The Office

At the end of last season, Jim (John Krasinski) finally declared his love for Pam (Jenna Fischer). They kissed and gazed on each other with wonder as the scene faded to black. Viewers and critics wondered too, all summer long: would this be the beginning of a new era of The Office, or just the end of its one truly compelling conflict?

As it turns out, it was neither. In the third season’s first episode, Pam admitted she had wanted to kiss Jim for “so long,” but as he bent in for another, she stopped him. He looked at her with the same defeated expression he’s worn for the whole of their relationship and said, “So you’re really going to marry him.” Yes, it seemed she was going through with her impending wedding with warehouse worker Roy (David Denman). And with that, she and Jim picked up their somewhat thankless lives, their desires denied again.

Jim moved ahead with his transfer out of Scranton. As a result, both he and the show have a whole new office to play in. Jim gained a new comic foil, Andy (Ed Helms), who introduced himself, saying, “I went to Cornell. Ever heard of it?” Though Andy would seem to be a perfect replacement for the easily wound-up Dwight (Rainn Wilson), Jim soon learned differently. When Jim tried out some of his old tricks, putting Andy’s calculator in Jell-O, Andy suffered a violent freak-out that quickly turned Jim’s trademark smirk into an expression of terror. Obviously, this transfer will not be working out.

Back in Scranton, Pam called off her marriage and returned to art school, feeling independent for the first time. But her workday remained joyless. When Michael (Steve Carell) made yet another double entendre during an “announcement,” Pam stifled a laugh and turned to where Jim would have been sitting to share in the joke. She saw instead his replacement Ryan (BJ Novak), who stared back blankly and asked, “What?” The brief flash of loss and dismay on Pam’s face suggested she was just beginning to realize what she was missing.

The developments in Pam and Jim’s story, however compelling, were still only one small part of this episode, titled “Gay Witch Hunt.” The primary plot concerned Michael’s unintentional outing of accountant Oscar (Oscar Nunez). Chastised by hangdog HR rep Toby (Paul Lieberstein) for using the word “faggy” around Oscar, Michael attempted an apology that set off a series of uncomfortable moments for everyone. Michael at first seemed sincerely humbled, but as always, he blew it when he invited Oscar to lunch: “Maybe you can tell me how you can do that to another dude.”

Michael’s misguided efforts to ingratiate himself with his subordinates and all but force them to be his friends are the core of The Office‘s comedy. It would be easy to make him into a caricature, with his frequent bumbling and total lack of self-awareness, but Carell makes his neediness and desperation recognizable.

In fact, over just two seasons, Michael — a man no one would want as a boss or a friend — has become one of the most sympathetic characters on television. One can’t help but root for him to feel secure, to stop trying so hard and just be who he is, but the show revels in his failures all the same. When, in “Gay Witch Hunt,” Oscar asked Michael if he’s the first gay man he’s ever known, Michael glanced at the camera and said, “Trick question, because you can’t always tell, so how would I know?” When he added, “Is that the right answer?”, Oscar couldn’t decide to be angry with or feel sorry for the guy.

Even Michael’s boss Jan (Melora Hardin) hasn’t been able to bring her herself to fire him, despite his frequent screw-ups putting both of their careers in jeopardy. As always, in this episode she reacted to him like an exasperated mother, even as he loudly needled her about their past romantic fling. Though Jan has dismissed her conflicted feelings for Michael, it’s plain that the possibility of romance is still on his mind.

The workers on The Office frequently refer to the dead-end nature of their jobs. But even if they are, as Oscar sarcastically observed, stuck “at a failing paper firm, in Scranton,” their lives are far from static.

RATING 9 / 10