Spoilers for last night’s season premiere of The Office below:
Why did The Office go downhill? Some say the show was Michael Scott’s story and it never should have gone on without him. Others, that even before Michael left, it lost the thread of its characters and became too wacky. Still others, that Andy Bernard was a poor choice as regional manager and, thus, nominal center of the show.
I can see something to all those arguments, but to me the problem is: The Office used to be about something. At its best, it was a very, very funny show, but it was also a light drama. There was poignancy; there were stakes. Michael was a guy who badly wanted love and comically, inappropriately acted that out at work and through some bad relationships. Jim was a smart worker gradually becoming aware that his ambitions were fading away as he settled into what he thought was a temporary job. Pam had dreams of being an artist that, she had to confront, she was maybe just not good enough to reach.
When Michael left, the show had nothing left to be about. It had a vast, talented cast and excellent characters who could still be written into funny situations—but situations was all the show had left, and it used to be something more than a situation comedy. It was all subplot, no plot. It tried to compensate with new characters (Robert California) and settings (Tallahassee) and, worst, by trying new variations on old arcs (Andy was the new Michael, Andy and Erin were the new Pam and Jim). If it wanted to turn to another lead story with real stakes, it had one right in front of it all along: Pam and Jim, the romantic, dreamy young couple now getting old and living with reality. But for whatever reason, it didn’t go that route.
With “New Guys,” the premiere of the show’s last season, it looks like The Office is finally ready to do that. In the opening sequence, the documentary crew–which looks to have a more active role, for the first time since Michael left–says, in a meta admission for The Office, that Pam and Jim were the focus all along. With Jim’s job offer, secretly accepted without Pam’s knowing, the show has a chance to return to one of its original, emotionally powerful themes: The way everyday life makes people forget about their dreams and the way those dreams manage to sneak back in. With original producer Greg Daniels returning to oversee the final season, maybe the show has a shot at re-infusing its wackiness with bittersweet.
On the way to setting up that final-run arc, The Office took care of some business, writing off Kelly (as Mindy Kaling launches The Mindy Project on Fox) and sending Ryan to Ohio. (For some reason, the producers still want to make Nellie work on this show, maybe out of general admiration of Catherine Tate, but so far she seems even more extraneous–as an adversary, she’s not even worth *Andy’s* time.) And the return episode had some first-class physical comedy, from Dwight’s slackwire and high-wire performances (in a doppelgänger subplot that played off his disappointment at not becoming a father) to Kevin’s hapless turtle surgery.
But really The Office, even in its weakest runs, could always be a funny show in short bursts; even the wayward season 8 was capable of finding ingenious ways to use the bench of old characters, as when it gave us Florida Stanley. The difference—well, I hope, anyway—is that by making the show’s final run about Jim and Pam and their future, it will give us a reason to care about it past the end of any given half-hour. (I do hope that this last arc doesn’t just become about Jim’s dream and whether Pam will be the fuddy-duddy boring mom who squashes it, but I’m willing to give the show time to flesh out the conflict.)
The Office could be great again, or at least good enough to redeem itself in its final year. It just has to go beyond punching the clock.