The Office: Season Three Review
The third season of The Office saw the completion of the show’s evolution from pale imitation of the British original to quality series in its own right. When Greg Daniels’s adaptation first premiered as a mid-season replacement on NBC no one had given it much hope. Within the industry it was considered a fool's errand, just another DOA attempt to replicate a British show which would have little appeal the other side of the Atlantic, populated by a cast no one had ever heard of and a name that wouldn't exactly have the masses desperately racing home from their own places of work to tune in. Fortunately, Daniels knows what he’s doing and, while the first season’s six episodes did stick too closely to its progenitor, the show’s renewal for a complete second season gave both cast and writers the confidence they needed to allow it to grow. No longer constrained by the original’s format, the second season saw the American office develop into a subtly different show - unsurprisingly given it was aimed at mainstream viewers, the atmosphere was slightly less cruel and the humour more ironic, very similar to the work Daniels did on King of the Hill. Coupled with some canny marketing and award show recognition, the show began to attract a larger audience. While never threatening to break through to the top ten most watched series, the ratings have continued to rise throughout the third season, helped by endorsements by luminaries such as Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams and Harold Ramis (all of whom direct at least one episode this year) and even those who don't tune in have now cottoned on to the fact that this is more than just the latest Payne. Thankfully for its fans, The Office has now made itself part of the television landscape, and seems to be here to stay, at least for the moment.
Although it sounds paradoxical to say so, this increasing success explains why, on the whole, Season Three hasn’t been quite as strong as its immediate predecessor. Because the brand was still being developed, the writing never dares to subvert or develop what has gone before, preferring instead to largely maintain the status quo. As a result, this is a collection of episodes which, while individually are as strong as anything that has gone before, collectively don’t move the show on at all, with the main storylines this year being simply extensions of those from Year Two. At the season’s beginning lovelorn Jim (John Krasinski) has transferred to Stamford, another branch of Dunder Mifflin, following Pam’s (Jenna Fischer) rejection of him on casino night. There he becomes involved with fellow worker Karen (Rashida Jones), who follows him back to Scranton when the two branches are forced to merge only to learn about his former entanglement with Pam. They're not the only ones having problems either: Michael (Steve Carell), having been dumped by Carol, finds himself caught up in a bizarre, almost Last Tango in Paris-esque relationship with boss Jan (Melora Hardin) while Dwight (Rainn Wilson), ever the professional, has his personal life under control but at work finds himself under attack from new boy Andy (Ed Helms), who is determined to wheedle his way his Michael’s affection no matter what.
The introduction of new characters into the series gives the beginning of the year a fresh feeling. The early episodes, which show Jim in his new workplace, make an interesting break from the norm, and while we are all obviously waiting for him to return to Scranton, the change works well as a vehicle to introduce some fresh blood. Regrettably, however, only one of his colleagues makes the transition to series regular with any real success. Andy, played with hearty relish by Helms, makes Dwight look sane, a border-line sociopath with a sycophantic attitude towards his superiors but who will screw his fellow workers over to get that promotion. His progression over the course of the year is easily a highlight, especially once he returns from his anger management course and we see his constant battles to keep himself within check when encountering the myriad irritations that the office throws at him. We’re all waiting for him to burst, and now that Helms has become a season regular it’s going to be a lot of fun seeing just how the writers manage to push him over the edge. He’s one of two characters from Stamford to last the distance, the other being Karen, but it quickly becomes evident, despite the best efforts of Jones, that she is nothing more than a plot device, a barrier between Jim and Pam getting together. The writing never really tries to make her a character in her own right, as all her characteristics centre around her relationship with Jim, and in the end she comes across as nothing more interesting than a Pam-clone. Sadly her apparent departure at the season’s end is not to be regretted.
But the treatment of Karen is symptomatic of my only real complaint of what is otherwise a hugely enjoyable season of television: the writers are constantly playing safe. If you look at the situation for the vast majority of the year absolutely nothing has changed: Pam and Jim are still dancing around each other not getting anywhere, Dwight and Angela and Ryan and Kellie likewise, while Michael gets given what one can only now call typical Michael-esque things to do and say, such as desperately proving he’s not a homophobe or racist. His proposal to Carol, behaviour at poor Phyllis's wedding and lecture to Ryan's business school are variations on what we've seen before, painful to watch as always, but not as painful as in the past. One of the many reasons Gervais ended his version when he did was because he knew David Brent's actions still had the power to shock, but, unavoidably given the length of US series, Michael's have long ceased to do so. Something slightly different needs to be found but this year no one tries to discover what that is, with Michael or anywhere else. In my review of Season Two I ended by saying that the show’s biggest problem was that the status quo was hugely important, and that to change it even a little would be to change the nature of the series completely. This is borne out fully in this season, in which the writing seems almost scared to experiment. Tonally speaking, the season is disappointingly static.
