Culture

Goodbye, Scranton: The 10 best episodes of “The Office”

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I’ve done these 10 best episode things twice before upon the endings of some of my other favorite TV shows (30 Rock and Gossip Girl), and while it’s really fun to look back, it’s also always kind of sad. You might as well call this the “Chris says goodbye to everything he loves” series. I don’t know though, perhaps the top “Top 10” series sounds better.

This was a tough one. Despite increased frustration from fans over the years and a general feeling that the show’s best episodes were behind it, The Office has always been close to my heart. I remember one of my Christmas vacations in high school, getting season 3 as a present, and sitting home with my mom and sister on one of those lazy days during the interim between Christmas and the dreaded return to classes, and just watching episode after episode. We must have watched almost the whole thing in one day. It’s one of my favorite TV memories of all time, and probably the first instance where I actively “binge-watched” a show. I continued to watch The Office in this way, always a year behind, usually getting through a season over the course of a few days. Because of this, I don’t think I ever really felt the criticisms most fans leveled at the show over time. Sure, I was aware of a slight slip in quality as the series went on, but it was still The Office, and it was still better than almost every other sitcom on television. This season I’ve actually watched as it’s aired, and for the first time I’m inclined to agree with the bitter feeling that it’s time to put the show to rest, as much as it stings to admit that. But nevertheless, it remains a personal favorite.

For fans of high-minded and innovative TV comedy, The Office was a watershed achievement. If nothing else, it helped to usher in other low-rated but brilliant shows like 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Recreation. Of course, 30 Rock won more awards, Community achieved a greater cult following and Parks and Recreation is simply far more consistent than any of the other shows mentioned here. It’s still hard to imagine any of those shows getting on the air without The Office. Sure, many of The Office’s most diehard fans would go on to abandon it in favor of these other, frequently more exciting comedies, but it was still always there, just waiting to surprise you with how funny or how smart it could be.

Of course, by the time The Office premiered in the U.S., the Brits had already known for years that sitcoms didn’t have to be all laugh tracks and live studio audiences (Keep in mind that when M*A*S*H was broadcast overseas, the canned laughter wasn’t even included.) In some ways, the American Office still feels tame compared to the English version, a show that pushed comedy to the absolute farthest reaches of cringe-worthiness. It is true that, if nothing else, Ricky Gervais deserves credit simply for looking at what Christopher Guest does and saying, “Wait a second, why doesn’t anybody do that on TV?” But although Gervais’ original might ultimately have a greater place in the history of television, the American show is in many ways a lot funnier, and it certainly has a lot more heart.

Yes, there it is, that dreaded word for all sitcoms: “heart.” Early on, the American Office felt much more similar to the infinitely bleak British version, but along the way, it made an important decision – this was a show that was going to be sweet and sour. Although sap and sentiment ultimately overtook much of the later seasons, the best episodes of The Office were always the ones that mixed a dark sense of humor with just enough “heart” to make you care, but not so much you wanted to throw up.

For all the reasons listed above, and for more that I don’t have time to talk about here, this is one of the greatest television shows of all time. Period. So, without further ado, I say goodbye, Scranton. Thanks for everything, and I’ll miss you very much.

The Office’s series finale airs tonight. Here are my picks for the ten best episodes.

10) Season 7: “Garage Sale” – One must have a Holly episode to complete a truly comprehensive Office list, and what better episode could I pick than the one where she and Michael get engaged? It’s admittedly kind of a weird choice, since most of the story centers around an employee garage sale where the workers of Dunder-Mifflin spend their time engaging in the usual hijinks. But it also contains Michael Scott’s beautiful proposal to Holly. Steve Carell and Amy Ryan had incredible chemistry together, and it was never more evident than here. But perhaps the best thing of all about “Garage Sale” is that it finally showed us that Michael Scott was capable of growing up, a once seemingly impossible feat for the infuriating but loveable man-child.

