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What is The Office about?

The Office had one of the best series finales I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the series kept going.

In Goodbye Michael, the series bid farewell to Steve Carrell with a sweet and funny episode that not only summed up the character and his relationships with his co-workers, but in many ways closed the book on the entire series.

Alas, Goodbye Michael wasn’t even the last episode of the season, never mind the series. A search to find a new manager took up the last few episodes; when Season Eight began, Robert California, a steely and successful businessman, had not only taken the job, but got himself promoted to CEO, leaving Andy Bernard in charge of Dunder Mifflin Scranton.

Filling the shoes of Steve Carrell (and, by extension, Michael Scott) is a daunting prospect. Carrell largely defined The Office with his blundering, selfish, if well-intentioned boss. If you replace him with another Michael Scott, it looks unoriginal, but if you replace him with someone too different, you risk breaking the dynamics of the show. But while The Office may have been successful with the casting of the new boss amalgam – you could do a lot worse than basing your show around Ed Helms and James Spader – the dynamics and energy have been sorely lacking in the eighth season.

The Office always had a number of storylines and themes that gave the series some forward momentum, even when they were only happening in the background:

  • Michael Scott thinks he’s a great boss despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary;
  • Jim is in love with Pam, but Pam is engaged to Roy; Pam is in love with Jim, but Jim is dating Karen;
  • Michael attempts to find love with Jan/Carol/Holly/Chair Model;
  • Dunder Mifflin is facing tough economic times, with a constant threat of layoffs or branch closures.

None of these elements remain. Michael Scott found true love and left town, Jim and Pam are happily, if boringly, married, and Dunder Mifflin appears to be on stable financial ground since being bought by Sabre. So what’s left? What is The Office about in its eighth season?

  • Andy wants to be a good boss, and everyone more or less agrees that he is;
  • Andy wants to impress CEO Robert California; Robert thinks he’s doing okay, even if there’s room for improvement;
  • Robert California is eccentric and enigmatic.

In other words, things are mostly pretty okay. There’s a vague hint of a romantic subplot – Erin kind of holds  a torch for Andy, who isn’t interested in her at all until he sees Robert California possibly taking an interest in her. But involving California a romantic subplot one week after introducing his wife – who he subsequently divorced not only off-camera, but off-episode – seems bizarre.

But anything is possible where Robert California is concerned, if only because The Office doesn’t know what to do with him. His very existence is almost anticlimactic: Season seven based its last few episodes around Who Will Be The New Boss, but when Season eight began, Robert California wasn’t really the new boss. An intensely driven and successful businessman running Dunder Mifflin could have provided conflict and comedy, but almost nothing has come of it. It’s as though the writers loved James Spader’s performance as a job applicant – and rightfully so – but couldn’t get him to commit to a full-time role and didn’t know what to do with him when he was around.

His only business interactions on the show are with Andy, and he spends the rest of his screen time wandering around the office being inspirational and/or weird. There’s a lot of potential for the character, but he varies from week to week, depending on what role the show needs him to fill: He started as a no-nonsense businessman, he’s also played the part of the inspirational leader, duplicitous husband, and jam musician, all without saying anything meaningful about the character.

Andy Bernard, as a boss, has turned into a relatively normal character. He started off as a jackass and a suckup, went to anger management and came back as a doofus, then gradually became one of the more sympathetic and likable characters on the show. In a way, he parallels Michael Scott’s evolution from his original Ricky Gervais imitation to a more palatable lunatic, but the Andy Bernard of Season Eight may be too normal for his own good; certainly too normal for Ed Helms, who hasn’t done anything funny all season.

It’s understandable that neither the writers nor Ed Helms want to create another Michael Scott, but is there anything that makes Andy interesting? He’s a nice guy. He wants to be a good boss, and is concerned what people think about him. Lucky for him, everyone more or less does, at least in a professional capacity: They told him as much in the second episode of the season, and demonstrated it by surprising him with a fun tattoo instead of a humiliating one. That’s a pretty big deal, considering how prickly, and occasionally downright unpleasant, some of his employees are.

All things considered, Andy is probably the sort of boss you’d appreciate having in real life, but that doesn’t make him a very interesting TV character. The logical contrast for a level-headed and rational boss would be a particularly unruly staff, but the employees of Dunder Mifflin Scranton seem even less interesting than before.

Jim and Pam haven’t had anything interesting to do for almost two years, and it feels like there’s little to be done with the characters short of a divorce. Dwight feels similarly exhausted, with  most of his screen time being devoted to rehashing his prank wars with Jim.  Kelly and Ryan, arguably the two zaniest characters, only show up for a couple of minutes each week, and other characters like Kevin, Meredith, and Angela exist only for the one or two standard jokes their characters provide. The Office has boasted a great supporting cast, but it seems to have failed when the show needed it the most.

The best  thing The Office has going for it at the moment is Ellie Kemper’s performance as the naive receptionist Erin. Kemper’s terribly funny, but it also helps that as one of the shortest-tenured members of the cast, her character is still fairly unexplored. The Andy-Erin relationship may not be necessary, but the end of the relationship is great stuff: Kemper made her first real impact in Season Six’s Secretary’s Day when she snapped on Andy after finding out about his engagement to Angela.

Kemper has provided most of the bright moments for Season Eight, from her misguided attempts to balance the childish and adult aspects of a Hallowe’en party to this week’s bitter boozefest upon meeting Andy’s new girlfriend. Erin’s naive, occasionally childlike attitude brushing up against unpleasant real world situations is one of the few interesting conflicts the show provides, and Kemper makes it work. But perhaps it’s more important that of all the characters, Erin is the only one who is clearly unhappy about something.

But as much as I love her, Ellie Kemper alone cannot keep The Office afloat. Something needs to be done to change the dynamic and give the show a reason to exist, whether it’s Robert California, Andy, Jim and Pam, or some other combination of characters. I’m optimistic about the return of Catherine Tate later this season, but the show failed to do anything interesting with Maura Tierney in her turn as Robert California’s soon-to-be-ex-wife; who’s to say they’ll know what to do with Tate?

The Office needs more than a handful of good performances, it needs a reason to exist. It needs someone to do anything that has meaning beyond one particular scene or episode. It needs conflict, momentum, and interesting dynamics – the things that made the show great in the first place.

Published in TV