Actually, that’s not entirely true - there is one subtle change. One thing you could never say with regards to the British version is that the workers had even the slightest amount of affection for each other - everyone hated everyone else’s guts. That is no longer the case here. The playground metaphor that was prevalent in Season Two is still present, but there’s also much more of a familial atmosphere too, with the characters actually looking out for each other. The women especially become almost protective of Michael and his idiocies - when he says something embarrassing or insulting now, the feeling is still “I can’t believe he just said that,” but there’s also an increasing attempt to shield him from his own mistakes and insecurities - see Pam's tribute to the fallen bird in Grief Counselling for a good example. (Carell is showing increasing amounts of vulnerability too - he’s a good actor, as anyone who saw his quietly moving turn in Little Miss Sunshine will attest, and he’s playing Michael in an increasingly nuanced manner.) This shielding doesn’t just extend to the boss either - see the scene at the end of Business School between him and Pam, easily one of the strongest scenes in the season - and there are plenty of moments elsewhere in which one or another of the main characters is threatened in some way, only for others to express relief when disaster is averted. When you have Jim saying he’s glad Dwight is back or Stanley - Stanley! - telling Michael he’s relieved he’s not going anywhere - and both of those characters actually meaning what they say - you know this is now a very different world from that in which David Brent lives. There’s a feeling of both resignation and acceptance that these are the idiots we have to live with and it’s far better the devil you know than the ones you don’t. It’s a predictably American response, but also one which is arguably necessary for the longevity of a show. To have season after season of constant barbs and abrasions would not appeal. This year, the office become a second home to the characters, and some of the strongest episodes - A Benihana Christmas, The Negotiation, Beach Games - are centred around the idea.
Which is not to say the writing isn’t as acerbic as it’s always been, it is. While at times there’s a feeling of coasting, there’s enough wit in each half hour episode to ensure the show’s quality never flags. There’s a particular tendency this year to draw parallels between the lives of the characters which is interesting, while some suitably quirky offerings belie Daniels’s cartoon background - I particularly enjoyed the appearance of Ben Franklin and the joys of Pretzel Day. The running jokes are also not - for wont of a better word - running out of steam just yet either. I found Jim’s pranks on Dwight funnier than ever this year (I especially liked the one using Dwight’s notepaper - to say more would be to ruin it) - and there’s a great pleasure to be had in seeing a situation and knowing how the secondary characters are going to react - Meredith reaching for a bottle, Angela making a face, Kevin creasing up with laughter, etc. A couple of these secondary characters even get to flex their muscles somewhat - Stanley has some good stuff to do and my own personal favourite Creed continues to single-mindedly follow his own, often highly illegal agenda. The forlorn Toby also gets some development, his relationship with Michael especially raising a laugh, and in general the show benefits immeasurably from the fact these characters are played by people who, largely, have a background in comedy of one sort or another. The only misfire with regards to characterisation - although, to be fair, it is a big misfire - is the relationship between Michael and Jan, which does not for one moment ring true. (One senses that even the writers knew this as they give Jan not one but two lengthy speeches in which she tries to justify it, neither of which comes close to convincing). Other than that though, it’s plain sailing.
Which is how you could describe the whole series, which flies along smoothly, always raising a laugh and never hitting a bumpy patch. But that's also the problem - a journey without some sort of excitement is only half as good, no matter where you're heading - and that lack of adventure is the only disappointment. As I say, it's probably necessary, given that the show needed to consolidate its growth and cement its place in the popular culture of the States today, and it has more than done that. Indeed, even though internally it hasn’t broken new ground, in regards to the television landscape it certainly has as it has managed to break free of the artificial constrains of a series filmed in front of an audience, giving a far authentic experience - compare the evocation of office life here to, to randomly pick a show that’s been on Channel Four recently with a similar setting, Just Shoot Me and there is no comparison - this could be real, JSM never for a moment lets you forget it’s a television show. The Office is both a development and a compromise, between the cosy, frankly rubbish sitcoms that still litter much of American television and the more edgy, avant garde stuff seen on cable such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Arrested Development. The Office has Curb’s smarts and wit, but also that cosy, safe factor which means healthy audiences. But now that it has done that and found its place in the public consciousness, it needs to go on and explore the boundaries, and stretch them somewhat. There are encouraging signs that it intends to do so - the last two episodes, the finale especially, are tonally very different than what has gone before which is all to the good. Pam’s character has been pushed forward in a very pleasing manner which bodes well for the future, and one senses that her and Jim’s relationship will not suffer from Niles-and-Daphne syndrome, while Andy continues to simmer and Carell flexes his acting chops more. Let’s just hope Season Four is as brave as these early indications imply - the fact that this season treaded water is condonable but another season like it would be a big mistake.
All twenty-two episodes of the third season are presented on single-sided DVDs. This includes the five longer episodes - following Season Two’s experiment of having a longer finale, this year there have been several episodes which broke the twenty-two minutes running time, all to their benefit. However, there is one minor problem to mention. The episode The Return is not the complete version available on iTunes. One small scene in which Jim asks Ryan to help him play a prank on Andy is missing entirely, to be seen neither in the cut of the episode itself or among the deleted scenes. (The missing scenes for this episode also have a problem: see Extras below).
