I’ve heard some people call Season 4 of The Office the high point of the entire series, but for me, I feel split between what I like and what I dislike about this run. It’s a really good season, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not quite the nadir that some have made it out to be.
The biggest shift between Seasons 3 and 4 comes from the fallout of “The Job.” Ryan-the-temp gets promoted to corporate (becoming Michael’s boss), Karen leaves entirely (as Rashida Jones went to go be on Parks and Rec), and Jim and Pam are finally together in a stable dating relationship. The season opens with an amazing two-parter during which Michael hits Meredith with his car, discovers that she has rabies, and organizes a charity run to help cure this very curable disease. It’s a wonderfully hilarious and enjoyable outing with so many of the cast members getting their own turn to be in the spotlight.
But then cracks start showing in the relational foundation of Dunder Mifflin. Dwight and Angela break up (as Dwight mercy killed Angela’s incredibly sick cat), Ryan struggles to exert authority over Michael and Jim, Michael and Jan’s relationship finds itself on the rocks, and even Stanley and Michael have it out. By the end of the season, some of these relationship dynamics shift around — and a moment of awkward flirtation drives Toby to up and leave the branch in the season finale.
So I want to get my gripes out of the way here, especially because I don’t see Season 4 getting criticized how it should be. The season was cut short due to a writer’s strike, and the reduced episode order and the fact that 10 of the remaining episodes were combined to make five extra-long episodes made this whole run feel… weird. I don’t really like the gimmicky nature of the plus-sized episodes, especially because they lent themselves to padding.
I especially dislike Ryan in his new corporate job. Yes, I get they were trying to make him obscenely obnoxious, but none of this makes sense to me. There’s no real reason the show gives for hiring a night school business major with no real sales experience to suddenly oversee multiple branches of a mid-sized paper firm. He’s not a good people person, and every time he shows up I beg the TV for someone to slap him. They kind of wrap up his storyline offscreen, too, which felt very unrewarding when you wanted to see in person him getting his comeuppance.
My last major issue with Season 4 is that there’s too many episodes where characters outright hate and fight each other. No, I’m not talking about “Dinner Party,” but rather “Did I Stutter?” “Launch Party,” “The Deposition,” and even to a much lesser extent, “Branch Wars.” I always hate when characters have strong conflict and I’m forced to watch it, and it happens far too often in this season for me to overlook it.
So while there are a couple episodes that I like to skip upon rewatching, Season 4 is loaded with stone-cold classics. Seeing Michael attempt to survive in the wild in “Survivor Man” is an absolute hoot, “Branch Wars” is loaded with over-the-top comedy that I kind of enjoy, and “Goodbye Toby” is hilarious if only to see Michael’s glee at Toby’s departure (he brings in the security guard to escort him out at the end of the day).
And while Michael Scott is still the centerpiece of the show, Season 4 gave a lot of time to the supporting cast — which is a great move, since The Office had such a strong and diverse ensemble. Seeing the whole Dunder Mifflin crew come together to make a commercial for “Local Ad” was a joy that made up for a lot of the awkwardness of other outings.
But by far, “Dinner Party” is the highlight of the season — and, for many, the entire series. This cringe-fest took us out of the office and into Jan and Michael’s condo for a dinner party that ended up being a half-hour of watching a couple implode while three other couples had to endure it. It’s a masterpiece of ratcheting tension, of horribly cringy moments, and of quotable lines that it ended up being amazing, rather than difficult, to watch.
Season 4 ended with a slight change to the status quo, with the departure of Toby and the introduction of Holly Flax, the new H.R. rep and Michael’s instant love-crush. Jan ends up announcing that she’s preggers (but not with Michael’s baby), Jim *almost* proposes to Pam, and Andy *definitely* proposes to Angela. It’s a crazy way to rearrange all of these familiar pieces on the board and set us up for the insanity that would become Season 5.