If you want a shortcut to tracking the trajectory of The Office, just take a look at the show’s eight complete-season DVD sets. During the first two seasons, where the focus was more squarely on Michael Scott’s inappropriate behavior in the office and his shortcomings as a manager, Steve Carell is front and center. As Jim and Pam’s will-they/won’t-they tipped into the direction of “they will,” John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer gained equal footing with their onscreen boss—as did Rainn Wilson, a sign of Dwight Schrute’s breakout-character status. (On the cover for season three, the year of “Ben Franklin” and “Women’s Appreciation,” he’s certainly in the “this guy could anchor his own spinoff” position.) Season five is the final season where Carell has an obvious place of prominence, joining hands with Krasinski and Fischer the following year (a nod to Jim and Pam’s wedding and the birth of their daughter, the first season-finale signposts the show would blow by in ensuing years) and seated behind his desk for his final season of the show, The Office’s seventh.
Then, this past summer, the graphics-design department at NBCUniversal searched for a meaningful thread within season eight, likely causing its employees to uniformly throw their hands in the air and shout “Just throw every fucking character on there. Yeah, Robert California, too.”
Packaging design is a shallow way of analyzing the course of a television series that will comprise 198 episodes by the time this, its ninth and final season, concludes. Yet I can’t think of a more perfect visual metaphor for season eight than a sea of faces and shoulders inelegantly arranged against a white backdrop and cascading rectangles of gradients. Their dress suggests that these people all work some sort of white-collar job, but their variety of facial expressions (shrewdness from Mindy Kaling; a beaming grin for Ellie Kemper; B.J. Novak glaring as if to say, “Yeah, I know I’ve been in the opening credits for the show’s entire run but my character never really warranted it—want to make something of it?”) doesn’t imply that they know one another or share some seven previous years of history. It’s a poorly Photoshopped Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sleeve representing a pop-culture product of Their Satanic Majesties Request-level mediocrity.
And worst, of all, that season-eight cover has no focal-point equivalent to the The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s, resplendent in their DayGlo marching-band uniforms. This, too, marks the image as an ideal visualization of The Office’s eighth season. The show still had a better 2011-12 than a lot of TV series, but it was too distracted by shiny objects like the Sabre Pyramid, Catherine Tate’s accent, and Lindsey Broad to retain focus and effectively compensate for the departure of the guy who used to stand in front of everyone else on the DVD rack.
Yet there was one piece to the show’s early success and appeal that was alternately lost in plain sight or abused throughout the eighth season: the romance of Jim and Pam Halpert, the type of sitcom relationship worth rooting for that, after the writers and producers toyed with making it the most aggravating of all the aggravations at Dunder Mifflin Scranton, eventually lapsed into soggy retreads (another baby?) and flimsy threats to their happiness (really, Jim held a torch for Pam for how many years and he’s going to blow it all on an interloper in boxer shorts and a tank top?) But as The Documentarians tell Pam at the end of the first cold open of the ninth season (or the last “first cold open of the season,” if we want to get the graduating senior mistiness going early), they’ve had all the footage they’d need for a profile of a modern American workplace for a long time. They’re sticking around because they want to see what happens to Jim and Pam.
While ushering in The Office’s Second Greg Daniels Era, “New Guys” stops every so often to acknowledge the fans that have stuck with the series, not only tipping its hat to fan’s investment in the Jim-and-Pam relationship, but also making subtler callbacks to the show’s glory days. The action only leaves Scranton Business Park to send off Ryan and his Hefty-brand luggage—his baggage, so to speak, is already in Kelly’s new home of Miami, Ohio, which she mistakes for Miami, Florida during her parka-purging farewell to her former co-workers. The storylines take characters to corners of the office tied to memories of episode’s past: Oscar takes a phone call in the stairwell where Dwight warmed up for his second-season “Performance Review”; there’s a reminder of Jim and Pam’s grilled-cheese-and-citronella “first date” when Pam is summoned to the rooftop-access ladder; Jim and Dwight’s “Get ready for the battle of your life” exchange could’ve launched any number of their prank-based storylines from the first three seasons. In another context, all this could’ve come off as pale imitation. However, as the first passages of The Office’s final chapter written and directed by Greg Daniels, it’s a sweet reminder of what has and hasn’t changed at Dunder Mifflin since the fall of 2005.
