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TV Review: Was Season 8 of The Office a Total Disaster?

THE OFFICE -- "Free Family Portrait Studio" Episode 824 -- Pictured: (l-r) Paul Lieberstein as Toby Flenderson, Craig Robinson as Darryl Philbin, Catherine Tate as Nellie Bertram, Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon, Oscar Nunez as Oscar Martinez, Brian Baumgartner as Kevin Malone, Jenna Fischer as Pam Halpert, John Krasinski as Jim Halpert, Ed Helms as Andy Bernard -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

Will the eighth season of The Office be considered a lost season or just a transitional one? It depends on what the sitcom does next year and the year after, and in any event, this might be a distinction without a difference. Fact is, the show's first post–Steve Carrell year has been a mess, at times bordering on a disaster.

And, yet, I've continued to watch it every week. Why? Familiarity is surely a factor. I like the show, and I love these characters, and the quality of the acting is so consistently high (even when the character beats and dialogue aren't up to snuff) that I can't bring myself to just bail. But there's another aspect at play here: It has to do with the nature of TV itself, and I think it may be the real reason why I've continued to watch The Office.

On any long-running popular series, there are always two dramas happening simultaneously. One occurs onscreen: The characters go here, do this, feel that, and we debate whether what happens is funny, smart, consistent with past plotlines, and so forth. The other drama is happening behind, or beneath, the scenes; it's extra-dramatic, a struggle between the show and the medium it's a part of. Simply put, when you watch The Office, or any series, you're watching a show's writers, directors, actors, and crew fight to maintain a certain level of quality despite a relentless pace and the network's expectation that the series hit certain ratings goals or be canceled. When a show hits a natural stopping point — as The Office did last spring when its comedic anchor Michael Scott (Steve Carell) quit Dunder-Mifflin — and then keeps going anyway, out of pride or a desire for more profits, the enterprise takes on a heroic (or maybe foolhardy) dimension.

Can a TV show that loses its center continue on without seeming rudderless and a tad pathetic? I can't think of too many examples: NYPD Blue and Cheers, maybe, but in those cases, the shows lost co-leads (David Caruso and Shelly Long, respectively) while maintaining a central protagonist (Dennis Franz, Ted Danson) all through their runs. Law & Order and ER were more ensemble- or concept-driven, but they still lost momentum and quality when their central characters were written out or downgraded to supporting status. Spin City? A Different World? Mission: Impossible? The list of successful reinventions isn't long, that's for sure. And The Office had set itself up for disaster by making Michael Scott/Steve Carell the heart of the series and then deciding to continue after his departure. What happened on the American Office is akin to All in the Family losing Archie Bunker, Maude losing Maude, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show losing Mary. If the series had been called Michael Scott, we wouldn't be discussing any of this. On paper, Carell's exit looked to be an insurmountable blow — thus my piece arguing that The Office should have called it quits after that, even though the network's bottom line required it to keep going.

In retrospect, the only thing saving the show from utter chaos and mediocrity was the clever way that it addressed its own unmoored quality within the scripts themselves. Thanks to its faux-documentary format, the series has always been rather self-aware (and, occasionally, self-regarding). But at some point — probably season seven, a.k.a. Michael Scott's Very Long Goodbye — The Office amped up its auto-critical sensibility, to the point where it seemed nearly as much a meta-comedy as its Thursday night schedule-mates 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community. As on season three of Justified, another show about bruised survivors jockeying for supremacy in a power vacuum, season eight of The Office has turned the absence of leadership into its main subject. In season eight it wasn't just a sitcom that lacked a sense of direction; it was a sitcom about being directionless, about deciding to soldier on after a catastrophic loss and not having the slightest clue how to do it.

The search for a new office manager at the end of season seven doubled as an on-air audition for a new Office star, with the audience serving as a focus group; early scuttlebutt said Catherine Tate's Nellie Bertram would take Michael Scott's chair, but James Spader made such a huge impression by playing his pervert-shaman aura for laughs that the show ended up making his character Robert California the CEO. "There is a person in charge of every office in America," California told Andy, who was furious that Nellie had simply behaved as if she, and not Andy, were running the office now and had somehow claimed the title of leader. "And that person is Charles Darwin." Characters asked the question that we at home were wondering: "Why is she here?" "What is going on?" Jim asked the unseen interviewer. "That does seem to be the question, doesn't it?" Toby, the closest thing to referee in the show's pit of toothless snakes, confessed, "Human resources is a joke. I can't do anything about anything."

It got to the point where I scarcely felt I could criticize The Office without the show criticizing itself first, either directly or obliquely. Thanks to the show's Marco Polo/"Fish out of water!" approach to comedy this year, lines that might have been no more than character touches sounded like coded self-analysis, caveats, or sheepish self-justifications. Dwight's comic book character, Captain Mutato, a shape-shifter "who can fight crime like a man but make love like a mermaid," is as adaptable as the series doubtless wishes it were. The subplot about the super-narcissist Ryan trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Kelly felt like an analogy for the show trying to win back fans who abandoned it after last year (ratings are down compared to 2010-11). When the love poem that we assumed Ryan never actually wrote and was probably incapable of writing turned out to be real and moving, it felt as if The Office was saying, "Don't write us off quite yet. What we're doing right now may seem desperate and calculating, and maybe it is, but our sincerity and artistry could still surprise you."

I hope so. As season eight peters out, it's hard not to fixate on what didn't work: almost everything. Robert California and Nellie Bertram often felt more like notions for characters than actual characters, and there were times when the actors seemed flummoxed while playing them. (I did laugh, though, when California roared at Andy, "You don't even know my real name! I am the f-----g Lizard King!!" Spader is brilliant even when the material isn't.) Andy's tenure as office manager, during which he was pretty much whatever the writers needed him to be during an episode, was a sporadically enjoyable botch, and not just because the character isn't a boss-type. The "off-campus" episodes reminded me of how much better the show used to be at doing that kind of thing. ("Fundraiser," you're no "Dinner Party.") Nevertheless, I still adore these characters, even when the writing doesn't do them justice. The optimist in me relishes the idea of The Office rallying, becoming different from but equal to its earlier incarnation, and running another few years, if only for the thrill of seeing talented people beat very long odds.

Photo: NBC