Start: S02E01: The Dundies
End: S04E09: The Dinner Party
Season one of the American remake of The Office is fine. A big reason for that is that most of the episodes are verbatim remakes of the decent but inferior (Yeah, I said it. Fight me, internet!) British series. In Season one, the American Office had not found its voice yet. David Brent, Ricky Gervais's iconic boss character, is a fame hungry asshole. He plays to the camera and has no concern for the well-being of his staff. Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s interpretation, is different. He’s no less terrible as a manager, but his flaws come from an aching desperation to be loved by the people forced into his proximity combined with a pathological inability to read a room. That complexity allows The Office to remain engaging for far longer than the British series could have remained tolerable.
The Dundies is the first episode where we see this Michael Scott. He’s not playing to the cameras. He wants to be The Fun Boss but not so that he’ll be a popular character in the documentary. He wants to win his workers’ love. He’ll still do terrible cringe-worthy things like give Phyllis the Bushiest Beaver award (or Ryan Hottest in The Office) and fail to inform the staff that the open tab they were promised is a lie, but David Brent would never have heard Jim’s criticism about mocking Pam’s engagement. David Brent would definitely have made Dawn cry.
Sadly, as the show went on, it gave in to the demands of sitcom television. It grew increasingly cartoonish (Robert California, anyone?) and degenerated into the sappy sentimentality that it had previously avoided. Greg Daniels' promise that we wouldn't see Jim as best man at Dwight’s wedding was only kept on a technicality.*
So where is the best place to leave the gang? At The Dinner Party. It’s an unconventional choice since it takes place almost entirely outside of the eponymous office, but it's appropriate for a serious finale to break form in this manner. The Dinner Party has Michael and Jan invite Jim, Pam, Andy, and Angela to their house for a stealth Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf remake. At the end of the episode, Jim and Pam are together (for those of you who need that sappy closure) and Michael and Jan are finished. Michael is alone but for Dwight, his right hand man. A boss who is obsessed with making his coworkers into his family has his relationship implode and wanders into the night with the assistant to the regional manager. It is a dark, poetic, and perfect ending to the show.
I will admit that after The Dinner Party there are some good episodes, but the quality dips drastically, and there is no better exit ramp on the horizon. Get out at The Dinner Party and you will escape the tedious cliche of Jim and Pam’s wedding as well as the horror of Scott’s Tots.
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*Actually, I'm pretty sure he said Dwight would never be Jim's best man. Unfortunately, I can't find the exact quote because the interview is un-Google-able since, as I said, Jim is Dwight's best man by the end of this series.