As “The Office” closes its doors after nine seasons of workplace hijinks, it’s hard to separate the show at large from what the show’s become. Following television’s grandest tradition of continuing a successful sitcom long beyond its logical stopping point, the mockumentary sitcom has trudged through two largely laugh-free seasons following the departure of star Steve Carell. And while the ninth and final season has taken great strides over the dire eighth to wrap up the Scranton crew’s storylines in a satisfying fashion, it’s hard to ignore the gaping hole that is the absence of Carell’s manic comic energy.
The penultimate episode, “A.A.R.M.”, was a delightful (if late) return to form, wistful and gleefully funny; much as principle characters Jim and Pam do, “Office” fans need only to look to the fantastic memories to remind us of why we fell in love in the first place. And so in a list that I’m sure nobody else on the Internet has thought up, I’m looking to the past, and cherry-picking “The Office”‘s finest episodes to remind of what once was, and why we cared so much.
20. “Stress Relief” (Season 5, Episode 13)
It’s the one where…: Dwight’s shenanigans give Stanley a heart attack, and Michael stages a roast of himself to alleviate his employees’ stress.
“Stress Relief” is… an uneven episode. It’s long, and it’s kind of fatty, and it lags in the middle something fierce as Steve Carell’s oblivious Michael tries to soothe his stressed employees with a misguided meditation exercise. And yet, it contains two of the series’ best sequences: the cold open, featuring self-appointed safety officer Dwight setting a controlled fire in the office as a preparedness exercise, is a chaotic, perfectly-timed masterwork of dark, balletic slapstick. And when the office-wide roast of Michael inevitably backfires as his employees’ barbs hurt Michael’s feelings, it’s hard not to enjoy the cadre of zingers he fires back with — or feel sorry for the man who can’t process a joke.
19. “Cafe Disco” (Season 5, Episode 25)
It’s the one where…: After defecting and returning to his beloved Dunder Mifflin, Michael transforms his former office into a place for midday dance parties while he still has the lease.
There are high-stakes episodes of television, and then there are gloriously frivolous ones. The biggest plot developments here are ultimately abandoned before the episode’s over — saleswoman Phyllis thinks her husband’s having an affair and then decides he’s not, Jim and Pam decide to elope and then decide not to — but it’s hard to ignore the pleasures of an episode as fun as this one. As the employees of Dunder Mifflin one by one give themselves over to the simple glee of arhythmically moving to a plethora of disposable dance tunes, the episode gets more & more likeable, culminating in twenty-odd people we’ve grown to know and love over the years doing exactly what we want to see them doing: being total goofballs.
18. “Conflict Resolution” (Season 2, Episode 21)
It’s the one where…: Michael hijacks conflict resolution duties from HR guy Toby, and cringing, awkward hilarity ensues.
The relationship between Jim and Dwight has always been one of the tentpole interactions of this show; their contrast, their rivalry, and their eventual grudging acceptance of brotherhood has made for some terrific comedy. Nowhere is the dynamic between fastidious Dwight and mischievous Jim better explored than in “Conflict Resolution”, an episode that finds a well-intentioned Michael Scott paving the road to hell with a decade of dirty laundry. The scene where Jim recounts a series of elaborate pranks he’s played on his clustermate over the years is a thing of beauty, as roaring comedy bleeds into thoughtful reflection. It’s the moment where Jim, realizing that he’s been spinning his wheels at a dead-end job, decides to be the lovable slacker no more.
17. “Niagara” (Season 6, Episode 4)
It’s the one where…: Jim and Pam get married, wacky hijinks ensue.
Unwillingly, “The Office” may have dug themselves a hole by removing the “will-they-or-won’t-they?” aspect from Jim and Pam’s relationship; they were meant for each other as friends who never quite found the right moment, but unbearably smarmy and condescending partners & parents. And thus, “Niagara” sends likeable Jim and Pam out with a proper bang, stuffing their destination nuptials with enough freewheeling character comedy to satisfy a whole season. (Which is essentially what happened, given that the wedding episode is a bit of an oasis in an otherwise lacking season of television.) Dwight outs himself as a ladies’ man, Andy hurts his balls on the dancefloor, and Jim and Pam’s love is given a sweet, cornball tribute in the form of choreographed dance; whatever happens to Jim and Pam down the road, we’ll always have “Niagara”.
