My favorite episode is a new feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.
The Office is the kind of show that revels in discomfort. The best, funniest moments on the program are when the characters are placed in awkward situation that they do their best to flee. The story of the office workers at Dunder-Mifflin, a midrange paper company, provide the characters lots of chances to fall into cringe-inducing moments – mostly instigated by the regional manager, Michael Scott (Steve Carell). There is a balance between the more extreme characters like Michael, the sycophantic Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), or the Ignatius C. Reilly-like Kevin Malone (Brian Baumgartner) and the straight men, Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) or office receptionist, Pam Beasley (Jenna Fischer). The moments of high discomfort are often mitigated by the more even-keeled antics of the saner employees of Dunder-Mifflin.
That’s what makes “Dinner Party” such a risky episode. In it, Michael is trying to bolster his failing relationship with former Dunder-Mifflin VP, Jan Levenson (Melora Hardin) by making it an “official” relationship by throwing a dinner party. He invites Jim and Pam as well as Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) and Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey). There’s an interesting tableau of sorts playing out – Jim and Pam are presented as the ideal couple – in tune with each other’s needs; Angela and Andy have a terse relationship, marked by her primness as well as her simmering infatuation with Dwight; meanwhile, Jan and Michael have the kind of abusive, disgusting relationship that makes George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look like, well, Jim and Pam.
Michael and Jan live in a sad, cookie-cutter condominium. This modest living arrangement is due to Jan’s recent firing over her erratic behavior. I was on the fence with how they moved Jan quickly from the crisp, efficient executive in the first season, to the volatile mess in the fourth. Her sexual relationship with Michael is a huge marker of her descent into mental illness and instability. Because she’s intelligent, successful, beautiful, and assertive, she is “the catch” of the relationship. Though Michael isn’t a slouch by any means, he’s just not as dashing as Jan once was – Ricky Gervais coined it perfectly when he described Carell as “almost handsome.”
But Michael doesn’t have trouble landing beautiful, blonde women – along with Jan, he also dated his real estate agent, Carol (played by Carell’s real-life wife, comedienne Nancy Carell), and eventually the wonderful HR manager Holly Flax (Amy Ryan). But it’s clear that Jan is definitely slumming, and the relationship is just another side effect of her slide to madness. And her misery is plain to see – in fact her misery is painful to watch – and like most abusive partners, she’s not content to suffer in silence or alone.
Along with her sick romance with Michael, Jan also has a sorry professional life, as well. No longer a business exec, she turns her attention to a home business, making homemade candles, called Serenity by Jan. And while the business is pathetic, it’s not the worst part of the grand tour the couple give to their guests. Among the sad details is a tiny bench at the foot of their bed that Michael is forced to sleep on, due to her “space issues.”
The tour gives way to more awfulness when Michael’s and Jan’s tense dynamic spills out in front of their friends. Jan quickly becomes drunk, allowing her rage and depression to surface in various passive aggressive and not-so passive aggressive ways. She constantly scolds him throughout the evening for his forced joviality, and during one particularly uncomfortable part of the evening she plays a truly god awful CD from her former assistant, whose virginity she probably took. Very Nice. Their bickering revealed that she forced Michael to undergo three vasectomies – “Snip, snip, snip!” Michael shouts, “You don’t know the physical toll that three vasectomies have on a person!”
The evening reaches a fevered peak when Michael stands up to Jan and plugs in his favorite neon beer sign. Awash in a sickly blue glow, Jan orders Michael to take it down; when he refuses, she grabs one of his prized Dundies and smashes his miniscule $200 plasma TV. This blowout inspires another shouting match between the two that is quickly dampened by the police.
This is the last episode that Jan appears in as a recurring character. She pops up a few more times throughout the rest of the show’s nine seasons, but “Dinner Party” is her last shining hour, and the writers – Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupinsky give the character a lot to do. It’s interesting because Hardin isn’t a natural comedienne, but dominates this episode, outshining even Carell, who is excellent.
But what is so interesting about the writing is how merciless the writers are with the harsh, black comedy. Normally, if Michael or Dwight do something assbackwards at the office, their shame has a limited shelf life because there’s always either someone there to up the ante and do something even more ridiculous, or there’d be a fun, cute skit between Jim and Pam. But in “Dinner Party” Jim and Pam are mostly relegated to shocked and appalled glances at each other and the camera, as they remain victims to the misery party they’ve been invited to.
So, instead of giving the audience a break, we’re subject, like Pam and Jim, to a relentless series of swipes. Initially supportive and sympathetic of Michael, one sees that Jan’s behavior doesn’t come from a source of malice or evil, but of a bottomless pit of misery and rage; while Michael has always been an emotionally-needy character, he’s also always maintained a level of decency (with the exception of his behavior toward Toby); so it’s obvious why Michael feels stuck in his toxic affair with Jan – without Jan, Michael would be alone again, and that’s something that Michael isn’t sure he can withstand – when in a later episode, he and Holly are going through a breakup, he starts to sob and say that he doesn’t want to be alone because he’ll go back to Jan and “I hate Jan!” he screams.
The wrap up is also fascinating because it’s ultimately very sad. While Jim and Pam and Andy and Angela have their relationships reaffirmed, Jan and Michael face an obvious breakup. When the police arrive to respond to a disturbance call, the officers suggest Michael leaves – an interesting about-face on expectations, as it’s usually the woman who is encouraged to leave. We see before the show’s end, Jan trying, unsuccessfully, to glue Michael’s broken Dundie back together – a perfect encapsulation of not only her relationship with Michael, but with her own life.
“Dinner Party” is one of The Office‘s best episodes, even if it features only a handful of the regulars. It’s an experiment in savage humor that works. It’s the correct balance, that allows for the episode to be the train wreck it’s meant to be, without dissolving into acrid comedy (an issue the ninth season has to shoulder). There’s a glorious beauty in the ugliness of “Dinner Party,” that very few TV show writers are willing to risk – few of the characters in the episode are likable or endearing (even Jim and Pam start to feel a bit smug in their perfectness), but that’s when The Office shines brightest: when we find ourselves enjoying the misadventures of the sort of people we’d avoid in real life.