9) Season 4: “Dinner Party” – When people talk about The Office’s best episodes, I’m always hesitant to include “Dinner Party.” That’s not because it isn’t a great episode, but because it’s absurdly hard to sit through. Never before had the show come this close to the painfully awkward tone of the British version, much less surpassed it. This episode, however, in which Michael and Jan throw a dinner party from hell for Jim, Pam, Andy, Angela, Dwight, and his date (who also happens to be his former babysitter), is straight-up agony. I don’t think there’s ever been a better example of a couple who doesn’t just dislike each other, but who actually hate each other, in any other sitcom. At the very least, there’s never been one that’s this hard to watch. But making it through “Dinner Party” is worth it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll certainly remember it, but you’ll also be glad when it’s over.

8 ) Season 7: “Andy’s Play”The Office had switched from edgy to schmaltzy long before this episode aired. Consider the brighter, more fun-filled scenes in the show’s later opening credit sequence as opposed to the drab, monotonous depictions of work life included in the early seasons. But “Andy’s Play” is a great example of how The Office could still knock it out of the park, even in its “aw, shucks” period. This episode does have a few harsh moments, but mostly it’s just a lot of fun. We get to see Andy star in a local production of Sweeney Todd, Michael auditioning for said production by performing an episode of Law and Order, and a charming musical moment where Andy gives a rousing performance of Macy Gray’s “I Try.”  It’s also a great showcase for the talents of Ed Helms and Ellie Kemper (at one point, Erin explains to Jim and Pam that she snuck their daughter into the show because they “were just going to stop by and get some ice cream and then go home”), two of the show’s star performers in the later seasons.

7) Season 3: “Branch Closing” – The threat of Dunder-Mifflin, Scranton being shut down loomed large over much of The Office’s run, and never was that storyline more compelling than in “Branch Closing.” It was also a major shift in the series in that it brought Jim back to his old workplace, along with several of his Stamford coworkers. But what I like best about this episode is that it shows that while Michael Scott isn’t a great boss, he still cares deeply about his employees. At one point, while Michael and Dwight are camped outside David Wallace’s house to save the Scranton branch, Jim learns that his boss in Stamford has sold out Dunder-Mifflin to leverage a better job at a bigger company. “Say what you will about Michael Scott, but he would never do that,” says Jim. You’re right, Halpert, he most certainly would not.

6) Season 1: “Diversity Day” – This is another weird pick, simply by virtue of the fact that it was part of the first season (in fact, it was the second episode ever to air), and the show still hadn’t quite come into its own yet. Not only does it feel closer to the British series, but many of the characters aren’t fleshed out, so they come off only as pale imitations of who they’d eventually become. However, “Diversity Day” is still a remarkable episode in that it’s the first example of how the show could push the envelope without ever losing its humor. As opposed to making a statement about racism, the episode is a statement about statements about racism, and its biting tone perfectly sums up the way trying not to be prejudiced sometimes leads to being more prejudiced than ever. A collaboration between B.J. Novak and Mindy Kaling, this early gem was a strong indication of just how good this show would eventually become.

5) Season 2: “Christmas Party” – “Christmas Party” is probably the best example of Michael Scott being a petulant child. Although it’s hard not to care about him, Steve Carell made it pretty difficult sometimes. Here, Michael is unhappy with his Secret Santa gift, so he forces the office into a miserable game of Yankee Swap. He ultimately solves the problem by getting everybody drunk, but not before hurting all their feelings and acting like an all-around asshole. Side note: this is also the episode in which Jim writes a letter confessing his feelings for Pam, but then decides not to give it to her. As those who are up to speed know, that letter played a part in the penultimate episode.

4) Season 3: “The Job” – One episode that I left off this list is “Niagara,” the hour-long episode where Pam and Jim get married in season 6. It’s a good episode, and was probably the final indication that the show had fully shifted from the melancholic workplace comedy it started out as into the feel-good sitcom it began to resemble sometime during season 3. But while “Niagara” is a fantastic episode as far as unabashed cuddle-fests go, I’ll take “The Job” over it any day of the week. After all the waiting, all the agonizing, Jim and Pam finally got together. And not in some grand, romantic, disgustingly adorable way, but in a simple five-second conversation: “Pam, are you free for dinner tonight?” “Yes.” “Alright. Then it’s a date.”

