I have repeatedly proclaimed my love for the American version of The Office. It’s surely one of my favorite TV shows of all time. But — as with virtually any long-running sitcom — it does have high points and low points.
One thing I’ve been meaning to do since the show ended in 2013 is to rank the show’s seasons. What I’ve always thought is that the seasons fall over an extremely broad spectrum: from quite good to quite not-so-good. Thus, I’ve not only ranked the seasons but broken them into four tiers by their overall quality.
Tier 4: Truly Bad
9. Season 8
The Office didn’t have to crash and burn when Michael left… but it did. The new characters stunk (Nellie is the most ridiculous character in the show’s history), the old characters turned more cartoonish than ever (especially freaking Andy), and the plots just never stuck. I was teetering on the edge after Season 7, but the first few episodes of Season 8 turned me off The Office for more than a year. When I went back to finally watch it, I enjoyed the trip to Tallahassee, but that was basically it.
Tier 3: Mediocre With Flashes of Great
8. Season 7
The Steve Carrell Farewell Tour was legitimately great. I was thrilled that Holly returned, and the stretch from “Garage Sale” through ” Goodbye, Michael” was the show’s strongest stretch since Season 5’s Michael Scott Paper Company arc. Too bad everything else had gone sour. Will Ferrell’s stint as a guest star was a train wreck, the background characters became more and more silly, and Dunder Mifflin just became an implausible institution.
7. Season 6
Perhaps this is a bit of an overreaction and Season 6 should be a couple spots higher, but for me it was the most disappointing season of The Office. After the phenomenal, story-packed, character-driven, semi-heartbraking season that preceded it, Season 6 landed with a bunch of story farts. The Dunder Mifflin buyout by Sabre never went anywhere interesting; Pam and Jim having a baby didn’t give us any new insight into the characters; and the various love stories landed weakly (with the exception of some nice Andy-Erin moments). Fortunately, we did get one of the show’s best episodes ever: The hilarious, raunchy, moving “Niagara,” in which Jim and Pam get married.
6. Season 1
The first season is basically impossible to rank. It’s only six episodes. The chemistry was way off: Michael was too much of an ass, Jim was too pathetic most of the time, and the humor humor relied too much on laughing at meanness. But there are some truly iconic moments and jokes here — “Diversity Day” is well-regarded, Jim and Dwight’s “Alliance” served as the nexus for that relationship, and the group’s basketball game had plenty of funny moments.
5. Season 9
Again, this is probably an overreaction. The beginning of the season is still about as bad as Season 8, with only a few highlights (“Work Bus” has some of the show’s funniest moments in three years). But it picked up steam towards the end. Jim and Pam’s marital conflict actually kind of worked, and the camera crew’s appearance in “Couples Discount” following a particularly big Jim-Pam blowup was especially memorable. The build-up to the finale gave the show some great stories (along with some duds, like Dwight tranquilizing Stanley). Jim and Dwight partnering in “A.A.R.M.” is exactly what post-Michael Office should have been, and the characters all anticipating the release of the documentary in various ways was a nice payoff on the series. It’s good to see the show go out on something of a high note.
Tier 2: Great
4. Season 4
To me, this is the weirdest season of The Office. You can basically cut it in half: The first twelve episodes of the season took place before the ’07 writers’ strike and feel very different from the final seven episodes. What tied them together was darkness: The first half showed the company and characters battling futility and irrelevance. The second half showed tensions between characters building to boiling points. All of it is interesting and rewatchable, with lots of strange undercurrents and great moments. “Money” is my favorite episode, but Michael’s brush with mortality in “Chair Model” was brilliant, as was the finale “Goodbye, Toby.” “The Deposition” showed the show doesn’t have to make many jokes to be great, and the payoff in “Local Ad” (the titular TV commercial) is a great moment. Of course, the episode people most fondly remember is the cringe-inducing “Dinner Party” in which Michael and Jan’s romance hilariously implodes during the worst group dinner of all time.
3. Season 5
After Season 4, a bunch of the writing staff, including showrunner Greg Daniels, left for new projects (Daniels and Michael Schur to start Parks and Recreation). Paul Lieberstein (aka Toby) took over as showrunner, and the change in the show’s direction feels obvious. The dark edge Daniels seemed cultivate diminished, and the staff turned away from weird ruminations, towards serial stories. The show introduced a bunch of fascinating, well-told stories, and didn’t hesitate to rapidly progress through those plots. Almost all of them center around Michael: What ties this season together is that almost all of it deals with Michael’s character development as he tries to figure out what will actually make him happy (only to have it regularly snatched from him). His romance with Holly is brilliant: Carrell’s chemistry with Amy Ryan is great, and their relationship believably grounds Michael. Similarly, Michael quitting Dunder Mifflin to start his own company is fantastically told. The season burns through so many great stories and ideas that touch on the core of the show that it’s almost awe inspiring. Too bad a bunch of the side characters started becoming cartoons and the writers couldn’t come up with better B-stories to round out episodes. Otherwise, this season would have a legitimate shot at being the show’s best.
2. Season 3
This is prime Office. No bad episodes. So many great lines and moments. You just can’t do wrong with the show at this point. The new characters (Karen, Andy) gave the show some fresh energy. Rebooting Jim and Pam’s relationship so that she would pine for him is a classic trick dating at least back to Friends, and it works as well here as it ever has. It’s hard to identify a few specific elements that stand out when everything works, but Michael’s two romances (Jan and Carol) are wonderfully awful, and the last two episodes are aces. “The Job” is a strong candidate for my favorite season finale ever, wrapping up a bunch of story-lines and paying off on some threads that had been building for three seasons.
Tier 1: Pantheon-Level
1. Season 2
Possibly my favorite season of TV ever. The bittersweet tone captured in these 22 episodes is a miracle of writing, acting, and production. Unlike the later, brighter, cartoonier seasons, the office portrayed in these episodes featured a place it felt like someone would actually work at. This set of half hours feature at least three or four of the show’s best episodes ever: “The Injury” is an instant classic episode highlighted by an exquisite Michael monologue; “The Dundies” successfully recalibrated Michael from an aggressively awful person to a misguided but caring one; and “Casino Night” amped up the show’s best story ever: the slow-boiling romance between Jim and Pam. At its best, The Office explored the minor victories and defeats of everyday life and how they come to gradually define us. That was never more true than in the show’s second season.