The Office: Unreality Bites

What a disappointment the previous season of  “The Office” turned out to be.  A show that was once a glory of television comedy has now become merely “pretty good.”

Last year at this time, I pondered whether any sitcom could retain its creative energy for more than seven seasons, especially after the departure of its main star, and now I think we have the answer.  Unlike other great comedies that decided to go out on top (“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Cheers” and “Seinfeld”), “The Office” clearly lingered past its natural end point.

It’s not that “The Office” was terrible this year.  If you’d never seen the first seven seasons and came to the show fresh last September, you’d still think it was ground-breaking.  It remains unique among television comedies in depicting life in these United States as it is actually experienced.  Instead of jokes and wisecracks that no one but a comedy writer would say, the humor still grows organically out of the absurdity of the modern workplace and from psychological insights into how people actually behave.  And the pacing is unique – no one has ever done a better job depicting the deleterious impact of sheer boredom on contemporary life. 

Yet it’s impossible not to wish “The Office” had made a smoother transition into the post-Michael Scott world.  There were many problems this year, including the exhaustion of the Pam/Jim story arc, which had given the series much of its emotional weight, and its inability to develop the inner lives of the other characters. But its retreat from a realistic depiction of office life, which had made the show so compelling in the first place, also dragged the series down.

The show sealed its fate in the first five minutes of the season when it revealed that Ed Helms’ Andy Bernard had been named the new office manager.   What a crashing downer!  Our hopes for something more compelling had been raised by the “beauty contest” at the end of the previous season in which multiple candidates had interviewed for the manager’s job. Certainly, we hoped, someone with the outsize personality of a Michael Scott would emerge from that process.

As we learned at the start of this season, James Spader’s Robert California, a Zen-like mind-game champion, had initially been chosen as regional manager, but the CEO, played by Kathy Bates, had decided over the summer to star in “Harry’s Law,” -- um, make that, “had decided to take some time off.” She then selected Robert as her successor, who put Andy in change.

As “Office fans know, Michael Scott might have been narcissistic and wildly inappropriate, but he was a good salesman.  Andy Bernard, by contrast, is incompetent all the way around.  Making him the boss was a betrayal of the compact that the show had made with its viewers.

Andy’s hiring wasn’t the worst of it.  In previous seasons, the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch had occupied a recognizable place within the corporate world.  It was only one of several branches that competed with each other.  It reported into a New York headquarters, which both tempered Michael Scott’s most outlandish tendencies, and gave us insight into the corporate mindset.

After imploding as an independent company in Season Six, Dunder Mifflin was bought by Sabre, an office equipment maker that expected to derive cross-selling synergies by pairing a copy machine business with a paper business. This was all too realistic because it’s exactly the kind of deal that makes perfect sense to investment bankers and financial analysts, and is always doomed to failure on the ground.  Still, the Sabre subplot initially breathed new life into “The Office” as the Scranton crew adapted to a different, more modern corporate culture.

Unfortunately, as the Sabre story wore on, the show withdrew into itself and rarely seemed to be part of a wider world or bigger company (except during the four Florida-based episodes.)  Why was Robert California, the CEO of a major multidivision corporation, always working out of the Scranton branch?  What happened to the other branches?  And why wasn’t Andy reporting to a vice president, like Michael had reported to Jan Levinson Gould in the early seasons?

Realism was important to the early success of “The Office” because the characters were depicted as mere cogs in a larger, more dangerous universe.  But when it regressed into its own self-contained sitcom world, where outside forces played little role, it became more like a traditional TV comedy where the stakes are lower and the emotional payoffs less compelling.

It looks like we’ll have a reboot for next year.  Dunder Mifflin has been bought back by its former CFO, and the character of Robert California has been cut loose. Behind the scenes, co-executive producer and frequent writer Mindy Kaling, who also plays Kelly, and showrunner Paul Lieberstein, who plays Toby, are headed to other shows, as may be the case with Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight Shrute.

I’ll be happy if NBC decides that “The Office” will wrap up at the end of Season Nine and its writers put all their energies into a story arc worthy of the this great series. Unfortunately, it’s bad sign that Andy is coming back again as manager.  Much better to focus again on Jim, who is the most important figure on the show now that Michael Scott has gone.  He was always at the emotional core of the show, but he was shunted aside for other stories this year. How great would it be if he emerged as the leader we know him to be and finally fulfilled his potential?

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1 comment about "The Office: Unreality Bites".
  1. John Grono from GAP Research , May 15, 2012 at 7:08 p.m.
    I think the creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant realised this when they made two series of six-episodes (plus 2 Christmas specials) then parked it. From what you're saying Gary (the US version never really took off here in Australia - I only watched a few episodes) the US producers returned to the well at least once too often.