16. “A Benihana Christmas” (Season 3, Episode 10)
It’s the one where…: Michael endures a yuletide break-up, while Pam and Karen go rogue and plan a competing Christmas party.
“Benihana” is the best “Office” Christmas ‘sode; the drinks flow, the karaoke rocks, and a hilariously heartbroken Michael makes for comedy gold. At a smidge longer than your average “Office” episode, “Benihana” lets the gang explore the space, and lets relationships grow; there are tons of great, small character beats here, from Jim goading Dwight into explaining a graphic deer slaughter across the table at the titular hibachi restaurant to Jim’s current lover and former crush finding themselves something of a formidable twosome. Still, nothing compares to Michael attempting to soothe his sorrow with 30-second James Blunt song clips on Amazon: “I just wanna taste it.”
15. “Ben Franklin” (Season 3, Episode 15)
It’s the one where…: Bachelor and bachelorette parties, complete with entertainment, go awry on company time.
The Karen and Pam dynamic was always an interesting one; having rebuffed Jim’s advances, Pam never quite feels comfortable addressing the feelings he brought up in season 2’s cliffhanger finale, and finds herself in the curious position of having to work next to his new flame, Karen. As the triangle intensifies — slowly, passive-aggressively — it’s clear that Pam and Karen respect each other, and their hijinks as they cajole a Ben Franklin impersonator are playful and lovely. But forget all that: when charged with finding a stripper for the office bachelorette party, Jim calls a scholastic speakers association and hires Ben Franklin, played by Andrew Daly in perhaps the show’s finest guest spot. The ladies think Ben Franklin is going to strip; Dwight is only 99% sure that Daly is not the real Ben Franklin; and Ben Franklin is kind of a perv.
14. “Cocktails” (Season 3, Episode 17)
It’s the one where…: Michael and Jan take their relationship public, and Roy finds out that Pam kissed Jim.
Roy — while portrayed quite nicely by David Denman — was always more of a device than a character. He was there to be a roadblock to Jim and Pam getting together, and to be kind of a dick. “Cocktails” (and the subsequent episode, “The Negotiation”) takes big steps towards establishing Roy’s aggressive nature, which ultimately takes Jim and Pam’s biggest obstacle out of the equation. That’s all well and good, of course, but the A-plot is the best, placing Michael, Dwight, Jim, Karen, and Jan into the middle of a fancy cocktail party. The shenanigans that ensue aren’t quite as broad as they could have been in a lesser sitcom — although Dwight conducting a room-by-room inspection of CFO David Wallace’s sprawling manor is quite fanciful — and “Cocktails” introduces us to Crazy Jan, a turning point for Melora Hardin’s buttoned-up boss, foreshadowing her inevitable break from reality. It’s also the longest time until that point that we’d spent with David Wallace, as played by Andy Buckley, a wonderfully textured character actor with roots in the corporate world, and to date “The Office”‘s finest straight man.
13. “Company Picnic” (Season 5, Episode 26)
It’s the one where…: The gang attends a company picnic, Michael reunites for hijinks with old flame Holly, and Jim and Pam receive big news.
