It’s hard on a show when its central character leaves – especially when that character is also either a breakout or the most popular character on the show. Designing Women never recovered from Delta Burke’s departure; The X-Files also suffered when star David Duchovney jumped ship for a promising movie career. Sometimes there are exceptions: Cheers was able to survive Shelly Long’s departure, and before Lisa Bonet left A Different World, the show was just a forgettable Cosby Show spin-off. The Office, a once-brilliant show, lost its star – Steve Carrell, and hasn’t been able to find its footing, despite a decent eight season.
Toward the end of the seventh season, Michael Scott – regional manager of Dunder-Mifflin – left for Colorado to marry his love Holly Flax (Amy Ryan). Finally, salesman Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) was tapped to replace Michael as the regional manager. The eighth season deals with Andy’s adjustment as manager, while trying to juggle his personal life. The office is also figuring out the new CEO Robert California (James Spader), the eccentric, inscrutable applicant for Michael’s job from the seventh season, who is so forceful and magnetic personality, he managed to convince Sabre CEO, Jo Bennett (Kathy Bates), to step aside and give him the job. Strangely though, instead of staying in Tallahassee, he hangs around the office a lot, unsettling the office workers at Scranton. The Jim-Pam story adds an extra baby to the mix, as Jenna Fisher becomes pregnant in real-life. This means that for a stretch of the season, not only do we have to get used to no Michael, but Pam’s missing as well, which further makes the show harder to enjoy. The prudish and pious Angela (Angela Kinsey) is pregnant with her state senator hubby, Robert Lipton, who may or may not be gay.
Of course, the main question is how does Andy do in place of Michael? And the answer is okay. Andy’s an interesting character, and it made sense that he’d step into Michael’s shoes – the two share a lot, both being terribly insecure, though Andy is seemingly more humane. He, like Michael, goes through strenuous lengths to ingratiate himself to his workers, including taking them to Gettysburg, or making their wishes come true for Christmas, or trying to initiate office traditions like a good night song. Unlike Michael, though, Andy has little-to-no malice, something that offered Michael’s character some darker shadings, which makes the character compelling and interesting – at times, Michael’s antics were often disgusting; Andy is basically a kind man, and even at his most craven, he’s an awfully pathetic character and you feel bad for the guy.
Without Carrell, Rainn Wilson’s nihilistic and socially-repellant Dwight Schrute, the breakout character of The Office does the major comedic lifting of the show. Dwight is a twisted character, trying to run the office, and exert any kind of authority and power. Without Michael, Dwight no longer has anyone to be devoted to; instead, his alienating behavior and anti-social character seem to consume him. Wilson’s a fantastic comedian, and is consistently funny throughout the season, and manages to maintain a key link to the better seasons.
Because Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam are happily married with two kids, the main romantic tales involve Andy and the receptionist Erin (Ellie Kemper). From the previous seasons, both Andy and Erin went back and forth, climaxing with Erin throwing cake in Andy’s face when she heard of his relationship with Angela; she reached out to him, but wounded he rejected her, and embarked on a strained relationship with Jessica. The story, while not as interesting as the Jim-Pam story, is pretty bittersweet – it helps that Kemper is a fantastic addition to the show – she’s funny, and Erin’s a wonderful character – it’s nice to see someone sincerely kind and happy.
But still, the show’s struggling without Carrell. In fact, by the seventh season, The Office was showing its age, but still managed to coast on the strength of its star – without him, the show was brutally exposed as a stale, past-its-prime program, that should’ve been axed at the end of the seventh season. The writers seem obsessed with having the audiences accept Andy as Michael’s replacement. It seems like almost every episode has Andy somehow doing something over zealous in terms of team-building, and often being shot down.
Another problem is James Spader. I don’t know what happened to James Spader. From his string of 80s movies, to his inspired work on Boston Legal, Spader has always been a great performer, but unfortunately as the enigmatic Robert California, he is a seeming funny-suck. Every time he’s on screen, he seems to leaden down his scenes – not all of this is Spader’s fault, though. It appears that the writers don’t really know what to do with him – sometimes he’s frightening, and sometimes he’s seemingly benign – however, Spader doesn’t fit into the stylized acting of the show and he founders.
The Office without Carrell could have some legs. There are some gems in the mire of mediocrity – there is a string of episodes where some of the crew go off to Tallahassee to help launch a Sabre store (to compete with Office Max). It seems like moving the characters out of their environment injected some much-needed creativity into the writing staff. Dwight grows as a manager, and there’s a fantastic turn by British comedic legend, Catherine Tate as project manager Nellie Bertram, who like almost everyone else on The Office, is a social and professional fraud.
And also, I do appreciate the poignancy that is achieved in some of the episodes – specifically with Andy. In one decent episode, Andy’s trying to impress his folks by throwing a fancy garden party. His dad (Stephen Collins) is a cold, withholding, dismissive monster who treats Andy with belittling indifference, going as far as slamming his job and life – his cutting down is overheard by the rest of the crew because of a baby monitor, and before Andy can leave the party, his friends stop him by enjoying the party (now turned into a picnic). In another episode, Andy drags the gang to Gettysburg, and issues bubblegum pink baseball caps – the field trip doesn’t go as Andy planned and he vents his hurt feelings with Jim, who points out that Andy’s well-liked by everyone, evidenced by the fact that everyone is wearing his or her hats.
I wanted to like the eighth season. I like Andy, but Michael Scott’s sorely missed. The interesting thing is if The Office didn’t have the stellar first five seasons, the eighth season would’ve been highly regarded. It’s still a good show, and even at its most banal, The Office can still serve some well-created laughs. Still, the most obvious thing about the eighth season is that it should be its last.