32. "Casino Night," The Office (US) (2006)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
It's hard to believe that "Casino Night" first aired only six years ago. The Office was such a different show, capable of genuinely emotional moments, and there weren't spoilers all over Twitter, so I actually gasped when Jim tells Pam (who's engaged to another man) that he loves her. I expected The Office to find ways to keep Jim quiet for years, and this was a sign that the show wasn't afraid to move things forward. Yes, this was only six years ago.
"Casino Night" is a great season finale and cliffhanger, but it's also on this list because it has great little moments for almost everyone in the cast. This was back when the show approximated reality by giving us periodic clues about each character's personal life, the way most of us learn about our officemates. "Casino Night" divulges a little more than usual because most of the episode is set at an after-work charity event where people let their guard down slightly. But no one gets drunk and goes completely bonkers (contrast to last season's episodes at Andy's "Garden Party" and Robert California's drunken, naked "Pool Party").
Michael: Oh, and another fun thing. We, at the end of the night, are going to give the check to an actual group of Boy Scouts. Right, Toby? We're gonna...
Toby: Actually, I didn't think it was appropriate to invite children since it's... You know, there's gambling and alcohol, and it's in our dangerous warehouse and it's a school night... And, you know, Hooters is catering. You know, is that enough? Should I keep going?
Through a combination of quick scenes and talking heads, we learn that Creed likes to steal things as a hobby (and Angela does nothing but shoot him a look of disapproval when she witnesses his larceny), that Kevin is a drummer in a rock band and a top-ranked poker player (and not a moron!), and that Oscar isn't fond of the Boy Scouts (foreshadowing his coming out as gay in the next episode).
Plus, we get a rare appearance by Phyllis's vaguely menacing future husband, Bob Vance (of Vance Refrigeration); Ryan embarrassedly ordering a drink for Kelly ("Seven and Seven with eight maraschino cherries, sugar on the rim, blended if you can") and Stanley interrupting Michael's squirmy impression of the Cabaret MC to ask for a raise. This is when the show's huge cast was an asset — that is, when every character still had some mystery.
"Casino Night" is also one of Steve Carrell's best episodes (not coincidentally, he's credited as its writer). At this point, Carrell's character of Michael Scott has mostly dropped the sadistic streak of his British Office predecessor, Ricky Gervais's David Brent. He craves attention, but he's more concerned with being accepted than with exacting retribution from people who have dissed him in the past. In this talking-head interview, he's self-centered, but think of how callous the same speech would be coming from David Brent:
Michael: There are certain topics that are off-limits to comedians: JFK, AIDS, the Holocaust. The Lincoln Assassination just recently became funny. I need to see this play like I need a hole in the head. And I hope to someday live in a world where a person could tell a hilarious AIDS joke. It's one of my dreams.
Much of "Casino Night" is devoted to a classic sitcom plot about Michael having two dates for the evening. He's gleeful about this unexpected development, but he's chivalrous in his own weird way. (About to roll the dice at the craps table, he gives them to Carol and says, "Blow for luck!" Then he hands them to Jan and says, "Also you! Not playing favorites!")
But this plot is really a diversion from the building sexual tension between Jim and Pam. They start the day collaborating on a prank (fooling Dwight into thinking Jim is telekinetic), take an afternoon break to laugh at audition tapes from terrible bands wanting to play at Pam's wedding, and then tease each other at the poker table in the pop-up casino. This may be the longest period of time Jim has ever spent with Pam, and by the end of the evening, he can't help but blurting, "I'm in love with you."
"Casino Night" is an effective season-finale cliffhanger (Pam doesn't know that Jim has put in for a transfer to another state), but if the show hadn't been renewed for another season, there would have been no doubt that Jim and Pam would end up together. And their episode-ending kiss in the darkened office may be the most erotic moment in sitcom history. (Any other candidates?)
• Subsequent episodes do not effect my enjoyment of "Casino Night," but I feel obliged to point out that Jim has sexual relationships with two work spouses (Pam and Karen) over the course of the series. And after he marries Pam, he stays at a lousy job so that he can be within eyeshot of his wife 24 hours a day. I think the dude has a pathological fear of abandonment.
• Pam's trick to keep Michael from embarrassing himself on the phone is one of the funnier random moments the show has done. She alerts him to a call, lets him say something stupid (" Hey, Carol, how goes the real estate biz? Is it real good?"), and only afterward completes the transfer. By then, enough oxygen has reached his brain for him to go with a simple "hello."
Pam: Sometimes I don't put Michael through until he's already said something. I look at it as a practice run for him. He usually does better on the second attempt.