Tuned In

Office Watch: You're Not the Boss of Me

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Spoilers for last night’s season finale of The Office below:

There are three ways to look at “Search Committee”: (1) as an episode in itself, (2) as a way of judging the overall success of season seven of The Office and (3) as a table-setter for the extended life of Dunder-Mifflin without Michael Scott. I want to have something more positive to say, but my gut reaction to the hourlong season-ender on each score was: (1) disappointing, (2) mixed at best and (3) incomplete—obviously—but I wish I had more to be hopeful about.

As to the first: sure, I laughed at the episode. I could give you a whole list of funny lines and moments, which, in fact, is most of what makes up my notes. Get a cast this talented playing characters with this much history in a high-stress situation, and they are going to make you laugh. (“Shut up about the sun. Shut up about the sun!” That is comedy! I admit it!)

But there’s a difference between a bunch of laughs and a satisfying story. By The Office’s seventh season, the cast has developed into an almost endlessly adaptable comedy troupe, and honestly, some of the episodes I’ve enjoyed best this season played almost like a series of vignettes and set pieces that allowed the characters to just be. By the serial nature of the interview process, “Search Committee” lent itself to that sort of format too.

At its best, though, The Office is a show that can be absurdly funny while grounding itself in legitimate real-world stakes. In “Search Committee” the stakes were theoretically there: the branch needs a new boss; this will have a big effect on everyone’s daily lives; career paths will be affected; and Jim stands to be in huge trouble if they make the wrong choice. But the interviews, which played like a long series of goofs, were too detached from reality to underscore that—compared with, say the Michael Scott Paper Company arc—this was also about a real decision that is actually important to these people.

(Case in point: Dwight Schrute has always walked a fine line between absurd and implausible, and we all have different opinions about where that line is. But to me, while having him accidentally fire a gun worked—it grew out of character and his exuberance—the “burn victim” ploy, though a funny sight gag, was too blatantly a boneheaded, sitcommy ruse for me to believe that even Dwight would think it convincing.)

The big hook of the episode, the string of celebrity appearances, in some ways worked better than I expected; having the stars troop in for brief interview cameos was a (relatively) natural way of working them in. James Spader killed as an overqualified candidate who was creepily perceptive, which is probably the most James Spader-y kind of role I can imagine working in the world of The Office; Ray Romano’s hangdog role was fitting; and while David Brent would have had greater impact had he not appeared on the show earlier, Ricky Gervais can always find something in that character. (I’ll get to Catherine Tate in a minute.)

But I’ve never quite understood the idea that The Office needs to bring in an outside candidate—or that Dunder-Mifflin does. The cast is huge already, and brilliant; and we’ve learned over the years that for all their eccentricities, many of these staffers are really good at their jobs. Promoting from within makes sense both within the show and in the meta sense of casting.

And of course that’s still possible—we won’t know for a while. But it seemed like, once the writers (the episode was credited to Paul Lieberstein) decided on the cliffhanger, they needed to sabotage each Dunder-Mifflin candidate for comedy and suspense. And that worked against a lot of what we know about the characters: Darryl proved able to grow into his new job, but “Search Committee” made him seem like a fraud; Andy seemed (to my eye) to handle Gabe’s hostile questioning very well, but we seemed to be meant to feel that the interview had gone badly. Hell, even Kelly has shown in the past that she can be cunning and insightful in a pinch.

Given the cliffhanger resolution, I should have ended the episode with a strong rooting interest or interests. But instead of giving us a summer to argue which of the candidates best deserves the job, the episode mostly made it seem like nobody does—and didn’t give us strong reasons to care.

I say this with some regret, because I haven’t soured on the past year or so of The Office as much of the online criticism has. Yeah, OK, the show is definitely off its peak, and it may never match seasons 3, 4 and 5 again. But while this season was uneven, I generally enjoyed it and thought it improved on the rudderless season 6; it redeemed itself writing off Michael Scott and—at least last week, with the Dwight interlude—made me believe that it could continue just fine with the rest of the characters.

But I’ll admit: “Search Committee” had me wondering whether the show can go anywhere good from here, and whether I care. Catherine Tate has recently generated a lot of buzz as a favorite to take over as an outsider, but the episode didn’t make me enthusiastic. Not because of Tate, whom I like as an actress and had been enthusiastic about, but because of the character, who didn’t really seem defined as a person beyond a certain abrasiveness and eagerness to embrace extreme management styles.

To me, that sounds like the stuff of a mini-season arc—a la Will Ferrell—not a series regular. (Ditto James Spader, though I do think he slew the performance.) Nelly’s friendship with Jo is a way of forcing us to accept her intellectually as a plausible candidate, I guess, but you can’t force the audience to connect with a character.

Can The Office turn this into a resolution that works, rejuvenates the show and makes it compelling to watch again next year? Sure—the nature of a cliffhanger means that we have to wait and see. But it was a cliffhanger that did not leave this viewer’s fingers grabbing the cliff as tightly as I’d like.

Now the hail of bullets:

* OK, we might as well, have a discussion about it: who do you want to see as the new boss? My hope—and still my longshot fantasy—was that Jim somehow gets drafted over his objections or, realizing that any other choice is a disaster, selects himself a la Dick Cheney running Dubya’s VP-search committee. I don’t think that will happen, but I will go to my grave, or the Rapture, believing The Office missed an opportunity by yanking Jim out of the boss’ office too soon.

* Speaking of Tate/Spader/whoever joins or takes over: what are the odds this “cliffhanger” actually lasts until fall, or anywhere close? If there’s an “outsider hire,” someone will have to be cast, a contract signed, episodes shot. That can’t hold until July at the outside, right? And if The Office hires no one, that too will out, won’t it?

* I skipped over the various subplots, but: I liked how the episode treated Phyllis and Erin’s brief mother/daughter illusion, sweet but not maudlin or drawn-out. (“I’m sure I was just another Porky’s baby.”) Andy and Erin? I’m one of the minority (I think) that actually wants them together and cares, but Andy’s sudden realization that he no longer feels it for Erin—or maybe he does!—just seemed like a device to string out a will-they-won’t-they that has gone on far too long. And like Oscar, I can’t help looking forward to Angela’s wedding, disastrous as it will be.

* “Bread is the paper of the food industry. You write your sandwich on it.”

* “Little advice? Take a day off from the whole ‘Jim’ shtick. Try caring about something. You might like how it feels—James.” Noted.