“Company Picnic” is a remarkably sunny episode of television. The cast — and their characters — seem in high spirits as the documentary crew follows them to Dunder Mifflin’s annual company-wide picnic; Jim makes quips about Pam’s boobs, Dwight is in the company of his best friend Rolf, and even Michael is pleasant and charming around his ex, Holly, and her new beau AJ. Sure, Michael and Holly accidentally break news of a branch closing during an ill-advised skit — most of Michael’s attempts at entertainment can be charitably described as “ill-advised” — but for the most part it’s fun in the sun. And yet, it contains two of the show’s finest dramatic character beats. In the closing moments, Michael finally embraces maturity during a talking-head interview, delivering a beautifully hopeful monologue about his optimism about his future with Holly. It’s a wonderfully subtle, emotionally charged scene, delivered with a straight face by Carell (a remarkably soulful dramatic actor when called upon for such things), and incredibly heartwarming without ever being cloying. Even better is the final scene; after suffering a minor volleyball injury, Pam’s pregnancy is revealed in a perfect, silent shot. That wonderful sequence that follows — Jim on the phone, shell-shocked and wet-eyed, glancing at the camera and back at his fiancee, “send in the subs”, that little “oh” that he squeaks out as he runs back into the examination room to embrace the mother of his child — just may be John Krasinski’s best performance. “Company Picnic” ended season 5 — itself a considerable bounce-back from the slapdash, truncated fourth season — and was one of “The Office”‘s last examples of embracing subtlety.
12. “Sexual Harassment” (Season 2, Episode 2)
It’s the one where…: HR steps in to curtail Michael’s inappropriate joking, and Michael tries to incite mutiny as a result.
“Sexual Harassment” is one of a very particular type of Michael Scott-centric storyline: Michael behaves offensively, is chided for his actions, and behaves in a reactionary and petulant way as a result. It wasn’t the first time “The Office” would tell this story (“Diversity Day”), and it wouldn’t be the last (“Gay Witch Hunt”); still, “Sexual Harassment” is one of the show’s funniest half-hours. Jim plays Michael like a fiddle, goading him into blurting his favorite double entendre (“that’s what she said!”) in front of company brass; later, Michael drops one of his greatest verbal faux pas, trying to overcompensate for suggesting that Phyllis may be a little homely by overexaggerating her attractiveness. (“Only thing I’m worried about? Gettin’ a boner.”) The awkward, protracted pause after that line deserves its own Emmy.
11. “Goodbye, Michael” (Season 7, Episode 21)
It’s the one where…: Michael scrambles to say goodbye to everyone before he leaves for Colorado to start a new life with Holly.
There’s a reason you’re not seeing a lot of season 7 episodes on this list: namely, the season wasn’t very good. Which hardly seems fitting for Steve Carell’s final season, but it’s not his fault; Carell gives his all, even as the show makes the grievous mistake of shaking up the Dunder Mifflin corporate structure, swapping subtle straight man Andy Buckley for a mugging, sassy Kathy Bates. Still, all the stops were pulled out for Michael’s goodbye, delivered with all the character humor and heartwarming monologues one would expect from such an event. Chief among these are his goodbyes with primary foils Jim, Pam, and Dwight — Jim’s tearful farewell would be in danger of ringing hollow if Carell wasn’t such a beautifully emotional listener, and Pam and Dwight are given the perfect goodbyes that encapsulate their respective relationships with Michael — although I’ve always been a sucker for Michael’s uproarious farewell to put-upon accountant Oscar. It’s an appropriately emotional episode, but when the camera cuts to that shot of Michael giddily laughing at Oscar’s opinion of him… well, those aren’t sad tears, my friends.
10. “Booze Cruise” (Season 2, Episode 11)
It’s the one where…: The gang attends a mid-January harbor cruise by Michael’s mandate, and Jim, in a moment of weakness, blurts his feelings for Pam to a terrible confidant.
Jim’s feelings for Pam were, of course, always going to boil over; it was just a question of when. As it turns out, being lubricated with alcohol — and, of course, your secret love’s public re-commitment to her loutish fiancee — will do the trick. Jim’s confession to Michael is great, complete with nice little character beats like Michael behaving as a human being would, but the one look he throws the camera (“I’d save the receptionist… just wanted to clear that up”) is all the confession we need, an appropriately subtle confirmation of a low-key, but undeniable, attraction. (The other characters are aces here, too — it’s one of Meredith’s funniest early salacious moments, popping out of Captain Jack’s quarters with nothing but a life vest on, but MVP is once again Michael Scott, who steals the show with an impromptu “motivational dance” that’ll scare you away from Sean Paul for life.)
9. “Goodbye, Toby” (Season 4, Episode 14)
It’s the one where…: Michael throws his nemesis, put-upon HR rep Toby, a lavish going-away party, and meets Toby’s replacement, Holly, in the process.
