Sunday, April 15, 2012

"THE OFFICE": MAYBE, IT'S BEEN GOING ON TOO LONG? (That's what she said!) [I really wish I had a better "that's what she said" joke there]

I think it's fair to say that while most people strongly feel that "The Office," should've either ended, or starting attempting a wrapping up of the series after last season's emotional departure of Steve Carell, I've been one person who believes the series is still at the top of its game. I still consider it one of the Top ten shows on network television, and this season, while it's been somewhat of an adjustment, has remained funny as hell. However, the future is not looking great. In February, James Spader, who was brought in this season, not-so-much to replace Carell, but more-or-less as a new element of the show, has announced that he will be leaving after this season. I don't particularly blame him for leaving actually. While his Robert California character has had some incredibly funny moments, there's been very little for him to do, and much of his character development has been uneasy at best. Besides that though, he's hardly their biggest concern. There's already been plans announced to start spinning Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute character into a spinoff to debut sometime next year, an idea that I think could be intriguing, especially if, Angela's (Angela Kinsey) character arc continues the way I think most would presume it will and she ends up joining him as well. On top of that though, Mindy Kaling, who's an executive producer on the show, on top of playing Kelly Kapoor and being one of the series most-prolific writers, has a pilot deal at FOX, and that pilot is looking more and more likely to be picked up. Kaling, many people might not realize, is a well-established playwright, most notably being a co-author of the "Matt and Ben," the famous parody about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Also, Ed Helms, is currently casted in Kaling's pilot, and his contract is still being renegotiated for next season, and he's not alone. John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and B.J. Novak, Novak who is also a writer-producer on the show, on top of playing former-temp, Ryan Howard, are all still in contract renogiations for next season, and Paul Lieberstein, another one of the show's writer-producers-actors, playing Toby Flenderson, announced that he is stepping down as showrunner, at the end of the year. This is the current backdrop of the show, that's clearly in transition, at-minimum, as well as numerous worst-case scenario possibilities available.

With all this occurring within the last year, and is continuing to occur well beyond that, I still contend that "The Office," is in safe hands. In fact, considering everything "The Office," has actually been one of the greatest examples in recent years of how to add and subtract characters from a successful comedy series. The show has introduced and gotten rid of numerous cast members over the years, quite successfully. Ed Helms and Ellie Kemper for instance, weren't original members of the show, and now the series at it's strongest right now, focusing on the on-again/off-again romance their characters, Andy and Erin have. The strength of  their characters, the supporting characters especially, and how the series has managed to continually expand them, and give them amazing depth has kept the show interesting and funny for years now, an amazing achievement considering that most series that have tried to continually switch the lead storylines and characters, especially comedy series trying this, usually is a sign of the series downfall, and eventual end.

With that being their current legacy, plus with the current situation in an extreme transitional period, it makes "The Office"'s most recent news report about their future, understandable. broke the story first, and it's spread everywhere since, Greg Daniels, "The Office"'s executive producer, who is credited with adapting the series from the original British version by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, is starting to pitch the idea that the next season of the show should be completely rebooted, creating almost an entirely new show, with some returning and many new cast members. Under the seemingly undeniable realization that many of the series regulars won't be returning, or only staying on briefly if they do, this proposed idea, already being cleverly dubbed "Office 2.0", on the one hand, actually does seem like the most elegant and reasonable solution to the show's current crisis. (Part of me also thinks that this is a bluff, and a possibly negotiating tool) I and always want to say personally, that, from the perspective of making the best show possible, I think this is a good idea. It's actually one of the strange ironies about television is that, sometimes shows remain on longer than they're characters really should be, and in some cases, an extra season or two beyond the natural storyarc of the series can be somewhat devasting. One of the more noteworthy incidents like this would be "Night Court," getting a surprise eighth season pickup in '92, that forced a complete rewrite of the show's already planned ending. (There's a funny episode of "30 Rock," that explored the possibility of bringing back the cast and shoot the proper ending Harry and Christine's wedding ending that they had to abandon)

As I write this however, I realize that I am kidding myself. There's not a single example from U.S. television history (outside, possibly of soap operas, which, for obvious reasons are relatively immune to fallout from this strategy) that indicates that a complete reboot of a comedy series like this, is a good idea. In fact, it's bordering on suicidal. It even took down, maybe the most important show in television history, "All in the Family". I watch reruns of that show all the time, but I can't bare to watch the episodes without Meathead and Gloria, and especially without Edith, which the show, which eventually got renamed "Archie Bunker's Place," late in the series, had to deal with after Sally Struthers, Rob Reiner and Jean Stapleton, each left the series leading to them bringing in a new cast. The most famous recent example of this, was the ninth season of "Scrubs," which had a few original members of the series play teachers, as the show was reworked and recasted to show the new batch of med school students coming in. "Scrubs," was always an underrated series that rarely got high Neilsen ratings, but it's final rebooted season got it's lowest ratings and critical reception ever. The only person I know who liked and saw every episode of that final "Med School" season was me. While I, maybe blindly so, continue to preach that season, as well as the idea and concept of rebooting a series after the majority of the character arcs have reasonably concluded, there's no success rate for this experiment to even speak of.

