Review: 'The Office' struggles to find its center post-Steve Carell
When Steve Carell announced that last season would be his last with "The Office," he presented that show's producers with both a horrible dilemma and a tremendous opportunity.
For so many years, Carell was "The Office," and it was easy to understand the sentiment from those who insisted the show should end when he left, even as it was clear that struggling NBC wouldn't cancel one of its few remaining hits.
At the same time, here was an aging sitcom, which like so many before it had begun repeating itself, which had arguably exhausted most of the comic potential of the Michael Scott character. There was no rule that said the office couldn't have a new boss, someone very different from Michael, who might give this great comedy a chance to reinvent itself in the way that "Cheers" did when Kirstie Alley succeeded Shelley Long, or that "M*A*S*H" managed to do with each of its cast changes.
We've now seen six episodes of the first post-Carell season (plus a handful of episodes last spring where the producers and characters were trying to figure out who would run the branch without Michael), and unfortunately it's hard to argue so far with the people who wanted the show to end with Michael's departure.
Much was made of the search for outside talent to replace some of Carell's star power, with the season finale featuring the likes of Jim Carrey, Ray Romano and Will Arnett interviewing for Michael's old job. James Spader, who made by far the funniest impression as a clearly deranged but charismatic salesman (since named Robert California), was justifiably chosen as the one to keep. But rather than permanently install Robert in Michael's old office, the writers immediately promoted him to be the company's new CEO, and made Ed Helms' Andy Bernard into the new-new branch manager.
And that's where things have gone badly awry.
Andy's the safe choice, a softer version of Michael Scott. Where Michael mistakenly believed himself to be a brilliant comedian, Andy can't stop singing. Both men's personalities are driven by a lack of childhood affection and both have tremendous difficulty reading social cues. It's extremely easy for the show to keep telling the same kinds of stories it's been telling for the last seven seasons, only with Andy subbed in for Michael.(*)
(*) Last week's teaser, in which we learned that Andy had been annoying the staff by singing Semisonic's "Closing Time" at the end of every work day, felt so structurally similar to a Michael Scott bit that I wondered if it was a scene that had been sitting on someone's hard drive for a while, with an irritating comedy bit replaced by the music.
And yet it doesn't work as well, because Andy is never as bad as Michael. He's socially clumsy, but never to the horrifying-yet-hilarious extremes to which Michael so often went. He's too well-liked by the staff, and also too much of a sad sack, for anyone to significantly push back against him.
During the Carell years, Michael not only generated most of the stories, but most of the comedy. Even if a joke wasn't about something Michael was doing, it was frequently about how others were reacting to him. And that's all gone now. Andy's not funny, and everybody either likes him too much or feels too sorry for him for their interactions with him to be funny. In some ways, he feels like what everyone feared the American version of "The Office" was going to be: a main character who's sort of inappropriate, but not really; who seems to annoy people, but you know they really like him, gosh darn it; who seems inept but ultimately manages to rally the troops; etc. If Michael Scott was a slightly kinder David Brent, Andy Bernard is Brent completely defanged.
Robert California could have become the new comic engine that drove the series, but the character has been neutered from his first appearance. Instead of a lunatic capable of performing the Jedi mind trick, he's just an inscrutable eccentric, who wanders around looking amused at everything the branch is up to, and whom no one can get a read on. He has isolated moments (he was quite good attacking the staff's fears in the Halloween episode, for instance), but he's too detached - in both personality and function - to generate the kind of laughs the show needs. (I can see the need to tone him down if he were to be the new main character, but as a guy who parachutes in now and then, a more outsized personality seems fine.)
So you have a central character who's not funny, and a big new addition to the cast only being amusing on occasion. Then you have Jim and Pam, whose funniest moments tended to be in response to Michael, and whom the show hasn't known exactly what to do with for several seasons. And that places a huge comic burden on Dwight - who's been hit-or-miss comedically for much of the series, always one step away from being a Bond villain (which the show literally acknowledged last week) - and on supporting characters who are being twisted and pulled and exaggerated until they're often unrecognizable.
Buttoned-down, disinterested Stanley suddenly has a catchphrase. Kevin has gone from a character whose affect could make him seem mentally disabled - even though he wasn't - to someone who's written as if he's the Sean Penn character in "I Am Sam." Erin has become almost as dumb (and is also part of the show's misguided, uninteresting attempt to recapture the Jim/Pam romantic tension magic in her on-again, off-again relationship with Andy). Gabe (not that he was one of the better cast additions to begin with) has somehow become even creepier than Creed.
I still like most of these characters - at least when they get to resemble who they used to be.(**) When "The Office" just aims for emotion, it tends to hit the target. Many of this season's early episodes have climaxed with the staff rallying around Andy, and if it's felt repetitive, it's also felt honest and sweet.
(**) Stanley, for instance, had a great moment in that "Closing Time" teaser that initially seemed to be wildly out of character (he's the only one to enjoy the song and enthusiastically sing along with Andy) and then turned out to be perfectly in character (he explains that he's in favor of anything that suggests his day at work is done).
I don't know who was actually driving the decisions made about what the show has become post-Carell. Paul Lieberstein, who's been running the show for a while now, has long been on record as a fan of Helms the actor and Andy the character, so this may have been primarily his decision. Or this could be NBC - desperate to protect one of its few remaining successes - insisting on the most conservative route possible with the Michael-esque Andy.
I also don't know if going a different way - promoting Jim or Darryl or even Dwight from within, committing to Robert California (or one of the other finale guests) as the hands-on branch manager, etc. - would have yielded better results. "The Office" has been on a long time, and very few comedies, even great ones, manage to be remotely as good in their eighth season as they were in their second or third. (Even with Carell, the show had begun to feel tired.)
But I do know that this isn't working comedically. "The Office" now is a pale, listless shadow of what it used to be.
Later this season, the show is going to bring back Catherine Tate's character from the finale, and while Tate is an acclaimed comedienne in the U.K., her character made one of the least memorable impressions of any of the interviewees. Maybe they can reconceive her when she returns, but given the changes in Robert - and, for that matter, the way Andy has changed since he was first introduced as Jim's obnoxious, rageaholic co-worker at the Stamford branch - it's hard to have a lot of confidence in that.
Even with the ratings down significantly from last season, "The Office" is still too strong - and the rest of NBC's lineup is so very, very weak - for it to not get renewed for a ninth season. (The only way it ends is if the people making it don't want to continue.) The show is going to be around a while still, and I'd like to see it improve - if not back to what it once was, then at least to something that doesn't make me feel sad about what one of my all-time favorites has become.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
As you might expect from the above, I don't expect to be doing weekly reviews of "The Office" going forward. The last couple of weeks, I've felt I would just be repeating the same points over and over. If something changes significantly - or if a specific episode is notably better or worse than these first few - I'll check back in.