Boom. After that, it was over. We knew they’d be together till the end of the show, and while that took away a lot of momentum from the continuing storyline, it also made everyone really, really happy in that moment. I’m a big fan of Rashida Jones as Karen Filippelli, Jim’s girlfriend in season 3, but in the end she never stood a chance. It was always going to be Pam and Jim, and in “The Job” we finally got to where we knew we were going. The mystery of whether Michael might actually get promoted was also one of the better storylines in season 3, and there was a great contrast in this episode between his continued quest to find what he was looking for and Jim and Pam finally getting what they had wanted all along.

3) Season 7: “Goodbye, Michael” – There are probably a fair amount of people out there who would give me some flack for including three episodes from season 7 on this list, but I’d argue that 7 is actually the show’s strongest season next to 2 and 3. Moreover, it’s Michael’s last episode, so, come on. Was there ever any chance that I wouldn’t include this one? As Michael says his final goodbyes to the office, we can see that he has at long last become an adult. He no longer looks to his coworkers to be his family, because he has that elsewhere. Instead, he’s just happy to have them as friends. It’s a beautiful, touching, all-around perfect love letter to one of the best characters in the history of the television sitcom.

Creator Greg Daniels actually came back to write this one, and he gets everything right. It’s so good that one can almost understand Carell’s hesitance to come back for the series finale. If you were a fan of this show, it was almost impossible not to tear up when Michael takes off his microphone, Pam comes rushing up to meet him, and then watches his plane take off. “No, he wasn’t sad,” she says to the camera after he leaves. “He was full of hope.” Perhaps I’m being shortsighted in putting such a deliberately go-for-broke episode on my list, but I don’t care. “Goodbye, Michael” is proof that The Office never lost its potential to be everything to you.

2) Season 2: “Email Surveillance” – I’ve talked a lot about changes on this list, individual moments when the show stopped being one thing and became something else entirely. “Email Surveillance” is deceptively simple in one such moment. Toward the end of the episode, Michael crashes a party at Jim’s that he wasn’t invited to, after performing some hilariously bad improve. It’s a perfect example of how his pathological need to be liked gets in the way of all social conventions, thereby preventing him from reaching the very goal he’s trying so hard to accomplish. It’s a humiliating moment, and it shows Michael at his very lowest. Then, he gets up to sing karaoke. He looks for someone to sing with him. No one volunteers, and just when it looks like things can’t get any worse, Jim steps in to sing a duet with him and rescues Michael from this horrible situation. It might seem like a small gesture, but it’s a seismic moment in the scope of the series.

Someone once told me that in America, we usually become friends with those we work with, while in England, they purposefully keep friendships separate from work. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it cuts deep into the difference between the American and British Office. At the end of the day, Michael does get the friendship he needs from these people. As opposed to Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, who would have sung the whole karaoke song alone, Michael Scott has friends, even if they are reluctant ones. Plus, this episode starts off with him mistaking an Arab man for a terrorist, so come on.

1) Season 2: “Casino Night” – There simply isn’t any other candidate. “Casino Night” is the best episode of The Office far and away. I think the reason why people gravitated toward the early relationship between Jim and Pam (before they got too cute for their own good) is because somehow, in the long glances that filled their workplace malaise, they became reminiscent of all of us. How many people have felt the pain of seeing someone day in and day out, having them be a huge part of their life, and then when the day ends, still going home alone, left to dream about tomorrow, when you’ll finally get to see them again.

Season 3 is great because it turns the tables and forces Pam to pine for Jim. But before that, there are all those looks, those smiles, those moments that make up season 2. It’s amazing when such small things can feel like the whole world, but that’s just the way love is. And then finally, he tells her he loves her, as we’ve so often thought about telling that special someone ourselves. Of course, she rejects him, but we’re left with a truly magical kiss before having to wait for the next season. Jim and Pam’s early will they/won’t they storyline was TV at it’s finest. This was the moment the show firmly declared, “No, this is not the same as the British version. Yes, it is a love story.” And for better or worse, that moment has defined The Office since.

One of the things I actually respect about the final season is their effort to make Jim and Pam feel like real people again, as they did in Season 2. Lest I forget to mention it, this episode is also just really funny. (Michael Scott describing how he has two women interested in him: “Two queens on casino night. I am going to drop a deuce on everybody.”) Written by Carell himself, “Casino Night” is a masterful piece of television. Oddly enough, I remember seeing it before I actually watched the show, and being compelled without even knowing what was going on. I’ve watched it many times since, and have never found it any less compelling.