Michael’s irrational hatred of Toby was one of this show’s earliest comic landmarks; the seeds were sown as early as the second-ever episode (“this is an environment of welcoming, and you should just get the hell out”), and ramped up over time. Theories abound: Michael hates Toby because he represents authority, Michael hates Toby because he seems well-liked without having to work too hard at it, Michael simply hates Toby’s face. The reality is somewhere in the middle — so it makes sense that Toby’s short-lived farewell has little to do with Toby. It has to do with Michael, just as Michael would have wanted it. We’re introduced here to Amy Ryan’s Holly, an adorable dork who seems amenable to Michael’s advances; it would be the catalyst that would lead to Michael finally growing up. But even beyond that, it’s a damned funny episode of television: Michael, giddy and singing “Goodbye Toby” to the strains of a familiar Supertramp song, is one of the most energetically cruel bits the series has ever done, and Holly being convinced that Kevin is mentally handicapped is a nice little tip of the hat to how drastically the writers have dumbed down the character of Kevin over the years.
8. “The Job” (Season 3, Episode 23)
It’s the one where…: Michael, Jim, and Karen compete for a job at corporate HQ.
It’s all about the faces; John Krasinski’s face, frozen with wonder and disbelief at the end of “Company Picnic”, was his best moment of acting on “The Office”, and Jenna Fischer’s arrives in the final moments of “The Job”, when Jim finally sacks up and invites Pam to dinner. It’s their first moment of freedom, these two — for the first time since their season-2-finale kiss, neither one is in a relationship — and they use that freedom to achieve what they really want… namely, each other. The script doesn’t make it so explicit, of course; what does is Pam’s stunned acceptance of Jim’s invitation, and that magnificent character moment where Pam’s eyes come alive, and her grin widens, and she can barely contain herself. It’s truly beautiful work; and although “The Job” was our farewell to Rashida Jones’ lovely, sardonic Karen (and the characters of Jan and Ryan as we know them, although they would return the following season in much broader form), it was the best possible finale for a pitch perfect season of television.
7. “The Client” (Season 2, Episode 7) / “Broke” (Season 5, Episode 23)
It’s the one where…: Michael attempts to woo a large client in “The Client”, and tries to spin his upstart paper company out of poverty in “Broke”.
One of the most beautiful things about Michael Scott is how well-rounded he is as a character. His flaws are legion, sure — childish, petulant, offensive, overbearing — but the show never strays from his good qualities, either. Early on, the show dispensed with the most obvious question — “How did this idiot ever come to manage an office?” — by simply making him good at his job. “The Client” and “Broke” are disparate episodes that illustrate one of Michael’s greatest, most interesting traits: despite being unable to relate to people in day-to-day interactions, Michael Scott is competent, even intelligent, when he wants to be. One can’t help but think that Jan sees something in the man who convinces guest star Tim Meadows to sign with Dunder Mifflin — he’s a variation of himself, a jokester, friendly, charismatic — that leads to their climactic drunken kiss. And while “The Client” teases a new plot development, “Broke” wraps one up — the fruitful Michael Scott Paper Company arc. As Andy Buckley’s CFO and Idris Elba’s new boss square off with Michael, Pam, and Ryan, the last thing anyone expects is for Michael to be brilliant. And yet, he is — he negotiates the sale of his worthless company with steely resolve. “Broke” might be about returning to the status quo, but Carell’s brilliant monologue, delivered unblinking to David Wallace’s face, is one of the best moments of its season.
6. “Business School” (Season 3, Episode 16)
It’s the one where…: Michael speaks at Ryan’s business school, and Dwight tries to slaughter a bat.
