Chitchat: Where does The Office stand?

I talk television with a lot of people. Friends, family, other critics on Twitter, vagrants on the street. I just love talking about TV. Because I don’t have the time and resources to do a podcast like I used to in college, I’m going to sort of replicate that experience in textual form in a new recurring feature. Basically, I’ll just exchange a few emails with someone on a particular topic. You’ve seen this kind of thing done tons of other places, but it’s something I enjoy doing so expect more of it here on TVS. Today, friend and former colleague at the Indiana Daily Student and current WEEKEND editor Brad Sanders joins me to talk about The Office and where it stands early in the eighth season.

Cory: Brad, I know that you’ve lost interest in The Office over the years. A few years ago when we worked together, The Office was in the midst of its worst season ever (six) and Parks and Recreation and Community were exploding onto the scene with one fantastic episode after another. I’d argue that last year was a nice rebound from the problematic sixth season, but almost of all those successes stemmed from Steve Carell and Michael Scott. They handled Carell/Michael’s exit beautifully in my opinion (feel free to throw in your two cents on that subject if you’d like) and now we’re left with a version of The Office that looks…quite like The Office we know and at least for me, kind of still love. The premiere quickly discarded much explanation for why/how Robert California is now the CEO and Andy is the new office boss and then last night’s episode felt like an unused season two script Paul Lieberstein found in Greg Daniels’ sock drawer. Andy always felt like the most obvious choice to replace Michael because his character is the most similar and thus far in season eight, the series has emphasized those similarities very loudly. Andy might be less malicious than Michael, but their ability to say the wrong thing or get too enthusiastic about a plan that it ends up being detrimental to their skills as a boss is pretty similar. So I guess my big question is do you care that The Office is clearly trying to sustain the status quo with Andy in charge? Eight years in, should they have tried something completely different, if only to avoid complacency and staleness?

Brad: First, I absolutely agree that the Michael exit was handled brilliantly last season, even if on the whole I liked the season a lot less than you apparently did. “Goodbye, Michael” totally gets away with being as sentimental as it was because of how good it was, maybe even more so than Pam and Jim’s wedding. As for Season 8, the premiere was honestly my favorite of the big three NBC comedies that started back up last week, and the second episode was even better. At some level I guess I’m kind of disturbed by how much I’m liking this season of The Office, since on paper a show coming off two mostly lousy seasons that just lost its star should be on a fast track to cancellation. Andy is believable as the regional manager just like Michael was, and James Spader’s Robert California has been a huge step in the right direction after the awful, awful Will Ferrell character from the end of Season 7. Do I care that they’re trying to keep up the status quo? I guess not really if the safe scripts they go with are good ones, and so far they have been. My problem isn’t that they didn’t try something bold and new. I’m not sure that ever would have happened. My biggest concern is that this is in no way sustainable. How many episodes per season had totally Michael-centric plots? Now that those are an impossibility, I can’t see a 25 episode season being more than half-good. Thoughts on that?

Cory: See, I’m conflicted. I enjoyed last night’s episode pretty much despite itself. The plot felt so clearly recycled and Michael-lite that my critical faculties were all screaming “NO” but my heart was screaming, “AW.” I love the Nard Dawg and I think Ed Helms is really fun in the role. I guess I just hoped for something slightly different. The creative team had to know that they were in a funk and doing something new when the cast shuffled occurred seemed like a good synergistic idea. New boss, slightly new series. Instead, The Office so clearly is telling the audience “Nothing new here!” and I wish the series would be willing to take more risks. There’s obviously value in placating the audience when your show is so old and yet still so popular and yet, by doing so The Office is showing how scared it is of change and how very little creative juice it actually has left. As you rightly point out, this isn’t going to last. The writers might continue to re-use familiar beats and plots with the hope that the fans embrace Nard like they did Michael (which is never happening), but eventually, the episodes won’t be as good. And then what? What the heck does The Office have left to make us care? Jim and Pam? On kid two, doing fine (another boat the writers would never rock). Dwight? He’s Dwight. Darryl? They sort of lost interest in him. Andy and Erin? Can’t say I trust them to make that work or make me care about it. And they apparently have no interest in creating a long-term arc like Michael Scott Paper Company. It’s just there. Shouldn’t we want more, especially when Community and Parks and Recreation are there giving it to us?

Brad: We totally should want more, but I think you’ve kind of keyed in on why we don’t shout so loudly about it. Parks and Rec and Communityand even 30 Rock exist, so we let The Office get away with safeness. I remember on the podcast we used to always joke that the writers should do away with Michael by having him kill himself in the office one day. We were kidding, but it’s a good example of how much of a shaking-up the show needs and will never have. We should want more from it, but they’ve never given us reason to think that they’d go anywhere new with it, so we’re complacently pleased with what we’re stuck with. Every episode now has to be good on an episode-by-episode basis, too. I literally do not care about any of the characters’ problems or lives anymore, so it’s become a show that lives and dies by its jokes and its single-ep arcs. Not sure how I feel about that, but the past two weeks have been fine, so I’m willing to keep watching on that basis.

Cory: And again, I think a lot of this stems from my critical side. As a critic, I’d love to have The Office dive into the recession or what it’s really like to work at a company like this in 2011. I’d love for it to have substantive long-term arcs and I’d love to talk about theme every week like I do when I write about Community. But the show doesn’t want those things. The problem I have is that without those things and without changing up the formula at all, the series is basically coasting on the hope that we still like this people enough to hang out with them and care somewhat about their issues. But as we just touched on, there’s not a lot of that left. So if the show doesn’t provide larger, more interesting things and also can’t deliver on the basic levels, what is the point? On that note, how quickly do you think this season devolves into sucktown? And do you think the series comes back next year?

Brad: I think you’re right about all that. I think the show will be good until they inevitably shove an hour-long down our throats as they’re wont to do, and that episode will be terrible. I hope it won’t be back next year because it’s dangerously close to destroying any legacy it has left, but my guess is it probably will return. And if it does and Community doesn’t, I’ll go full Ron-Swanson-avoiding-Tammy-One and move to a cabin in the woods, fishing with shotguns and growing my beard.

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