Granted, much of the time, this sort of experiment, or similar ones like it, aren't as good as I contend that last season of "Scrubs," actually was, but even if "The Office"'s goes through with these plans and has a show whose quality remains at it's current level (Or for those who think it's been going downhill for years, former-level), getting ratings is almost impossible. I think I know why it's generally hard for audiences to accept TV shows, especially sitcoms, go through such an extreme transition. The structure of a sitcom is surprisingly intimate. Only with a few exception do they have elaborate and large main casts, they're usually, at most, six major players, and maybe one or two recurring smaller parts, that don't have much impact on the main story, (Gunther on "Friends," is a good example of the latter) and per the hundreds of examples that came before, they really let us into a living room of someone else. (Sometimes the living room is a workplace, but you get the idea) One of the great benefits of a sitcom is that, since we are getting that close to somebody(ies), we really get an invested interest in their lives. Part of it is the comedy aspect, comedy being at it's core, is about the conflict(s) of man in some form, it's also partially the short-length of a sitcom, most of them being a half-hour, or 22-minutes without commercials, but it remains this, small voyeuristic glimpse into someone's life that we're essentially looking in on, and because it's comedy, it's during many of their private and most personal moments, often at their weakest moments. Eh, what's a good classic example... we don't see Lucy and Ricky on rather boring days where nothing much happens and Ricky goes to work and Lucy runs errands and goes about her day. We see only, the great moments of conflict between them. "Lu-cy!", "I wanna be in the show". "No, Lucy..." "You think no, but..." That's the thing with most sitcom. (At least the good ones anyway). Just to compare, this is almost historically the opposite with dramas, especially network dramas. The reason for this is because the characters aren't as important in most dramas as the stories are. We get enveloped in the whodunits, and howyacatchems, of the story, oftentimes, we might not know a damn thing about the main characters, and even when we do, like "ER," the show can replace them with new characters almost at a whim because the main thing that draws audiences in is the sudden, high-intensity, high-pressure situations that can suddenly occur at a hospital, and not the characters themselves per se. The original "Law & Order," is the quintessential show that showed how to continually revolve it's cast and remain as a top-quality show, the best example of which was when Elisabeth Rohm left the show, her character, A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn, was fired at the end of her run onthe series, and then, with, maybe the most shocking thing that's ever occurred on that show (And that's saying something), she asked if she was fired because she was a lesbian. Up until that point, not one single time was her sexuality, or her personal life discussed in any amount of extensive detail. Up until that point, it had absolutely no relevance to the series. She was a D.A. who along with the cops, helped prosecute criminals. It's a noted oddity when the series, or an episode dives, anywhere outside of that plot. If "Law & Order," was a sitcom, and boy it would've been a bad one, but this fact would've been revealed longago and would've become an essential aspect of her character, whether she's in a relationship or not, 'cause her personal life would be as crucial to the show as her job.

Successful sitcoms just don't have the luxury to suddenly, drastically reboot a show, the way that Greg Daniels is pitching right now. The drawback of doing sitcoms, is that the audience becomes too involved with it's core characters, and while some shows, can succeed after some characters leave the show, even essential characters sometimes, it's too much to ask of an audience to suddenly have to get reinvolved with and become as intimate with totally new characters, after they've spent years devoted to the ones they're familiar with. It's a bitch, and I don't think it's fair, especially since were talking about one of the best shows on TV, but if this becomes the next logical, natural or necessary direction of the show, (and I think it very well could be) I think it's in Greg Daniels's best interests, as well as everyone else involved, including NBC, to start winding the series down, and prepare to end it, if not this season, then the upcoming season. I would suggest, with a big round-up movie, like the original British series ended. You don't have to do that exactly, but with some nice way to finish up. Everybody's already moving on, and that one extra season never does anything other than diminish a great series. You could be great for 20 or 30 years even, and it's gonna be that one lousy year at the end that's gonna make people say "Yeah, but it went on too long." (Okay, 20 years is long for an American sitcoms, but overseas some have lasted that long) Saying that, if they have to go for the reboot, I hope they go for it, and make the best show they can, with the same devotion to great character writing they've had in the past, and I hope they do become the exception that proves the rule. If any show has a shot in hell at it, it's "The Office". I've never seen a show so good at bringing in and introducing new characters that start off as moving scenery practically, go on and become so rich and diverse characters we care about, full of complexities and contradictions, and just as easily take them out, when they're arc has completed. Either way, I hope a good outcome arises out of this. I don't know about you, but I've seen enough good shows last just a little longer than they should've, and I don't want one as good as "The Office," to suffer that same fate.

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