The show's first year after Steve Carell's departure was rough, but next season should be better.
The Office was going to fail this year. Steve Carell as Michael Scott was the once-in-a-lifetime Lucy Bunker Tyler Moore kind of a marriage of character and actor that is at once original, groundbreaking, and spectacular. His absence this year meant the most potent, essential ingredient to The Office's recipe for success was missing. Continuing the show without replacing that ingredient would make for a bland new series, but any substitute producers choose would inevitably change the show in a way that's off-putting to most viewers. But here's the thing: The Office came close to pulling the new recipe off.
When you look at comedies where major stars leave mid-series, the most successful ones regroup around a character with a different energy and dynamic: Kirstie Alley in for Shelley Long on Cheers, Charlie Sheen replacing Michael J. Fox on Spin City. You could even argue that Two and a Half Men did a respectable job accomplishing this when Ashton Kutcher stepped in this season for Sheen.
At first, The Office seemed to have learned this lesson. The Michael Scott-less season of The Office started out promising with the addition of James Spader as Robert California, a markedly different character than Scott. Michael's lunacy was always well-intentioned, which made his troop of employees comfortable with him as their leader despite his tendency towards bumbling and bungling almost every situation. Spader's Robert brought a new, almost manic vibe to Dunder-Mifflin, infusing the show with a darkly comic sensibility it never really had before. Michael's confidence was always hapless and false. Robert's was assured and palpable. And fun to watch.
The first handful of episodes focused on how Robert's arrival unsettles the office. The quirky caricatures, some of whom had become stale and predictable, bounced off his unfamiliar energy in fresh and surprising ways. Dwight, Kelly, and Ryan are all eager to please, and Robert's piercing coldness brought out untapped and amusing vulnerabilities in each of them. Stanley, Jim, and Toby, on the other hand, are resistant to change, and Robert's polar-opposite personality and managerial style forced them to become more flexible. When Jim mugged exasperation to the camera, you finally believed it again—unlike those tail Michael Scott years of when it was hard to fathom that anybody was still surprised when he messed things up. It soon became apparent that The Office's comedy relied less on the mere presence of this unique TV character of Michael Scott, and more on the orbit of people surrounding him and their struggles to escape his gravitational pull of idiocy. Robert California may have had a different personality make-up than Michael, but that struggle was still entertaining. After seven years of the same, the ways in which the characters fought against it were new and exciting.
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But all that was quickly squandered with the grave mistake of making Spader a recurring guest star. After those first few strong episodes, his presence became sporadic, and the show had to resort to other ways to mine laughs from that same crazy boss/exasperated employees dynamic. Increasingly, Ed Helms' Andy Bernard was relied to fill that role, but the sensibility he brought was too close to Michael Scott's. Andy became Michael 2.0, a next generation Office lead who was just like the previous model, only without any significant upgrades. He brought nothing new to the table. With James Spader/Robert California, viewers missed the presence of Steve Carell/Michael Scott, but at least were intrigued by this unusual new character they were given in his stead. ("The List" and "Pool Party" are especially strong examples of this.) Episodes centered around Andy and his travails—specifically "Mrs. California," in which he struggles with Robert's conflicting orders about hiring his wife, and "Gettysburg," which is essentially a 22-minute bit about Andy's excessive enthusiasm—were too familiar, almost as if The Office had done them before with Michael, and Andy was doing a subpar impression of how Michael mishandled each situation.
The wildly uneven season took another swing upwards, however, with the eventual full-time addition of Catherine Tate as Nellie Bertram. She's a bizarrely fascinating character who skirts Michael Scott comparisons in the same way Robert California did, re-energizing the show again after Michael 2.0 brought it down. She's delusional like Michael, deranged like Robert, but unusual in her own way. She arrived in Scranton as a hurricane of unpredictable behavior, squatting in Andy's office, doling out raises for which she had no authority to give, and deploying the funniest Tinker Bell metaphor in recent TV memory. Unlike Robert's scattered appearances, Nellie's been a consistent presence in the latter half of the season. As a result, we're seeing how the supporting characters' relationships with her evolve. A small bonding moment between Jim and Nellie involving the delightfully absurd combination of magicians and heartbreak in the episode "Welcome Party" may be the most important indication that The Office—despite lower ratings, critical ambivalence, and fan abandonment—has a future. It revealed the same glimmer of humanity in Nellie that made Michael, for all of his absurdity, somehow relatable, and allowed us to see a brief, real connection between her and another character that made it understandable why the office tolerates, and even befriends, such a maddening presence.
Those last few episodes of The Office starring Steve Carell as Michael Scott were destined to be among the best the series was ever going to produce, making the first year without him even more disappointing by comparison. Fans were treated to those TV moments they've long-waited for: Michael's emotional maturity, his proposal to Holly, the realizations by Jim, Pam, and company of how much he really meant to them. As sad as it is for fans when favorite characters bow out of a series early, those goodbye arcs are always a treat.
This, then, was a rebuilding year. The Office started off by laying a truly poor foundation with its mishandling of the delicate replacement conundrum. As the season trudged along, episodes crumbled on top of the James Spader/Robert California misfire. Necessary renovations, guided by Catherine Tate as Nellie Bertram, are looking promising, but a strong, worthy, Michael Scott-less Office isn't fully erect yet. (That's what she said.)