a series with an uncertain future: In some respects, this could be any workplace, but here’s what’s special about this workplace.

In that regard, playing the A-story as a string of highlights from the Office Olympics pays off tremendously. There’s precious little in the way of plot, but it sticks with you. It’s safe to guess most of you reading this have a favorite “sport” within the event. (I’m with Jim—I like Flonkerton). They stand out because there’s such personality to each punchy little vignette. I wonder what lessons the show’s writers took away from the previous instance of characterization-through-competition; on presentation alone, I’d say pacing and energy were a major concern for “Office Olympics.” The game in “Basketball” stretches out in such a way that it’s easy to miss what it’s saying about the characters; in “Office Olympics,” the colorful bursts of Phyllis coming out of her shell or Angela voicing her disapproval go a long way.


The intercutting between the A-story and the B-story lends a hand as well. The smash cut to Flonkerton after Michael wonders about the “poor saps stuck at the office” is great joke-telling from the editor’s bay—this in an episode where the amount of ADR suggests much of what’s great about “Office Olympics” came together in post. Michael Schur’s a great writer, and Paul Feig knows how to let superb comedic performances flow from his actors, but the stitch-up job here makes the two halves of the episodes complementary when they could’ve rocketed in opposite directions and ripped “Office Olympics” apart. When Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson acting in front of blank, white walls necessitates some visual zip, the episode throws back to the office. When the height of competition needs a scene to match its energy level, we get Michael’s aggravation with Dwight and his anxiety about the condo reaching its heated peak. Every component of “Office Olympics” works so well together that it’s easy to excuse the headlong rush of scenes required by combining both stories into a single episode.

But it’s so nice to be caught up in that rush—and even nicer to get swept up in the emotion of the “closing ceremonies.” It didn’t dawn on me until this re-watch that Michael closing the deal on his condo is the reason he accepts Jim’s invitation to step on to the podium. (Dwight only gets up there because Michael tells him to.) No matter the reason, the motivation remains the same (and notably warm): This is one, small thing Jim can do to prevent all of his co-workers from dying of boredom. Much like its international equivalent, it’s a goodwill gesture to unite a community. For eight hours, that gives him a sense of purpose—and he’s even able to close up a pair of sales at lunch! And for The Office, The 1st Games of the Dunder Mifflin Olympiad give the show the verve it needs to turn in its first truly classic episode.


“The Fire” (season two, episode four; originally aired 10/11/2005)

In which there are some things they don’t teach in business school

(Available on Netflix and Hulu.)

“Office Olympics” contains a priceless talking head where Dwight describes his relationship with Michael in impossibly heroic terms. In that episode, it’s good for a quick laugh, but it’d be a crucial glimpse into the regional manager-assistant to the regional manager dynamic even if it was cut down to this part of the opener: “We’re like one of those classic, famous teams. He’s like Mozart and I’m like Mozart’s… friend.” “Office Olympics” uses this interview to explain why it’s so important to Dwight that he tag along with Michael while the latter closes out the deal on his condo—however, it’s almost more important to our understanding of “The Fire.”


The fourth episode of the second season also finds Dwight casting himself and Michael in roles of honor and valor, but this time, someone’s encroaching on their Dynamic Duo. “The Fire” introduces Ryan as a serious threat to the “team” of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute—the “Bonto” to their Lone Ranger and Tonto, if you will. As important as it is for The Office to show everyone at Dunder Mifflin getting along, the series needs its sources of friction, too. In an episode that has combustion at its core, “The Fire” introduces inciting elements to two dependable character pairings and lets the sparks of conflict fly.

In hindsight, Ryan Howard is an intriguing catalyst for such conflict. B.J. Novak’s behind-the-scenes duties seemed to take precedence in later seasons—and took him out of the picture almost entirely in the final season, thanks to commitments at The Mindy Project—and Ryan’s status as a major character slowly faded. His was the opposite trajectory of the personalities that begin to form in this week’s episodes: Ryan started at the forefront of the show, the newcomer to Dunder Mifflin and the de facto audience surrogate. But as time went on and storylines were devoted to Angela or Oscar or yet-to-be-introduced characters like Andy or Erin, Ryan slipped into the background. (To the point where his desk is eventually hidden from plain sight.)


Watching “The Fire” from the iPad mounted in the dashboard of all standard-model flying cars in 2013, it’s strange to see Dwight so upset by Ryan’s apparent acumen and mounting esteem in Michael’s eyes. But in the dark, primitive ages of 2005, it made all the sense in the world: Clearly, Dwight’s threatened by this young go-getter who’s attending business school at night and who earns strange, inappropriate accolades from Michael. But this episode also starts the job of chipping away at Ryan’s slick façade: The whiz kid who knows why businesses are rethinking the Microsoft model can’t work a simple toaster oven. That’s an appropriate outcome for one-third of a trio Michael wants to call “The Three Stooges.”

“The Fire” is not the second season’s funniest half-hour, but I love it for its simplicity. It’s a talky script, but the blaze Ryan starts tempers all the dialogue with a sense of incident. Still, it’s a relatively bold choice for such a young show: The Office is a dialogue-heavy show to begin with, but “The Fire” lives and dies on the effectiveness of these characters standing around a parking lot and passing the time with idle chitchat. It’s a move the show could’ve only pulled within its first 10 episodes or its last 10 episodes, because in order for these revealing conversations to be compelling, you’d need to know nothing or everything about these characters. Jim’s game suggestions are a shrewd device deployed by Novak and his fellow writers: Desert Island and Would You Rather? are ice-breaker games, while Who Would You Do? (it’d take 30 Rock to push the national conversation toward the more nuanced Fuck Marry Kill) is an activity for a group whose members are at least fleetingly familiar with one another. In a certain respect, the writers’ room is breaking the ice between the viewer and the characters while suggesting a level of intimacy between the regulars.


