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There’s something inevitable and sort of awful that happens when a television comedy runs for several seasons:  Some of those years are going to be worse (maybe much worse) than others.  Take, for example, The Office. 

But we’re not here today to kick and spit on The Office’s worst seasons (*cough* Season 8 *cough*).  Instead, we’re going to identify The Office’s Dream Season -- that singular series of shows where everything came together and created comedy magic.

What magic combination of ingredients make up a Dream Season?  Here are the elements we’re considering:

* Fully realized stories -- both within episodes and over the course of the season.

* Funny characters at the peak of their powers.

* Total hilarity.

Right off the bat, we’ll cross of the show’s final seasons without Michael Scott. While there are examples of sitcoms that replaced the main character and survived (Charlie Sheen subbing in for Spin City’s ailing Michael J. Fox, Ashton Kutcher subbing in for ailing Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men), it’s hard to argue that those shows actually were better for it. The Office certainly wasn’t, especially with the schizophrenic approach the show’s writers took with Andy Bernard. (Is he a sweet-hearted doofus? Is he an anger-filled a-hole?) 

We’ll cross of the six-episode first season as well. With only a handful of shows, recycled scripts from the British Office, and Michael’s terrible haircut, there’s no way it can qualify as The Office’s Dream Season.

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World's Best Boss, World's Worst Hairplugs

That leaves seasons 2 through 6 as the contenders for the series’ best ever. One could make an argument for just about any of them but after careful deliberation at ComedyNerd Central Command, we’ve identified three seasons as the best of the best.

Second Runner-Up: Season 4

Season 4 has a helluva lot going for it.  Consider:

Viewers on IMDB rank Season 4 as the series’ all-time best

* This was the year the Jan and Michael got together for real, resulting in one of the series’ cringiest episodes of all time, The Dinner Party. This is either a credit or a debit, depending on whether you can get through the episode without hiding under a blanket.

  • * After years of driving around Todd Packer, getting up early to bring Michael his sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits, and being subjected to choruses of “Ryan Started the Fire,” the temp finally gets the ultimate revenge -- a promotion to Corporate that allows him to lord over everyone. As fully realized stories go, this particular subplot is extremely well played. With three seasons as the office’s low guy on the totem pole, Ryan built up plenty of resentment that he gets to spew back in Season 4. 

So why isn’t Season 4 the Dream Season of The Office? Call it a victim of its own success. With ratings sky-high (not only on television but as one of the first champions of the iTunes video charts), NBC execs wanted more, more, more.

That meant supersized, one-hour episodes, expanding normal storylines into inflated narratives that, while still funny, felt elongated. A secondary story that might have been hilarious in three short segments now got the full-blown treatment. Again, not the worst thing in the world, but it’s like a dance mix of an old favorite song -- it’s amazing at three minutes but starts to get a little monotonous at seven. 

We also lost Toby at the end of the season -- at least for a while.

First Runner-Up: Season 2

Viewers may not have seen Season 2’s greatness coming after the six off-kilter episodes of Season 1 when The Office was still trying to find its comic rhythm. Ironically, it was Steve Carell’s star-making turn at the movies that turned things around on television.  

As Kate (Meredith) Flannery remembers, “They learned how to write for (Michael Scott) from watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

“I remember everybody in charge of The Office going, ‘How do we do this? How do we take what everybody loves about Steve in that movie and make it work for us on the show?’” said writer Paul Feig.

The answer was to make Michael more like Virgin’s Andy Stitzer. Like Michael Scott, Andy was socially awkward and emotionally immature.  But unlike Season 1 Michael Scott, Andy was also vulnerable with a relatable need to be loved. Not to say Michael Scott became Andy Stitzer in Season 2, but you can see what lessons were learned. 

“When I did the Office Olympics, we stumbled into this thing that really worked,” remembers Feig. “The whole episode was kind of a vulnerable episode for Michael because he’s freaking out that he’s going to buy this condo. He has a panic attack, and he accidentally pulls the burner off of the stove. He goes out on the patio, he can’t breathe. That was humanizing for him.”

