Deep Dive: "The Dundies"
The Dundies! How can I explain....
No, but seriously.
"The Dundies" is the first episode of Season Two of The Office (US). It premiered on September 20, 2005. It was written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Greg Daniels. And it is brilliant.
Mindy was a staff writer on The Office from the beginning, but her first "written by" credit came in Season 1, "Hot Girl," which is also the finale of that 6-episode season. Meaning that Kaling, only 20-something at the time, wrote the finale and premiere of a network sitcom back-to-back. Which is pretty cool, and also brings me to my thesis: Kaling was a major architect of the all-important tonal shift that took place between seasons one and two of The Office, and which endeared the show to American audiences.
There is no cold open to "The Dundies," reinforcing the sense that this is an exceptional day. As Michael explains to the camera, it's the night of the Dundie awards, and it's "everybody's favorite day." The talking heads make it clear that this is nobody's favorite day.
Throughout the whole first act, which takes place in the office, Michael's most aggravating traits are on full display: his irresponsibility in not realizing that the branch has far exceeded its party budget for the year; his petulant immaturity when explaining why he wishes people were going to be drunk for his performance. Steve Carrell is in full Michael Scott mode—he's had time to live in the character and tease out the most exasperating and pathetic mannerisms, resulting in a humor that is painful and funny in equal measure.
Also in the first act, Dwight discovers that someone has written something about Michael on the women's restroom wall. (There is something so extremely hilarious to me about Dwight's line "So, what's the joke? You're not perfect either." It gets me every time.)
Though the bathroom graffiti isn't a major plot point (unless you count some deleted scenes), it is important in that it re-establishes the dynamic between Michael and his employees and Michael's obliviousness. Michael thinks everyone is eagerly anticipating the Dundies, while in reality the women of the office are making fun of him behind his back. As in Season One, the chasm between Michael's and the employees' perception of what's going on is the main source of uncomfortable humor.
The first Jim/Pam beat of act one occurs because Michael asks Pam to review previous Dundie footage, looking for "highlights." As we watch Pam watch the VHS tapes of a previous year's ceremony, it becomes clear that the award she gets—"Longest Engagement"—really upsets her. We see Pam get this award on the TV screen, looking down, and we also see "real time" Pam in the conference room, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable. Back on the TV screen, Roy, as would be expected, cruelly advances the joke by saying "we'll see you next year." This is one more piece of evidence in a string of blatant cues that Roy is NOT GOOD and we should all be rooting for Jim. Heavy handed, maybe. But also the only chance to have a true hero/villain dichotomy in a show that has set itself up to be fairly "realistic" thus far.
Jim—because he is always paying attention to Pam instead of doing his job, awww—notices Pam's reaction to the old Dundie tapes and asks Michael to consider giving Pam a different award. Jim's appeal to Michael's sense of decency goes unheard; it's only when he suggests that re-using jokes seems "lazy" that Michael takes notice. (Michael fancies himself a professional entertainer, frequently comparing himself to Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.) Jim's tactics show that he knows Michael well, and that he is determined to spare Pam embarrassment. However, we are left in the dark as to whether Michael will actually change Pam's award as we head into act two.
Act two opens with an exterior shot of the Scranton Chili's, indicating the show's first venture outside Scranton Office Park! Interior shots reveal the Dunder Mifflin crew settled in, awaiting Michael's "entrance" to the "stage" (a cleared-out portion of floor in front of Dwight's keyboard). Peripheral shots of other diners and waiters going about their business brilliantly highlight how rinky-dink and NOT A THING the Dundies are; Michael didn't even reserve a function room, they're literally just in a restaurant.
Michael bounds out onto the stage, attempts to rap his own lyrics over Naughty By Nature's O.P.P., and assumes the white woman at Stanley's table is not his wife (obviously thinking Stanley must be married to a black woman). So far, so uncomfortable. The rocky start continues as Dwight muffs up the host/sidekick banter with his penchant for literalness ("we don't have any girls in HR"), and Michael reveals that there is no group tab.
Realizing that they will now not only be forced to watch the Dundies, but also pay for their own food and drinks, Roy and Daryl decide to bail. Pam at first goes with them, and a downhearted Jim decides to stay. ("Gotta eat somewhere, right?" is just about the saddest line of dialogue in the world. Yeah you have to eat, but does it have to be at the SCRANTON CHILI'S!?) Our hearts collectively break for Jim Halpert, stuck at a work function, pondering a Chili's appetizers menu.
