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The Real Reason This Episode Of The Office Is One Of The Series' Most Important

Throughout its nine-season run on NBC from 2005 to 2013, The Office spanned more than 200 episodes and cemented its legacy as one of the most well-loved shows of its era. When it comes to those individual episodes, the series definitely produced some classics. From gut-busters like "The Injury" and cringe-a-thons like "Dinner Party" to romantic moments in installments like "Weight Loss" and the legendary cold open of "Stress Relief," The Office provided some of the best moments on television during its tenure. But one of the series' most important episodes came early during its run.

Most fans have probably forgotten about "Office Olympics," an early episode on the second season of The Office, during which Michael Scott (Steve Carell), Dunder-Mifflin's bumbling boss, heads out of work for the day to buy a condo. In his absence, employees Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) created an Olympics-style series of games throughout the office; when Michael returns with the keys to his new condo in hand, his employees involve him in the action in a surprisingly emotional way. 

In an interview with Collider and in Andy Greene's new book The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History, the cast and crew open up about "Office Olympics," and what makes it so important for Michael's overall character arc from that point forward.

Michael's big turning point on "Office Olympics"

Director Paul Feig — who directed several episodes of The Office; films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy; and the upcoming HBOMax series Love Life — stated during a chat for the new remote interview series Collider Connected that "Office Olympics" was an important episode partly because it was able to build off of Carell's success in 2005's The 40-Year Old Virgin.

Feig remembered, "The big thing that happened was... in between that six-episode first season and season two, 40-Year-Old Virgin came out and went through the roof. There was all this discussion at the network and among ourselves of, 'What's the difference? Why aren't we getting an audience for this but he's so popular?' And we all kind of realized, well, he's lovable in 40-Year-Old Virgin. So we don't want to make Michael Scott cuddly and lovable, but we have to be able to at least not just go, 'Oh he's such a bore, he's so mean.'"

Thanks to Feig's direction, Carell ended up coming up with a perfect improvisation on "Office Olympics" that made Michael endearing in a way that made sense for the character. 

"We just kind of stumbled upon it when we were doing that end scene in 'Office Olympics' when they're giving him the medal," said Feig, referencing the fact that at the end of the episode, Michael's employees gift him an Olympic medal made of a yogurt lid. "Because we had him up on the thing, and it's just supposed to be this joke of he thinks he's getting this big honor and he's so proud and everybody's laughing at him behind his back, but Steve made this great choice to get very teary-eyed during it. He got really emotional. And we're all like, 'Oh my gosh!' I remember running up to him like, 'Steve, keep going with that. Let's do another take and really run with that.'"

Feig continued, "That was kind of this weird turning point where it was harder to cut to people laughing at him because we're all going, 'Oh God, this poor guy,' because he got roped into getting this condo he's gonna buy and stuff. I think that was the moment where it was like, 'Oh wait there is a way to do this, he can still be insufferable but he can be well-meaning at the same time.' He can have moments where right when you think he's gonna be an idiot, he actually does something smart or has a lucid moment where you kind of vest interest in him."

"Office Olympics" changed The Office for good

In Greene's book, sound mixer Ben Patrick recalled how "Office Olympics" totally reshaped the tone of the series, as it positioned Michael Scott as a well-meaning boss who is naive and makes mistakes but who also has moments of wisdom and sincerity.

"The show hit a different speed after that moment in 'Office Olympics.' It was the precise moment where I knew we had something special," said Patrick. "When he got emotional, it wasn't just a comedy. Your investment in not just his character, but everybody who reacted to him, just changed."

Production staffer Jason Kessler agreed: "Michael was the enemy season one. The entire office was banding against him as this terrible boss. As soon as we can in season two to start breaking the season, that note from Greg saying 'Michael's gotta have heart' changed it so much. It became 'Michael wants us to be a family.' And that's the core of the show. I mean, The Office is a workplace comedy that is secretly a family show."

"Office Olympics" revealed the true heart of the show

Ultimately, the secret to The Office's success and longevity was due to the fact that no matter how odious Michael acted, Carell and the writers still found ways to make him sympathetic. After modeling him on the extraordinarily toxic David Brent (Ricky Gervais) from the original British Office during the first season, it became clear that in order to keep the show going, Michael would have to be different.

As Larry Wilmore, writer and consulting producer, put it, "The Office, at its essence, isn't a workplace show. That's just what it looks like. The Office is a romantic comedy. That's how it was set up. It's really a love story. It's a story of unrequited love. So it really is a love story at its core. It's just that a lot of people don't know how to give it or how to take it. So it's not really a workplace comedy. It's a love story disguised as a workplace comedy. That's what is at its root. That's what we really, really went after in that second season."

If you're a longtime fan of The Office, you know Wilmore is right. Though the series boasts plenty of funny moments, like Dwight's antics or "that's what she said" jokes, romance and love are also at its core — which is what makes it all the more satisfying when Michael finally gets his happy ending of marriage and a family.

If you want to rewatch "Office Olympics" or relive the many love stories of The Office, catch it on Netflix before the series moves to NBC's new streaming service, Peacock.