Remember the scene where his Office mates gave Michael the yogurt lid at the awards presentation?  “They’re basically making fun of him,” says Feig. “But Steve made this decision that as they’re playing the national anthem (he would) tear up. Suddenly it was like, ‘Oh my God, this poor guy.’ He was so vulnerable and you see how desperate for anything good to happen to him and any kind of approval or validation. I remember I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is great! Let’s do it again!’”

Then, of course, we had Jim and Pam.  The “Will They or Won’t They?” tension between two attractive comic characters is sitcom gold when handled in the right way, but it has to be played just right.  Get them together too soon and you lose the delicious build-up. Keep them apart for too long and the audience loses interest.

Season 2 played its Jim-and-Pam cards just right, from the season-opening drunken smooch at The Dundies to the season-ending clench of Casino Night. When you do a good job of setting up The Moment all season long, when they finally kiss for real, it’s appointment viewing. Everyone talks about it at your office the next day. You only get one shot at The Moment. And The Office nailed it. 

OK -- they figured out Michael! Pam and Jim kiss! Why the heck isn’t Season 2 the Dream Season? Clearly it’s great but we’re going to knock it down a notch for Funny Characters that weren’t quite at the peak of their powers. Oscar wasn’t yet out of the closet. Phyliss and Stanley were funny enough but were practically background actors who threw in the occasional one-liner. Daryl was just the guy down in the warehouse who wouldn’t let Michael play with the forklift. Creed wasn’t quite Creed yet. We came to love all of those characters but for an ensemble comedy classic, we still hadn’t fully gotten to know them through Season 2.

Top Season 2 episodes: The Dundies, Christmas Party, Booze Cruise, Casino Night

Dream Season: Season 5

Season 5, let’s goooooooooo!

What’s so amazing about this season?  How about:

The best of the branches. While Jim’s transfer to Stamford made sense, it did give the show a split personality for a while as scenes cut back and forth between the two locations. And when the branches merged, an “exiled employee of the week” mentality set in as the Stamford folks were sent packing one by one. By Season 5, we’re left with Andy Bernard -- the lovable version. He was a worthy addition to the show, and he’s at his best at this part of the run. 

The relationships.  Jim and Pam, now out of the “Will They Or Won’t They?” stage, still had some miles left in the tank -- this is the year that Jim finally found the right moment to propose. Andy and Angela were in the midst of the world’s worst engagement, while Angela found her way back (albeit surreptitiously) to her true love: One Dwight K. Shrute.

The creators.  As with many successful shows, the people involved get offers to go on to bigger and better things. That was the case for Office geniuses Greg Daniels (the show’s creator) and Michael Schur, who would move on to a little project called Parks and Recreation.  Season 5 was the last time The Office had their services (though Schur would occasionally return to play Dwight’s cousin Mose).    

Michael finally finds love.  Despite his natural predisposition to hate all things associated with Human Resources, Michael meets his true love in Season 5 in Toby’s replacement, Holly Flax. While his relationship with Jan was undeniably funny, it was also toxic as hell. After how awful Jan was to Michael, we rooted extra hard for Michael and Holly to get together. It wouldn’t totally happen in Season 5, but the first seeds of Yoda love were planted here. And we knew it would work because Holly and Michael shared two important things: Huge hearts and terrible, terrible taste in comedy. 

Season 5 nails all three of our criteria for a Dream Season: Fully realized story arcs, funny characters at the peak of their powers, and total hilarity. It doesn’t get much funnier than Dwight and Andy’s duel in the Scranton branch parking lot.  Or this classic:  

Did we mention the Michael Scott Paper Company?  Congrats, Season 5 -- you’re our Office Dream Season.

Top Season 5 episodes: The Surplus, Golden Ticket, Cafe Disco, Company Picnic

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Top image: NBCUniversal Television

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