Friday, April 13, 2012

On the Telly: “The Office”

It hurt me today to find out that my beloved The Office has received a record lowrating. This was the lowest for the American version of the series since its premiere in the spring of 2005.

The history of NBC’s The Office was not a smooth one in its inception. Initial critical reception was generally favourable, but also cool, with many noting its inferiority to the original British series starring Ricky Gervais (admittedly I was not a stark raving fan of it but that’s another blog post). The ratings were generally low-rated, but enough for NBC to continue with the series. Clearly they saw more potential in it than in the wildly misbegotten 2003 version of Coupling, which lasted exactly two terrible episodes. The cast developed and grew into an ensemble, headed by the brilliant Steve Carrell as Michael Scott. The lynchpin of the series was his continually embarrassing efforts to befriend the staff by trying too hard. In other words, perpetual social experimentation and wild failure was the engine of what drove the show, and how the staffers reacted to it. By the time Carrell left for his successful movie career in 2011, having led the cast for seven years and earning numerous honours including a Golden Globe and SAG Award, and half a dozen Emmy nominations, the show had become a respectable long-running hit. The question was: would the series survive, let alone thrive, without him?

New boss: Catherine Tate
The answer appears to be a hesitant “no”, at least for the moment. There has been a tortured attempt in the show’s narrative to fill the gap left by Carrell. He may have been incurably dorky, but he also drew the entire staff together and they came to care for him in the end. The humanity was what was missing from the original Gervais version of The Office in Britain. For Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton branch, the quest to fill the void Michael left behind mirrored his actor’s departure. Michael was Carrell’s signature role, and the problem was like any good pen, he left an indelible mark that could not be erased and would always be woven into the show.

Let’s liken it to what happened with Diana Ross when she left the Supremes. Without their biggest star, the one who defined the group, the effect was that the air was let out of the room. The Supremes carried on and did respectably, but they were never quite the same no matter how talented the members were who remained. Carrell’s from The Office departure echoes similarly, even a year later. The cast still has moments of brilliance and the ensemble plays well with one another, but the dynamic has changed radically. Sure, there’s great promise in British transplant Nellie as the by turns vicious and loopy new manager, played brilliantly by Catherine Tate in a turn balancing deft comic timing with a hint of dark turmoil, but she will need another year to make the show her own and to erase Carrell’s influence.

Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling)
It’s a bit disheartening that the show seems to be on its last legs. Longtime showrunner Paul Liberstein, who plays the harangued human resources manager Toby, has stepped down and NBC is advertising for a new showrunner. Mindy Kaling, fresh off the success of her terrific comic memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, is filming a pilot that hopefully gives us more of an opportunity to see this refreshingly bubbly actress on a regular basis. And Rainn Wilson has been offered a spin-off with his one-of-a-kind character Dwight Schrute, in a backdoors pilot that will be aired sometime within the next year. (I am looking very much forward to this project.)

Like every office after a major shift in management, The Office is still in a transition stage. What we need to determine is whether or not the company will survive the change and grow into a stronger whole, or be finished off for good. Stay tuned.