You can’t say we weren’t warned.
When I took this assignment a year ago, I knew that this day was coming. Even then, before the seventh season of The Office had even started, I knew I’d be sitting here talking about the first episode of the first season without Steve Carell and Michael Scott. It was the black cloud that hung over much of the seventh season, the question mark that the writers and producers turned into a guessing game either because they thought it would be more compelling (it wasn’t) or because they truly had no idea what they were going to do (which seems most likely).
Now that this moment is actually here, though, the time for guesswork is over. The mystery of the new boss has been settled (with Ed Helms' Andrew Bernard providing his own drumroll in the cold open), the introduction of James Spader’s Robert California as the new CEO has begun, and all that’s left is to answer the all-important question: Is The Office still The Office, and what does that even mean in the post-Michael Scott era (or, for that matter, what did it even mean in light of the show’s precipitous decline starting in the sixth season)?
While I don't think we should reserve judgment entirely, we should acknowledge that the show is trapped in a difficult position, one where it must rely heavily on the audience’s familiarity with these characters while simultaneously distancing itself from the character that was at the very heart of this situation. Whatever our opinions of “The List” might be, and you’ve likely discerned my opinion from the letter grade already, Paul Lieberstein and the writing staff face a substantial challenge, and I do think that making snap judgments about the show would be ill advised given the amount of transition necessary.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, just listen to the show itself! Eschewing subtlety, writer-director B.J. Novak has built an episode that functions as a walking caveat, a thesis statement for the transitional season to come. When Robert California steps out of the conference room to address the office regarding the eponymous list, which so cruelly divided the office into “winners” and “losers” based on his first impressions, he provides a caveat of his own. He may have these opinions, “but I just met you all. Life is long, opinions change. Winners, prove me right; losers, prove me wrong.” If “The List” has a moral, it’s that everyone has first impressions but everyone should also be willing to change them, a point the writers are trying to get across to viewers who have been itching to make snap judgments since Carell announced his departure.
The episode’s other moral is in Andy’s “victory” at episode’s end where he earns everyone a half-day on the Friday before Columbus Day, a perk that they had technically already earned. It is as if to suggest that the season’s narrative will be the attempt to maintain the status quo, with Andy (and thus the writers) working to stay afloat despite his bumbling nature (and despite their inability to string together a decent story arc unrelated to Michael’s departure since the fifth season).
There’s a subtlety to all of this that I enjoyed once it managed to escape the clutches of some broad comedy pervasive in the rest of the episode. I quite like the idea of Andy trying to keep things from unraveling, struggling to balance the increased responsibilities with his general insecurity. Similarly, I like the idea of Robert California as someone who takes a hands-on approach, makes early judgments, but is rational enough to keep an open mind. While California was a bizarre - and funny - caricature back in last season’s finale, Spader has been given a more subdued version of the character this time around, and showed some nice shades both during the lunch and upon his return to the office. The character is still funny, but in a way that isn't quite as disarming, and I thought he was esoteric enough to get laughs but not so esoteric as to seem unstable. At the end of the day, I think the idea of Andy as boss and Robert California as CEO are both functional changes that have the potential to increase the longevity of this program beyond Steve Carell’s exit.
However, where my problems with the episode start to creep in is when we move away from the writing logic and consider the show’s logic. “The List” doesn’t waste any time building up to its situation, using some talking head exposition to establish that Robert California was chosen as manager, wanted nothing to do with the job, and then magically tricked Jo into allowing him to replace her before eventually hiring Andy to fill the opening. It’s an incredibly quick turnaround, which means that we never learn why California was chosen, why California would want the CEO position, or why he chose Andy to do the job. Although the mystery is meant to play up California’s mystique, it also means the show doesn’t get to pretend that any of these decisions were driven exclusively by narrative concerns; this was a business decision as much as a creative one, especially in terms of hiring Spader (and letting Kathy Bates stop playing double duty with Harry's Law), and its integration into the show itself proved to be a point of contention.
It’s not something I’m going to linger on every week, as it’s clear the show doesn’t consider this a necessary piece of information, but why exactly is California working out of Scranton, Pennsylvania every other day other than to justify James Spader’s presence on a weekly basis? Why is he taking such an interest in the branch he ran away from as soon as he stepped foot in the place when he was hired as manager? Is this branch the most successful, or the most sentimental, or the most vulnerable after Michael’s exit? I understand that the show was trying to keep California a bit of a mystery, excluding him from the “talking head” device entirely so as to mirror the employees’ inability to interpret his behavior within the audience, but that only contributed to the bleed-through of “James Spader replacing Steve Carell” into the rest of the show.
The rest of the show, for the record, was about on par with what the show was delivering last season. A number of elements were too broad, like Dwight smashing Meredith and Kelly’s heads together as he sets up a battle royale between the two sides of the list or Dwight more or less killing Meredith as she planks on top of a bathroom stall, but other broader elements like Pam’s overly emotional state were played as nice bits of color. There was also a clear effort to spice things up among the employees, with Angela joining Pam in pregnancy — with the State Senator, we presume, although she left out the State since Oscar wasn’t there to correct her — and Stanley taking on a new catchphrase. In a short half-hour premiere there’s not much time to really flesh out every character (which comes at the expense of someone like Gabe, whose opinion on the whole Jo/California situation was noticeably absent), but the character moments we did get suggest a conscious effort to showcase elements of the supporting cast in Carell’s absence. It’s also helpful that the show still has opportunities to play California off of particular characters: Erin was maybe the first example, but there’s still plenty of potential there, and I’m curious to see those interactions.
