Why James Spader (Probably) Won't Save 'The Office'

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History is against the Emmy winner as he attempts to fill Steve Carell's shoes

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NBC


That hooting and hollering you hear right now? That's NBC celebrating that it finally booked a "replacement" for Steve Carell on The Office. After being deemed "doomed" without its beloved star, a botched attempt at building buzz through a Will Ferrell guest arc, and failures at wooing big-named actors like Will Arnett and James Gandolfini to step in for Carell, those folks at NBC needed some good news. And then came James Spader, the Emmy-winning, zany star of Boston Legal and The Practice, riding in on his white peacock to save the network's top-rated comedy series from drifting off into oblivion. Spader, it seems, will save their show.

After all, Spader already made a somewhat successful guest appearance on the The Office's most recent season finale. "Successful" in that his performance was perhaps the least polarizing of all the episode's glossy guest stars--including Jim Carrey and Ray Romano. And so after some wheeling and dealing, NBC convinced Spader to join the show as CEO of the paper company (technically replacing Kathy Bates's character, not Carell's--producers insist that he'll have a larger presence than Bates on the show). In other words, it didn't matter that Spader's "audition" wasn't a rousing hit, because he's a bankable star--five seasons on Boston Legal, remember--and that will bring viewers back to a Carell-less Office. The show will be rescued.

But big-name actors don't have a great superhero track record when it comes to saving long-running shows. At best they're rent-a-cops: a quick solution to a problem, but ineffective when they stick around too long.

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Let's take a look at famous TV replacements of the past. The sad saga of the charming comedy that loses its ratings-grabbing star is not a ballad The Office sings alone. In fact, several other series have been in the same situation, and have also brought in a well-known actor to resuscitate the show. And many times, the big-name CPR--initially--worked. Take Spin City, for example. The ABC sitcom was a fine ratings performer, and decently respected critically. But its main impetus for being on air was for America to fawn over the boyish smile and charisma of Michael J. Fox. When Fox announced his departure from the series, Spin City continued on, with Charlie Sheen starring. Unexpectedly, Sheen invigorated the show with a new energy right off the bat. He was sleazy in a delightful sort of way, the anti-Fox, and audiences and critics loved it. Sheen even scored a Golden Globe. Having the tabloid staple onboard led to a ratings spike, too. Spin City, without Fox, was thriving.

But just as quickly as the show took off with Sheen, it then crashed and burned. Audiences, it turned out, could only take so much of Sheen, and stopped tuning in. After two years, the show was canceled. What made it gel in the first place was a delicate chemistry, with the writing, premise, and actors--Fox most of all--working together in a perfect balance. Sure, Sheen's presence made the whole concoction fizzy and exciting for a little while, but ultimately he threw off what made it work, and the show, well, evaporated away.

Jon Lovitz in for Phil Hartmann on NewsRadio and Robert Patrick taking over for David Duchovny on The X-Files couldn't save those series. Jeff Goldblum's high-profile stint replacing Chris Noth on Law & Order: Criminal Intent did nothing for that series, which has struggled in the ratings since Noth's departure. Even bringing on respected actors like Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda to a TV institution like The West Wing couldn't get the show re-elected by the network. All were valiant--and, on paper, wise--attempts to wring more life out of long-running series. But past an initial raise-of-the-eyebrow curiosity from viewers, all of the efforts, ultimately, faltered.

In the past year, Parks and Recreation and American Idol both suffered at the hand of their superstar saviors. Parks and Rec, for one, a scrappy little comedy, was a series that actually listened to critics, improving steadily over the course of its first two seasons. That included getting rid of Paul Schneider's aimless, vanilla character, and bringing on a never spunkier Rob Lowe to replace him. But as Gawker's Richard Lawson notes, the fun of seeing Lowe in the role quickly turned into "an overplayed one-note joke that befits a guest star far better than a series regular." One that's bogging down a series that has potential to be television's best.

And after nine seasons, most thought American Idol had sung its last note once Simon Cowell quit judging the singing competition. But Fox soldiered on with the show, embarking on an Office-esque search for a bold-faced replacement, coming up with two: Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. It's remarkable, critics were quick to point out, how refreshing the two musicians were on the judging panel--a surprising combination that worked. Audiences tuned in to see their chemistry. But as the season wore on, their spark dimmed, audiences ditched, and bloggers queued up their "How to Save Idol" posts, once again.

And what of Spader? His brief appearance on the Office finale was uncharacteristically dark for the show, basing his character, Robert California, on an aggressive and, as Meghan Carlson at Buddy TV writes, "slightly terrifying sexual energy." That particular vibe could certainly be mined for interesting character conflict and relationships early on in Spader's stint. Promo clips of Spader's character at his most overconfident, most outlandishly intense, will certainly entice an audience to watch initially. But how can that character trait stay fresh before overpowering the endearing, awkward, and slightly precious mood emanated by the rest of the Office cast? Worse, it sounds like such an extreme character would easily cross to the wrong side of the line that Steve Carell always precariously toed: too grating. The novelty, I predict, will wear off.

That's not to say that famous actors and TV are always a disastrous combination. Series that have been conceived and premiered on the strength of big Hollywood names have thrived. Showtime, in particular, has made a name for itself wooing "movie actors" to the small screen with rousing success on Californication (David Duchovny) and The Big C (Laura Linney), for example. But those stars were part of the series from the beginning. The success and longevity of those shows is tethered to those actors, just as The Office's was to Steve Carell. And anyone who watched Gwyneth Paltrow shimmy onto Glee and completely reinvigorate the series can speak to the power of an A-list guest star. But as a mid-series run replacement? The trick just doesn't work.

Series that have been successful after replacing its famous lead have done so with lesser-known stars. When Kirstie Alley subbed for Shelley Long on Cheers, she was best known only for a small role in Star Trek. ER never went after a name to succeed George Clooney, relying instead on seasoned, not-so recognizable performers like Goran Visnjic and Maura Tierney to carry the series. Same for Law and Order and its 20-year cycle of detectives.

So will James Spader really save The Office? Of course, that remains to seen. But we'll actually have two chances this fall to see if a series can be salvaged by a famous replacement. Two and a Half Men will premiere with Ashton Kutcher as the central character, stepping in for a scandal-ridden Charlie Sheen (things come full circle). Undoubtedly, Men will premiere to dynamite ratings. The show was already the number one comedy on TV, and public interest in the Sheen debacle is high. Curiosity and Kutcher's polar-opposite-to-Sheen demeanor will spike the series' success initially. But if history tells us anything, Men, like The Office won't be "winning" in the long run.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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