In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve examined the influence of puzzles in episodes of The West Wing, The Simpsons, M*A*S*H, and various versions of Sherlock Holmes. And when I was talking with David Rogers last month, I was reminded of another TV show where puzzles played their part in storytelling on occasion: The Office.
There have been few fictional puzzle solvers in recent years as widely known as Stanley Hudson, the irascible, curmudgeonly, perpetually near-retirement salesman in the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin.
In fact, Stanley’s tendency to prefer his puzzles to actually working became the centerpiece of season 4 episode “Did I Stutter?”, where manager Michael Scott tries to figure out how to deal with Stanley’s insubordination.
In this instance, the puzzles were a key plot point, representing Stanley’s desire to do anything but participate in yet another Scranton office meeting.
But puzzles and The Office never came together more beautifully than they did in the season 9 episode “Customer Loyalty.”
In the pre-credits sequence (known in television terms as the “cold open”), salesman Dwight discovers an old file with a letter inside from Dunder-Mifflin company co-founder Robert Mifflin.
“A valuable artifact has come into my possession. I have hidden it until such time as a person of strong intellect may safely recover it. This golden chalice is of immeasurable historical and religious significance.”
Former secretary Pam overhears this, and calls her husband Jim, who is in Philadelphia, asking if he’d ever concocted a prank that would send Dwight on a wild goose chase for the Holy Grail.
Jim realizes that Dwight has finally stumbled upon The Dunder Code, an elaborate prank Jim set up years ago.
(Oddly enough, I had a similar idea a few years before this episode aired. I created a treasure map and hid in the resource room of the PuzzleNation offices. As far as I know, no one has stumbled across it yet. I suppose Jim and I are fellow puzzle-pranksters in spirit. But I digress.)
Dwight, unaware that it’s a prank, sets off on his quest to find the Grail. Puzzle fans (and fellow office drones) are invited to solve clues alongside Dwight as he uncovers an invisible ink message leading him to the ceiling above accounting.
From there, it’s mostly symbol-based clues — a key with an X attached for “annex,” a handful of cards (a flush) for the bathroom, a toy forklift pointing toward the warehouse beneath the office — and soon enough, the entire office staff is downstairs, tearing the place apart looking for the Grail. (Which Jim admits he can’t remember if he actually hid or not.)
A crafty cameraman, however, discovers the Grail’s final resting place.
In one episode, puzzles provided the ideal spark for a character showdown, while in another, they served as the perfect bit of levity to open the episode, spoofing The Da Vinci Code and once again showing how easily Jim can manipulate Dwight (and other officemates) into abject silliness.
But in both cases, puzzles contributed to great moments in a classic sitcom’s history. A very worthy legacy indeed.
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