“Business School” is another episode that doesn’t do much to advance the overall plot of “The Office”. Michael is invited by Ryan the Temp to speak at one of his classes, Pam gets to present her art at a gallery, a bat terrorizes the office, and all plots are wrapped up by episode’s end. But it’s the wonderful, character-driven way in which these plots are resolved that makes “Business School” such a terrific episode of television — the bat plot is as slapstick-y and weird as one might imagine (guest director Joss Whedon gets to remind us of his horror pedigree here), but Michael and Pam both suffer creative and professional disappointment in their own stories. When those stories dovetail perfectly at the end, it’s one of the show’s loveliest moments — that moment where Pam, in existential crisis mode after she discovers her art is boring, hugs Michael after his unironic, wide-eyed appreciation of her work, is a thing of beauty. That the sweetness is undercut with a hilarious boner joke encapsulates just what “The Office”, in its heyday, did best.
5. “The Deposition” (Season 4, Episode 8)
It’s the one where…: Michael is deposed regarding girlfriend Jan’s wrongful-termination lawsuit, and has some embarrassing dirty laundry aired out in the process.
Season four of “The Office” isn’t often highly regarded — although it looks positively brilliant in this post-seasons-6-through-9 world — but one thing all “Office” fans can agree on is the quality of a pair of dark episodes in the middle of the season that focus on the dissolution of Michael’s toxic relationship with ex-supervisor Jan Levinson. The first of these, “The Deposition”, almost seems unfair to Michael; we’ve seen him be dumb, reactionary, and ignorant, but we’ve seen his humanity, too, and to see his unflagging loyalty and idealistic notions of love slowly stripped away at the expense of an awkward legal proceeding is almost too much. And the laughs are mainly at Michael’s expense, but they’re often gold; the discovery of Michael’s diary yields some serious guffaws, and the rapid-fire “that’s what she said” exchange with the stenographer is “Who’s On First?”-worthy wordplay. And through it all, Michael remains Michael: he solemnly jokes about titties (“they hang off m’lady’s chest”), is fiercely loyal to his company (the fact that the David Wallace quote he takes to heart after an excruciating series of deposition readings is “he’s a nice guy” says all you need to know about Michael Scott), and, perhaps most importantly, is cruel to Toby in one of the darkest, most spittake-worthy scenes in the show’s run.
4. “Diversity Day” (Season 1, Episode 2)
It’s the one where…: The office undergoes diversity training after Michael commits some racial blunders in the name of comedy.
When “The Office” was originally dubbed “cringe humor”, this is what they were talking about. “The Office” took a long time to find its footing — the first season is full of boatloads of office denizens we’d never hear from again wandering through the background, toned-down characterizations (the Kelly Kapoor on display in “Diversity Day”, for example, is buttoned-up and proper, a far cry from the dowdy, fast-talking Valley Girl archetype she’d become, and even Creed seems like a normal old dude), and a significantly crueler comic sensibility from Michael. Subsequent seasons molded Carell’s boss into a sympathetic character — albeit a childish and impetuous one — making it hard for us to outright despise him. But the Michael of “Diversity Day” is fairly easy to dislike. He doesn’t understand why Chris Rock can use the n-word in a comedy routine, but he can’t. He longs to live in a world where he can say anything at all with impunity. And, in the single most uncomfortable moment of the entire series, he barks a series of Indian stereotypes at Kelly, prompting a slap and an excruciatingly prolonged period of silence.
It’s unusual for an episode of “The Office” to dwell on racial humor for this long. Michael, of course, is a bumbling fool when it comes to racial politics, and throughout the series, he drops lines that hint at his ignorance. (Michael choosing overweight, suburban black father Stanley for his basketball team comes immediately to mind: “Stanley, of course.” “Why of course?”) But “Diversity Day” isn’t about racial humor; it’s about how fundamentally one man can misunderstand how to behave in an evolved society, and how much worse he can make it when he tries to smooth it over. Michael playing an aggressively ill-conceived parlor game involving ethnic minorities written on index cards is this show’s version of Robert Downey Jr getting made up as a black man in “Tropic Thunder” — the humor comes not at the expense of race, but at the expense of the moron who is drastically oblivious. One of the most perfectly conceived half-hours in the show’s run.
3. “The Dundies” (Season 2, Episode 1)
It’s the one where…:Michael forces his staff to sit through another installment of his annual office awards show.