Michael and Dwight both take that sense of familiarity to extremes in “The Fire,” as the former chases Ryan’s admiration to uncomfortable ends—which drives Dwight to childish fits of envy. The Michael-Ryan thing sidles right up to gay panic, a situation the script defuses by suggesting that only a Roy would laugh at Jim and Michael’s Who Would You Do? answers because they involve two men having sex. I prefer to file these types of jokes with similar “over the line” moments involving Pam: At this point in the show, Michael has no personal boundaries of any sort, so he’s blind to the implications of what he believes to be expressions of great affection for his co-workers. Also, at the risk of over-justifying: I think Michael says these things because they’re the types of things he wishes people would say to him. Like he tells Ryan, Michael got into the sales game because he liked making friends, and when he’s not trying to make those potential friends laugh by insulting them, he’s trying to butter them up with flattery that violates all sorts of rules about employee-employer relations.

And let us not forget that, on most levels, the end goal of most Office gags at this point in the game is discomfort. For all the nervous laughter and none of the “Am I giving a thumbs-up to homophobia?” concerns (which, if we want to split hairs, is an uncomfortable question to ask yourself), look no further than some of the unsettling behavior exhibited by Rainn Wilson in Dwight’s corner of the episode. It’s impressive how deeply felt Dwight’s deflections are in “The Fire”: You can see the overcompensating desperation in Wilson’s eyes in those moments where Dwight’s judo-chopping and head-locking Ryan. Michael’s right: Dwight’s acting like a dork, but he’s also acting like a man whose hurt feelings he can’t properly express. To me, the accuracy of loner moves like kicking that “VAN ACCESSIBLE” sign are Wilson’s greatest asset as an actor. He might not have leading-man chops, but he could make a comfortable post-Office career as a character actor in outsider roles like that of Super’s Frank Darbo.


Dwight’s wasting his time, however. As Ryan declares at the top of the episode, he “doesn’t want to be a ‘guy’ here.” One of The Office’s major themes is solidifying: The swampy trap of Dunder Mifflin grabbing hold of Ryan, Jim, Pam, and anyone else who doesn’t want to work in paper for the rest of their lives. Not that they have much choice in the matter, as all of Ryan’s efforts to not make a mark, to remain a temporary fixture of the office, are undone by his carelessness with the toaster oven. This week’s doubleheader is essential for showing the ways in which Jim and company make working at Dunder Mifflin tolerable, but they also demonstrate that some of the inconveniences of the job are unavoidable. Ryan is “the fire guy.” Pam has to take calls from Jim’s girlfriend. Jim has to watch Pam kiss her fiancée. You can bring some books or some DVDs to the desert island, but you’re still going to have some experiences you’re not going to enjoy.


“Office Olympics”: A

“The Fire”: A-

Stray observations:

  • I mentioned the “two character pairings” that are messed with in “The Fire,” but spent the majority of the review on one of them; I guess I just wasn’t in the mood to pick apart what’s happening between Jim and Pam in the episode. It’s fine, but as much as it keeps the boulder rolling downhill toward “Casino Night,” some of it paints Pam in an unflatteringly petty, envious light. Not that we need these characters to be likeable all the time, and not that those aren’t perfectly honest reactions someone in her situation would have. There is a satisfying hint of  triumph in the flip way Jenna Fischer reads Pam’s “What an adorable car!” line. It also leads to one of the show’s greatest inadvertently revealing talking-head buttons: “I’m sorry, I feel like I’m talking really loud. Am I talking really loud?”
  • Further evidence of Jim’s commitment to underachievement: In spite of inventing the Office Olympics, at the end of the day he only takes home the bronze.
  • “Office Olympics” might also feel monumental because of all the important information it lays out for the future: Schrute farms almost became the setting for its own show; its most beloved resident, Michael Schur’s Mose, is glimpsed for the first time in a photo Dwight shows the documentarians. We’ll again see Nancy Carell (née Walls) in the guise of Carol the real estate agent at the end of season two, and Vance Refrigeration will be an important factor in the show’s expanding universe. Most importantly: Giving Michael his condo gives The Office the setting for its dark, hysterical night of the soul, season four’s “Dinner Party.”
  • I haven’t seen any episodes of The Neighbors beyond the pilot, but while watching that episode, I was struck by the similarities between that series’ main setting and Michael’s neighborhood. Is it the same set? Are Michael’s neighbors all extraterrestrials who’ve adopted the names of our earthling sports heroes?
  • “I call it Pam-Pong”: CRYPTIC SPOILER ALERT: Before Pam can do to Angela what Pam does to Angela for most of seasons two, three, and four, Angela does it to Pam.
  • The advantages of watching these episodes with headphones on: I’d never notice before this viewing that you can hear someone playing cello (poorly) through the walls of Michael’s bedroom.
  • Most episodes of The Office amount to bottle episodes—those money-saving installments that keep the budget in check by sticking to low-premise stories using pre-built sets—but the conversational nature of “The Fire” makes it feel like the series’ first bottle episode. Although it couldn’t have been cheap to rent that fire truck.
  • Hey! It’s 2005!: Dwight: “I hope the war goes on forever and Ryan gets drafted.” Thanks a bunch for the wish, Dwight.
  • Michael mixes bird metaphors, calling himself an early bird and a night owl: “I’m wise and I have worms.”
  • Dwight pushes the limits of Michael’s roommate offer: “Question: Can sometimes I drive your car and you drive mine?”

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