The Office: "The List" - Going to California

The Office didn’t become a different show with the departure of Michael Scott last year. The change happened earlier than that, during season six I’d say, and it was more subtle. As the lens pulled back to give the growing ensemble more to do, eventually a clear focus on any individual character was bound to be lost. Jim and Pam hit narrative ruts, leaving Michael as the only one with traces of an interior life to mine for stories, and even those began to feel like retreads of earlier ones. This is bound to happen after five, six, seven seasons on the air.

A lot of viewers and critics have broken up with The Office, and I understand where they’re coming from. I personally haven’t been emotionally invested in a story arc since the denouement of the Michael Scott Paper Company.* It’s not just that the show is no longer creates emotional connections with the viewer. Many perfectly serviceable sitcoms do this. The problem, I think, is that The Office now looks like the shell of a show that used to weave those connections so well. If a show mirroring latter-day The Office premiered today with this same talented cast under the title My Crazy Coworkers or something, it wouldn’t light the world on fire but it would probably catch on for a few years.

*The stories around Michael’s departure, including his reunion with Holly, don’t quite count because that arc is inevitably going to spark an emotional response—one that’s intrinsically tied to fonder memories of the show’s better days, incidentally.

But The Office can’t shed the baggage of the outstanding show it used to be. We’ll never know if the series would have been better served by retraining its focus on a couple of individual Dunder-Mifflinites rather than going the ensemble comedy troupe route. This is the path they’ve chosen, and these are the standards I’ll try to judge it by. Comparing this version of The Office to the version that existed in seasons two through four (the high point, in my opinion) isn’t quite fair.

I regard the show now as kind of an ant farm. We’re watching a bunch of workers scurry around one another within their claustrophobic habitat. Things happen in passing or in exposition, and then they vanish and are replaced by other things, and none of it really matters. (take Angela’s off-screen relationship with the state senator, which is mentioned at least once per episode but barely ever inspires a comic runner let alone a B-story).

The humor is similarly surface-level: drop some strange new element into the box each week and let it trigger controlled chaos, almost like a long-form improv sketch. This week it’s a list of employees’ names, divided into two columns.

The author of that list? New Dunder-Mifflin-Sabre boss Robert California, who was selected from last year’s laundry list of guest-star candidates to take over as branch manager, but who instead supplanted Kathy Bates as CEO by offering her a chance to open up a terrible storefront law firm in Cincinnati.

As Robert, James Spader was a highlight of the wildly uneven seventh-season finale “Search Committee,” a flash of pure bundled intensity who was equal parts off-putting and compelling. Here, though, some of the mystique is gone. Everyone acts in awe of Robert’s hypnotic power, but throughout the episode he doesn’t quite rise above the level of “somewhat mercurial.” The element of surprise was a huge component of Spader’s brief, scene-stealing turn in “Search Committee,” but that brevity was also key. I suspect after a couple of appearances there may not be much else to draw out of Robert California except a funny name and Spader’s freaky-ass, bug-eyed, heat-seeking stare.

He’s only scheduled to appear intermittently, though. “The List” also introduced us to the winner (okay, technically he placed second) of the great branch manager search: Andy Bernard. He’s the safest choice, really, the character who can most easily slide into the types of stories and gags that Michael was suited for. Both Andy and Michael have a profound need to be liked matched only by a haplessness with social cues. I can totally see Michael, as Andy does this week, chafing at being dubbed a “loser” by Robert, and making a big production of fighting for an extra half day off for Columbus Day in order to prove his good-boss cred.

With Andy in the boss’s chair, the difference in the branch manager dynamic will be one of degree rather than kind. Again, it fits with the direction the writers have decided to take the show: no major changes, no penetrating character arcs, just shake up the Scranton branch like a snow globe each week and let the people and the jokes fall where they may.

At least there’s one positive thing you can say for both Andy and Robert California: They aren’t D’Angelo Vickers.


Other notes: 

  • Yeah, planking is a little ways past its expiration date as a topical reference. So was the lip-dub musical number that kicked off season seven. I have no problem believing that these folks, in reality, would be a few months behind the hot memes of the day.
  • “Sometimes you get run over. Welcome to the Internet.”
  • “Right here, Little Michael Scott!”
  • “It’s stupid, but it’s my thing now.”
  • “Number three, time permitting, we lost our biggest client.”
  • Robert lists Creed as “Old Man.” Heh.
  • “Really great list of names, guys. Good work.”
  • “Pam, c’mon, don’t be such a right-sider.”
  • “Funny how the houses are always colonials and the penises are always circumcised.”
  • “I know! It’s alphabetical!”
  • “Left side of the list…attack!”
  • “But now it is my job, and my prob.”
  • “Meredith Palmer. The word no: not even in her vocabulary.”

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