After a rocky first season — perhaps saved from cancellation by the water-cooler buzz of “Diversity Day” — Dunder Mifflin roared into our hearts with “The Dundies”, another epically awkward tour de force episode. This is the perfect balance of Michael Scott — he’s often insensitive (that shot of him donning buck teeth to do an incredibly offensive Asian caricature while the camera focuses on a stunned Asian patron in the background hits right in the gut), but he genuinely wants to recognize the coworkers he loves for their contributions, and, recognizing this, they rally around him in the end. Each tiny comedic beat hits its mark — from Michael botching his “O.P.P.” parody when he can’t keep up with the flow to Pam’s increasingly drunk, surprisingly authentic mannerisms. It’s a banner episode for Jenna Fischer, too — if her best acting moment was that reveal at the end of “The Job”, certainly her finest comedic performance is here, exhibiting the right amount of enthusiasm, pathos, and slapstick. And then there’s Jim, his crush slowly blossoming into something more, practically falling in love in front of our eyes. With a performance as adorable as Fischer’s in this episode, it’s hard not to see why.
2. “Dinner Party” (Season 4, Episode 9)
It’s the one where…: Michael tricks Jim and Pam into a couples’ dinner at the condo he shares with Jan, and things get progressively awkward as Michael and Jan’s volatile relationship reaches the breaking point before our very eyes.
The only logical follow-up to the crushing deposition episode, “Dinner Party” is a massively accomplished work of art. My DVD boxed set of Season Four contains the shooting script to this episode, which probably says a lot — it’s the only episode of “The Office” that could be performed as a soot-black, devastating stage play. “Dark” doesn’t begin to describe “Dinner Party”. What starts out as a comedy of manners quickly spins out of control; this isn’t merely cringe humor, it’s “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”. Michael and Jan’s domestic bubble bursts as their dysfunctional relationship reaches its apex, and “Dinner Party” perfectly encapsulates the intense awkwardness of watching, helplessly, as that unfolds. All that, and it’s STILL funny — Jan’s unironic appreciation of her ex-assistant’s hilariously bad album, Michael describing wine as having an “oaky afterbirth”, and Dwight showing up with his childhood babysitter (“it’s purely carnal, and that’s all you need to know”) are guffaw-worthy moments of hilarity. One of the single best episodes of television, ever.
1. “Casino Night” (Season 2, Episode 22)
It’s the one where…: A charity casino night is held in the warehouse, and Michael has two dates.
There is a LOT of good material on “The Office”. Quite frankly, I could rank the entirety of seasons 2 & 3, and the worst episode of that two-season run would outstrip the best episode of most modern sitcoms. It’s simply unassailable television, and the fact that “The Office” was capable of the odd classic episode after the fact was still pretty impressive. And sitting atop that mountain of brilliance is “Casino Night”, the single most perfect episode in “The Office”‘s entire run.
It’s not just that it culminates in a heartbreaking, emotionally-charged confession of love between pining Jim and engaged Pam. It’s not just the kiss that follows. That’s all the icing on the cake — the cake is the episode itself, the most thrillingly alive, played to the hilt episodes of the series. More to the point: EVERYONE. IS. HILARIOUS. “Casino Night” ends with a heart-stopping emotional twist, but that overshadows the insanely good work everyone puts into the rest of the episode. Michael, Kevin, Roy, Jan, Creed, Ryan, Kelly — everybody gets a moment in the sun. There are too many great character beats here to point out — purely, simply, it needs to be seen.
And then, of course, there’s that ending. The kiss heard ’round the world… Jim’s plain-spoken, naturalistic confession, devoid of actorly tricks or hammy line readings… Pam’s reticence, visible discomfort, and uncertainty… little things like the way Jim rebuffs and dismantles Pam’s “let’s be friends” line… now that you mention it, it can’t help but overshadow the rest of the episode. It’s the most perfectly pitched dramatic moment in a series that once had a knack for them. As Michael Scott would say, they certainly dropped a deuce on everybody.
So mourn not “The Office”, for the memories will always remain. Make some popcorn and have a marathon. You know, dive in head first. Go all night long. Leave smiling and satisfied. Take it away, Mr. Scott: