Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ain't No Party Like A Scranton Party

It appears that James Spader is leaving The Office.This isn't too much of a surprise--his character was more or less written as a temporary and/or occasional role--but it's still telling that he is leaving.

Given that both Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling) could potentially leave the show (although since Dwight would be leaving for his own spin-off, he would probably stick around if need be), one wonders if everyone isn't bailing out of a sinking ship, as it were.

I started watching The Office back in the UK days, where David Brent's painfully awkward everything made the show equally unbearable and hilarious. (Though, to be fair, I much prefer the writing, as well as his not-quite-as-excrutiating character, in Extras.) There were plenty of doubts when they decided to make a U.S. version, doubts that were not quelled when an ill-paced word-for-word replication of the UK's first episode was created for the pilot. When it was (slightly) unexpectedly picked up for a second season, it ended up being quite the surprise--sharp writing and dead-on situations pulled out of every cubicle farm with just enough absurdity to keep things moving and deadpan quasi-seriousness to keep it grounded.

It's not quite the same any more. I don't laugh nearly as much as I used to; the writing seems to have made absurdity the go-to laugh, instead of building around it (a recent episode, where the case romps around Spader's ostentatious mansion, is a case in point--few laughs outside of the standard yet tired worker-shlubs getting to run around a rich guy's house). Office romances have gone from mildly realistic plot devices to a straight-up daisy chain of outlandish hookups. Story arcs are farmed out for two or three seasons instead of tight, well-written scripts; while there was plenty to hang on the Jim-and-Pam story line, both Andy's and Dwight's failed romantic pursuits have become predictable.

In some ways, The Office's successes became its failure. While the UK version was undeniably anchored on the obnoxious David Brent, the US version was very much so an ensemble effort--so much so that Steve Carell's departure was not an immediate end to the show, as the UK version undeniably would have been. We grew to know and like the characters, which when it's all said and done have accumulated over a dozen distinct personalities, twice more than the usual sitcom. Even marginal characters, such as Creed and Meredith, had enough depth to be the focus of more than one episode. But that strength also became its weakness, as new characters kept getting added with little to add themselves. Ryan, who started as an intern, ended up contributing to basically nothing since season two aside from some ineffective side plot. Sweet Erin, while providing plenty of fodder for romance, has turned out to be simply a foil to bounce off of instead of a character in her own right, which is a shame.

Now, don't get me wrong. I still love watching The Office. While it's clearly a shell of its former self, it still maintains the legacy of its history. I still care about these characters even if barely registers as a comedy anymore. And, to be fair, some episodes--especially featuring Dwight, who is one of the few characters that has grown into both a parody of himself as well as a legitimate character with which we empathize--still harken back to the glory days of comedy gold. Still, this was a program that managed to have its own convention a mere three or four years into its run. You wouldn't see that today.

Part of me wants to see the show end before it descends any further; part of me wants there to be yet one last season, but specifically set as its last so the writers put in the extra effort. Since the season is winding down, I suspect we shall find out shortly.

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