But then, we get an outdoor voyeur-style shot of Pam and Roy arguing, Pam wrenching her arm away from Roy, and storming away from the car. Pam returns to Chili's, assertively taking a seat at Jim's table and taking a sip of his beer. "Oh good, I'm just in time for Ping," she says, and we cut to Michael's horrifically racist asian character. The camera spies a young asian woman watching Michael with a look of indignant disbelief on her face, reminding us just how truly terrible Michael is. The shot cuts back to Jim with a very "Jim" look on his face, and act two comes to a close. At the end of a short act two, not much has changed from Season One: Michael is being a total ass, Dwight is a weirdo, and Jim and Pam are our adorable protagonists adrift in a sea of awkwardness.
Act three opens with the awards in full swing, and people are bored. The writers take the opportunity to insert some solid character jokes through the awards, reintroducing the audience to the office personalities. Michael gives Angela the Dundie for "Tightest Ass," and Angela responds with classic Angela pursed lips and a humorless "No." Kelly receives the "spicy curry" award, and rather than being rightfully offended, is instead bewildered, literally not understanding why she got that award. (The beginning of a slight running gag that Kelly feels no connection to her Southeast Asian heritage.)
Shots of the office crew yawning and looking bored are sprinkled throughout. Jim and Pam alone seem to be having a good time, because they're together AND THEY LOVE EACH OTHER. It is here that Pam introduces the all-important concept of "second drink," which has had a profound effect on my life. No lie, I think about it every time I order a drink with ice in it. It's so important, and Jenna Fischer is so adorable, it deserves a gif:
Michael takes a break from his host duties to chug some water, do a talking head, and compare himself to Bob Hope in Afghanistan. When he gets back on stage, he sings a cover of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." ("You have won a tiny duuuundieeeee.") It's excruciatingly bad.
Indeed, it's so bad that a group of bros waiting at the bar cannot ignore it. "Whoo, sing it Elton!" one heckles. When Michael responds by asking where the bros are from, they lash out. "You suck man! You suck." One throws a roll or something at Michael's head. Michael decides to cut the ceremony short, list off the rest of the awards, and let everyone "enjoy their food."
Of course, most viewers watch this moment and feel bad for Michael, even though Michael's whole performance has been racist and annoying. The bros were mean, and Michael is a character we know, so our loyalty is with him. However, the evidence suggests that we shouldn't expect the same sympathy from the office staff. Remember, earlier this same day we learned that one of the women wrote something cruel about Michael in the bathroom, and everyone has approached the Dundies with a mix of resignation, annoyance, and disdain. Based on the show so far, we might guess that the Dunder Mifflin crew might feel a little bad for Michael, but would also welcome an early end to the ceremony.
But that's not what happens. While the bro says "you suck," the camera actually cuts to Pam rather than to Michael or the bro himself. I suspect this was a directorial move on Greg Daniels' part, rather than written into the script, but it primes the audience for Pam to be the main actor in the next few moments. Once again, we see Pam looking distressed, but this time in response to something said TO Michael rather than BY Michael.
Michael delivers the next award (the "Don't Go In There After Me" award, given to Kevin, which by the way is a little statuette of a squatting man) in a dull monotone that peters off into an almost-sob. During the uncomfortable silence that follows, the camera again finds Pam and Jim, lingering on Pam as she seems to come to a decision. She begins to cheer and clap, "whooo Kevin, for stinking up the bathroom!" Jim follows suit, then the rest of the gang. Pam declares that she hasn't gotten an award yet, and Michael is visibly revitalized by everyone's newfound interest. His face shines with glee as he says "ok, ok!" and goes back into host mode. Shots of the Dunder Mifflin crew now show smiles rather than yawns as Stanley goes up to receive his Dundie.