David Wallace may be back on speaker phone in the regional manager’s office, but “New Guys” doesn’t hit a reset button on The Office’s Sabre years. In fact, the dulcet tones of Andy Buckley honor the events of “Free Family Portrait Studio,” and Nellie’s still around, so it’s not as if the show is trying to ignore the recent past on its march to a conclusion. And Nellie has a major part to play in Andy’s final redemption, a revenge-fueled plot teased at the end of the episode which, fingers crossed, doesn’t undo the scraps of humanity Nellie picked up in “Turf War.” And while the start of the final season might not be the best time to introduce two new players to an ensemble that grew unwieldy in recent seasons (check out that season-eight DVD cover once more), new additions Clark Duke and Jake Lacy aren’t immediately launched into stories of their own—in “New Guys,” they simply serve as parallels and stimulants to Dwight and Jim. In Clark, Dwight first sees the offspring he didn’t have with Angela, before a break-room conversation makes Dwight start to feel like he’s King Laius and Clark is Oedipus; the ambition-without-direction of Lacy’s Pete, meanwhile, makes Jim rethink an offer from a buddy to join in on a pie-in-the-sky business plan the two cooked up during college that is now coming to fruition.
It’s the promise of an out for Jim and Pam that made me most excited about “New Guys,” which for all its “return to form” markings also bears some distinctively late-period Office attributes—namely Dwight’s cartoonish attempts to best Clark and a few “Michael Scott hangover” moments from Andy. Jim and Pam’s courtship and romance had an exhilarating (and frequently heartbreaking) beginning, a so-so middle, and legitimately affecting climax in “Niagara”; their series-long arc, meanwhile, has been stuck in a similarly middling middle for a couple seasons now. It’s no wonder the attention of the show and the viewers began to drift—a happy marriage promises little in the way of drama or comedy. It also doesn’t help that so many of the characters’ subsequent stories have been those that treat them as an inseparable unit, incapable of carrying any emotional beats or subplots on their own. What this attempt to restore some spice into the fake relationship boasts that none of the Cathy material did last season is the light peeking through the tunnel 21 episodes on from “New Guys.” If the writers are to give momentum to a sector of the show that’s been stagnant for too long, they have a limited amount of time to do so—hopefully they see that as a challenge to extricate Jim and Pam from Scranton in the most entertaining, sustainable-for-multiple-episodes manner possible, rather than rushing the characters into a conversation about quitting Dunder Mifflin, moving to the City of Brotherly Love, and steamrolling through a big decision for a couple whose ability to tug at heartstrings is diminished, but not depleted.
The promise of “New Guys” isn’t that of a do-over, but that of a fresh start. It’s all over the content of the episode—this new business opportunity for Jim, yes, but also Nellie’s second chance and Oscar’s attempt at becoming a cat person (for the benefit of his new guy, Senator Angela’s Husband)—and implied in many aspects of the episode’s production. The low points of season eight don’t require The Office to wipe its slate clean, but it certainly called for a season première like this, where everyone involved finds their footing while the wheels for the rest of the season (or at least the next few episodes) are set in motion. It confirms commitments to The Office without indulging Andy’s favorite “re” word—“recycling,” which is followed closely by “revenge”—making callbacks both major and minor that nonetheless ensure an ending that’s beholden to the middle and beginning that came before. “New Guys” is the first step, at least, away from the ninth season being memorialized in a shoddy cut-and-paste job of every cast member’s head. With Daniels back on board and a season première this enjoyable, that type of sloppiness appears to be draining out of the show’s system.
- Welcome to ninth-season coverage of The Office! I’m proud to join the ranks of A.V. Club writers who’ve covered the show for TV Club—you just might see them popping in to offer their final thoughts on the show in subsequent weeks. I have certain strong opinions about how the show should’ve ended sooner, but I’m excited to see where it goes with Daniels back at the helm. At the very least, I’m eager to have a weekly space with which to talk about a series that was crucial to my development as a TV viewer and critic. It may be a shadow of its former self, but The Office was once something special—here’s hoping this season manages to capture a little of that specialness.