Saturday, January 21, 2012

'The Office' in transition

Maybe I am a snob when it comes to comedy on television, but I do not like most of it. When I watch most comedies, I get the overwhelming urge to take a nap.

This is especially so when it comes to new shows, and while watching them, I wonder how most of them got made. Seriously, what network executive thought 'Whitney' is funny?

Still, there are some shows that are clever and funny. For most of its existence, 'The Office' has fit that category. Like most great shows in television history, the show has had a star, but its strength is the quality of the ensemble cast around the star.

We have seen this repeatedly over the years. Legendary shows like 'The Dick Van Dyke Show,' 'The Andy Griffith Show,' 'Cheers,' and 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' all had a clear lead actor, but the show's richness was derived from the sheer quality around the leading character.

Until this season, Steve Carell was the star of 'The Office.' His performance as the tone deaf boss 'Michael Scott' was remarkable in many ways. We all have had bosses who were totally self-absorbed and had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the worst time.

In addition to Carell, the show's supporting cast thrived in his presence. Throughout the show's first seven seasons, viewers got to see these characters blossom. The budding romance and eventual marriage of 'Jim' and 'Pam' and the wacky antics of 'Dwight Shrute' brought a lot of flavor to the show.

However, at the end of last season, Carell left the show to devote more time to his film career. This is understandable because his career on the big screen has gained momentum over the last few years.

This left 'The Office' with a sizable hole to fill, and so far, the results have been mixed. While the show remains funny, the loss of his talent remains a void. The ensemble cast is still strong, but the changes caused by Carell's departure have yet to come together.

The primary example of this is James Spader's addition as 'Robert California.' The character is meant to be a kind of mysterious CEO that nobody can quite understand or feel comfortable around.

While this type of character might eventually develop into another offbeat person in an office of misfits, it really is not working at this time. The character as he has been presented so far disrupts the flow of each episode as everybody freezes in his presence.

Also, the elevation of the 'Andy Bernard' character (portrayed by Ed Helms) to the office manager is a work in progress. In some respects, maybe the show's executives wanted to cushion the blow caused by Carell's departure.

This is because the 'Bernard' character is similar to Carell’s character in that it is providing a lot of insecurity and buffoonery to the office manager position. True, the character is not being done with the same narcissism as the 'Michael Scott' character, but the similarities are obvious.

The bottom line is the show is at a crossroads. Will it transition into a new and creatively appealing period? Or has it started sliding downward as most long-running shows eventually do?

Time will tell, but decline is inevitable with comedies. At some point, the envelope cannot be pushed any further. Only a handful of shows have stopped while at the top, and many push forward until the decay is painful to watch (remember the final seasons of 'M*A*S*H*'?)

I am hoping for the best, but it may be time to be a realist about the situation. At least, the good seasons can be relived in syndication.


Anonymous said...

I have really enjoyed the last four episodes of The Office. Since the episode "Mrs. California" and Robert's (James Spader) rather public melt down of his marriage the office staff seems somewhat less intimidated by him. That is with the exception of Jim who still panics if Robert questions him.

It seems in these last four episodes they are trying to show us a different Robert than the one they original brought to the show. He is becoming more eccentric and dark and less enigmatic. I like the changes and hope the writers can continue with this good episode streak.

Carney said...

I miss Michael Scott, but I also miss Pam. Where has Pam been lately? Come back Pam!

Chris said...

Since the actress that plays Pam was pregnant in real life, I'm assuming she is on some sort of maternity leave. But that is just guessing.