Tuned In

The Office After Michael: Who’s In Charge Here?

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Andy (Helms, left) and Robert (Spader, right) are both in management posts now. But can either of them really run the show?

Over at HitFix, critic Alan Sepinwall has a disappointed assessment of The Office in its first season post-Steve Carell, in which, he says, the show has foundered in trying to find its center:

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.

I agree with pretty much everything in Sepinwall’s analysis of Andy and Robert, neither of whom has worked as a focus for the new season (not to mention his spot-on dissections of problems with some supporting characters). But I’d go him one further—or actually two further:

First, must we assume that the show needs a center? I had a brief Twitter exchange with Alan about this question, and his argument is that the various characters need a figure to push against. I think that was true; for several years, Michael was the grain of sand that created the pearl.

But after all this time, we know these characters, and many of them are very well-developed, with ongoing stories to invest in. Maybe the idea of needing a central protagonist/antagonist to create conflicts for the ensemble would inevitably be disappointing; at this point the ensemble is the star. Looking back over the last season and a half, some of the more successful episodes have been almost a kind of sketch comedy, with a number of set pieces that utilize the broad strengths of the cast. There was one Michael Scott, but he’s gone now. To me, an Office in which Andy is just one more character trying to get through the day makes more sense. (I’d argue that “Garden Party,” for instance, was a funny/poignant episode that showed how Ed Helms could work well in his new role—if Andy didn’t have to be the central figure every week, and thus be the poor man’s, or rather rich man’s, Michael Scott.)

Second—and I’ve been a bit of a broken record about this over the past few seasons—if The Office did need a central boss figure to structure itself around, wasn’t Jim the obvious choice? A couple years ago, the show experimented with having Jim head the Scranton branch, then stepped back from the choice, and I will always think of it as the show’s great Road Not Taken.

Yes, Jim hated being the boss, but one of the show’s themes has been Jim’s discovering that the job he has always been ironically detached from has somehow turned into a career. Having him step up to that position, take the heat and have to take the job seriously—with a growing family to help support—would have given the show stakes again, and The Office has always been best when it has had stakes.

In many ways, I will fully admit, it might have been a downer. But The Office is a dark comedy at heart, or at least it was. Making Jim boss would probably not be the crowd-pleasing, laugh-generating thing to have done, but it would have been the creatively richer move.

An Office with Jim as manager would be a darker show than it is now. An Office that became a full-on ensemble would be a funnier, less-forced show than it is now. Either choice would be better than trying to use Andy Bernard to wring a few more years out of a familiar, Michael-like dynamic.

And make no mistake: with NBC’s problems and The Office’s ratings (not great but a blockbuster by the Peacock’s lowered standards), the show will be with us for a good while longer. The fact is, I still watch The Office, and I like it; if its only purpose is to make me laugh for a half-hour, it’s still working. But the Office I loved tried to do more than that, and while you can’t expect a sitcom to stay at its peak for a decade straight, for the show to stop challenging itself is sad, even when it’s funny.