Yes, curious is probably the right word for it. I’ve been curious about what the show would do in this position for over a year, and “The List” has not changed this for better or for worse. In truth, I’ve never been close to writing off the show: Even if I don’t like the direction they take, the uniqueness of this situation will keep me invested in the show’s future, and I think charting the writers’ efforts to overcome this challenge is far more interesting than another season of the same old Office. After watching the premiere, I maintain this position, and look forward to continuing to cover the show as the season unfolds and we get more insight into Andy’s new position and Sabre’s new CEO.
However, I will say this: The biggest problem with “The List,” and the one thing about it that makes me truly skeptical about the season to come, is that there seems to be very little effort to embrace “change.” I understand that they don’t want to talk about change given a skittish audience that has already been shrinking with each passing season (even if it remains NBC’s highest-rated program in key demos by a wide margin), but this kind of change — if played correctly — has the potential to be a breath of fresh air instead of a last gasp for relevancy. This was a typical episode of The Office in terms of its narrative, and in terms of repeat plots like planking (replacing the lip dub from last season’s opener) and pregnancies, and I’d even argue that Andy’s big moment in the episode (rewriting California’s list) was not very far removed from how Michael Scott would have resolved that situation. Swap out Andy’s hatred of Gabe for Michael’s hatred of Toby, and you have two flawed but ultimately decent bosses whose true appreciation for their employees wins out over their crippling insecurities and tendency to flail uncontrollably in stressful situations.
For now, there is value to the familiar. It will be helpful in the transition, and it made watching “The List” feel less awkward than it might have otherwise. However, I only hope that in future episodes they’re willing to let the show feel a bit awkward, and that they're willing to move past the formula to explore how these fairly substantial changes could actually make this a better show instead of just facilitating the same uneven Office that has been airing for the past two seasons. It remains possible that they’re building to that point, waiting until they’ve alleviated any concerns over the show entirely falling apart (which I’d argue they avoided), but there were moments in this one that read as a fairly blatant attempt at maintaining the status quo.
And if that’s how The Office intends on defining itself in the post-Michael Scott era, my curiosity is going to transform into boredom before the season is done.
- New credits! Pro: Andy adjusting the figurine only to have it fall off his desk. Con: B.J. Novak is still there. Yes, I am going to keep complaining about this until someone manages to convince me that it still makes sense for him to be elevated above the rest of the cast (for reasons outside of writing, for which he is clearly credited separately).
- Only a brief mention of Michael Scott, as Pam jokes that there’s a “Baby Michael Scott” inside of her (as she and Jim are having a boy). I’d argue that it veered a bit too close to the Harry Potter epilogue, almost feeling a bit like fan fiction, but at least they played it off as a joke. If they actually name the baby Michael Scott Halpert, I’m going to hurl.
- It’s incredibly silly, but I love the idea of Stanley just fucking with people in the form of a catchphrase. While the planking-related physical comedy felt way too unrealistic, with Meredith seriously probably dying from that fall in the bathroom, Kevin getting dropped got a good chuckle and it made for a fun runner (that I hope they bring back throughout the season, although sparingly to keep it from getting old).
- Erin’s little attempt to psyche herself up when she discovers that California has chosen her for small talk was delightful. In fact, Ellie Kemper got a lot of fun Erin material tonight, as it nicely stayed within the realm of basic human intelligence: she didn’t have a pen, which a receptionist should, but at least she knew what a pen was! Similarly, she may not fully understand what planking is, but she at least understands that it’s a cultural trend and not some sort of voodoo ritual. Baby steps!
- Enjoyed Toby feeling uncomfortable being in the “winners” group: it was a more subtle nod back to Michael, who likely gave Toby quite a serious inferiority complex.
- Got a good chuckle out of Creed being listed as “Old Man.”
- Have we seen Dwight’s enormous book of lists before? The characters treated it like a callback, but I have no recall; I’d be curious what the “Who would eat who in an Alive situation” list looked like.
- “Planking is one of those things where, hey, you either get it or you don’t….and I don’t, but I am so excited to be a part of it.”
- “Isn’t it amazing the difference in our sizes?”
- “This soda…this is mine.”
- “Shove it up your butt!”
- “It’s stupid, but it’s my thing now.”
- “Don’t know, super care.”
- “Number three, time permitting: we lost our biggest client.” [They never went back to that, did they? Next week, perhaps?]
- “Kind of a medium year for women’s soccer, no?”
- “Funny how the houses are always colonials, and the penises are always circumcised, don’t you think?”
- “Maybe we’re supposed to do it with the people in our group?”
- “The complete self-absorption of Elmo is brilliantly reflective of our time.”
- “Apt. Apt analysis, Robert.”
- “Chins up, okay?”
- “I’m not going to change my list, Andy, and I don’t use ballpoint pens.”
- In case you don’t watch commercials, here’s the Travelers insurance commercial Pam was watching (and crying about) in both the episode proper and in the coda (where Jenna Fischer got to play Pam’s uncertain emotional state at its most broad, which fit nicely within the isolated scene).