The discs are held in a fold-out glossy case amply illustrated with shots and office paraphernalia - as well as the obligatory episode synopses - which is in turn held in a surrounding case. As well as the discs you are also lucky enough to get a little leaflet suggesting you try out 30 Rock or any number of other shows as “The laughter never stops with TV on DVD!” It certainly doesn’t.
The Main Menu of each disc has a different background from the office (as do all the submenus) and has a small loop of dialogue from one of the episodes running in the background, which can get very irritating if you have to leave them on. The menus are well designed and cross link which makes them even more accessible. The four options on the Main Page are Play All, Episode Index, Bonus Materials and Languages.
All episodes and extras bar commentaries are subtitled.
A generally very acceptable and clean transfer, the colours are bright without being over flashy, although outdoor scenes are a little over-bright at times and consequently not as defined. At times the image can be a little flat, and there is the odd encoding problem, but overall this is a perfectly acceptable transfer.
Hmmm, here’s a problem. Occasionally with the dialogue I found the actors’ mumbles so quiet and indistinct that I couldn’t tell what they were saying, even when the volume was turned up, so that I had to turn the subtitles on. Although it only happened every so often, it was still enough to be noteworthy, but whether this is a problem with the disc - and it’s one I’ve not encountered before on a modern series - or my ears I don’t know. Selfishly, I'm hoping it's the former.
There are cast and crew commentaries on eight episodes (The Coup, The Initiation, Travelling Salesman/The Return, Business School, Safety Training, Women’s Appreciation, Beach Games and The Job.) with all of the main actors except Carell contributing at least one. Not especially notable, this is your typical cast-reminiscences stuff, but kudos for getting Harold Ramis to talk about his two shows, Safety Training and Beach Games. It might, however, have been more interesting to have him talking about the show on his own, as he does get crowded out somewhat by the rest of the group. Next time, could we have a couple of single-voice commentaries again?
Worth the price of admission on their own. Nearly every episode comes with a substantial collection of excised scenes, all of which are just as funny as the material left in the episodes and which add to our knowledge of our characters - Greg Daniels has said that he considers these scenes as much “canon” as what actually airs. The box claims there are over three hours worth of stuff here, and that’s easy to believe.
There are a couple of minor problems. One is the presentation: the footage is not anamorphic, and is of a lower quality to the episodes themselves, while the audio appears to have been turned down somewhat (or is it my ears again?) The other is with regard to watching the missing bits of the episode The Return on Disc Three. On the Main Menu this episode is combined with Part One of that story Travelling Salesman and if you select the Deleted Scenes from this Menu you only got those for that first part. To watch The Return’s you have to select Play All from the Deleted Scenes Menu.
Kevin Cooks Stuff in the Office (4:57)
The extras on this set give the secondary stars a chance to shine, and first up to the plate is Kevin, who teaches us how to make gourmet delights with the sparse ingredients in the office’s kitchen. Good fun.
Excerpts from the 2006 NBC Primetime Preview Hosted by The Office Cast (8:11)
Sort of a mini-episode, a bit disjointed but still with some funny stuff in it.
Toby Wraparounds (2:48)
Poor Toby, he’s the sort of person you expect to bottle it in for so long before suddenly exploding, massacring everyone in the office while screaming “I’m doing this for you Pam.” Here he gives us the benefit of his opinions and asks Kellie just how satisfying it was to hit Michael.
Dwight Shrute Music Video (2:09)
A mock-heavy metal-style video starring everyone’s favourite beet farmer, composed of clips from the series. Amusing.
Joss Whedon Interview (1:00)
Erm, yes. Bit of a waste of time this one, as Whedon doesn’t really say much and the slim running time is bolstered by many clips from his episode. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have a little featurette about all the guest directors, ie Whedon, JJ Abrams and Harold Ramis (who does two)?
Videos from The Office “MAKE YOUR OWN PROMO” Contest (2:52)
These are very funny, with real office workers up and down the States getting a rare chance to exercise their creativity. All six of the finalists from this competition are included, and all are highly amusing.
Blooper Reel (13:43)
Slightly better than average collection of outtakes, especially when it’s someone like Stanley or Angela who does the cracking up.
”Lazy Scranton” Video (2:11)
The full-screen version of Michael and Dwight’s rap video made to welcome the newcomers to the Scranton branch. Fun.
Excerpt from the 58th ANNUAL PRIMETIME EMMY Awards (1:13)
Not having seen the Emmies in question, I can only presume this was part of one of those Billy-Crystal-style montages in which the host, in this case Conan O’Brien, pops into various TV shows up for awards. Here he literally drops into the office, and although it’s only a minute long there are still some good jokes here.
Another excellent package accompanies a quality series of television. There are a few technical niggles, but overall this is how all television shows should be released on DVD these days, with attractive packaging, well designed menus, good extras as well as, of course, a decent television show. Top stuff.