Then Michael announces he's giving the next award to Pam, and that "everyone knows what award she's getting." Again, a shot of Jim and Pam's table: Jim looks apprehensive and Pam looks braced for disappointment. But then Michael says, "Pam is getting the Whitest Sneakers award, because she always has the whitest tennis shoes on!" Drunk Pam is delighted, and proceeds to give the most iconic acceptance speech of all time. If I ever win an award, for anything, I will be giving this speech verbatim:
I have so many people to thank for this award. Okay, first off, my Keds. Because I couldn't have done it without them. [people clap] Thank you. Let's give Michael a round of applause for MC-ing tonight because [people start clapping again] this is a lot harder than it looks. And also because of Dwight too. [Dwight stands up, but nobody claps] Um, so, finally, I want to thank God. Because God gave me this Dundie. And, I feel God in this Chili's tonight. WHOOOOOOOO!!!!
Throughout the speech, we cut to Jim's expression—equal parts amused, impressed, and enraptured—and it's adorable. At the end, Pam hugs Michael and gives him a peck on the cheek, to which he says "Thank you" in complete surprise, and it's also pretty adorable. And then, HASHTAG NEVER FORGET, Pam runs up to Jim and plants a kiss on his lips. That's right folks, technically Jim and Pam's first kiss is in "The Dundies," meaning that Season Two is <mini spoiler alert> bookended by Jim and Pam kisses. <mini spoilers over> Act three finishes up with a series of funny things—Pam falls off a stool, Dwight goes into full safety-officer mode and tries to save her, Michael reframes the events as all about him: "I killed. Almost."
Then there is a coda, which all takes place outside the Chili's. A Chili's employee explains that Pam is no longer welcome in that restaurant chain, while the camera shows Pam enthusiastically hugging everyone goodbye. Michael tells Dwight "great work tonight," which Dwight assumes to be in reference to checking up on Pam after she fell. Michael says "that too, but I meant with the audio. Great work." Dwight looks surprised and extremely pleased.
Pam reveals to Jim that she wrote the thing about Michael in the bathroom, and says she feels bad about it. Jim says "no you don't" and she laughs and agrees. Michael is still ridiculous and probably deserving of whatever Pam wrote, but we now know that Pam—and perhaps the whole office—has a far more complex relationship with Michael than just "I hate my asshole boss." It's this deepening of the story of the bond between Michael and his employees over the next 6 seasons that sets the US Office apart from its UK source material, and it begins here.
While "The Dundies" treated us to a great series of Jim/Pam moments, which the audience would likely have been expecting based on Season One, it also introduces a relationship that will be extremely important to the overall structure of The Office through the next few seasons: Pam and Michael. Michael is needy, ignorant, and occasionally cruel, but Pam's instinct to defend him reveals that there is some sense of loyalty between Michael and his employees. (It also reveals intuitive empathy as one of Pam's key traits.) Pam's rally to save the Dundies was an act of (drunk) kindness, and also showed her understanding of Michael. The best way to comfort and defend him is to show appreciation of his showmanship and the things he does for the office. In turn, Michael's Dundie success leads to the moment when he compliments Dwight, whom he usually mocks. When treated with kindness, Michael is capable of paying it forward with empathy, a skill he doesn't have in abundance, but one that he will improve throughout the series run.
In the pilot, Michael fake fires Pam, harasses her, and all signs point to Pam being miserable every time Michael approaches. But from Season Two onward, scenes and storylines in which Michael and Pam come together often advance Michael or Pam's emotional development. In "Women's Appreciation," Pam helps give Michael the confidence to break up with Jan and in turn regains some confidence despite the fact that Jim is with Karen. In "Business School," Michael is the only one who both shows up at Pam's art show and truly appreciates her work. In "Lecture Circuit," (which was also written by Mindy Kaling) Pam reads a letter from Holly and advises Michael not to give up on her. And of course, it's Pam who leaves Dunder Mifflin with Michael when he starts Michael Scott Paper Company—the only person in the office to do so. Michael and Pam are thrown together at times when one or the other needs confidence and comfort, and they almost always come through for one another. This important pattern builds Michael into a sympathetic character, as viewed through the lens of his relationship with Pam, and this pattern begins with "The Dundies."
Kaling's "Dundies" is a quintessential early Office episode, with great character-based jokes, uncomfortable cringe humor, and plenty of sweet Jim/Pam tension. However, her subtle infusion of the Pam/Michael dynamic sets up the crucial idea that Michael—while still completely clueless and inappropriate—is not beyond hope.
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