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Critic's notebook: 'The Office' is still in business

September 24, 2011 |  8:01 am

James spader rainn wilson the office

In this mad week that has seen Charlie Sheen praised and applauded as a comic genius and excessive Internet hatred of that nice boy Ashton Kutcher (a recent Kutcher tweet: "I'm going to hand the next 24 hrs a serious dose of happiness, and if it fights back I'm going to become happier. so take that!"), let us spare a few words for "The Office," that other big broadcast network show soldiering on minus a former central character. The first episode of its first season without Steve Carell as manager Michael Scott aired Thursday night on NBC with Ed Helms' Andy Bernard moving into Michael's old office and James Spader (a successful cameo on last season's last episode) becoming the boss of them all.

I can see why, if Charlie Sheen was the world to you, you might be done now with "Two and a Half Men," though I can't see why Charlie Sheen would be the world to you. I liked Kutcher's "Men" debut, in fact, but he is a whole other flavor of ice cream. And, meaning no disrespect to Jon Cryer, Holland Taylor or young Angus T. Jones, I can certainly understand how the sum of their parts, and the writing that defines them, might not be enough to hold you in that place. But the regular cast of "Two and a Half Men" was hardly larger than what the title numbered; "The Office," by contrast is an Altman-sized ensemble piece with many streams to follow and corners to explore. Michael Scott took up a lot of room, but you might as easily have tuned in specifically for the strangeness of Dwight Schrute or the ordinary romance of Jim and Pam, or just to watch Mindy Kaling or Ellie Kemper work week after week.

Having been a great fan of Ricky Gervais' British original, I was, at first, less a fan of the American model, which repeated its documentary form but not its emotional naturalism. Michael seemed too much from the Book of Ted Baxter to me, a clueless boob whose keeping of his job defied logic. Later, I got in the habit of watching "The Office" alongside "30 Rock" and developed a real affection for it -- affection seems just the right term -- its riffs and its rhythms.

The eighth season opener, written and directed by B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan -- making for a bit of a Ryan-light episode -- began with a rash of planking. (It's real, that planking; you can look it up.) Pam is pregnant again (as Jenna Fischer clearly is), alongside Angela Kinsey's Angela: "I'm having a child with my husband, the senator, and Pam is having a child with Jim. The great salesman.") And Andy is the new manager -- a bit of a surprise, possibly, but Helms' extracurricular credit from "The Hangover" and "Cedar Rapids" make the promotion feel right; and as a character, Andy is in many ways just a sweeter, shyer, less delusional version of Michael. Carell could have played Thursday's script with few tweaks required.

Spader had been introduced as one of several applicants for Michael's job at the end of last season; this week, we learned that, over summer break, he has become the chief executive of their parent company. "He talked her out of her own job," says John Krasinski's Jim, referring to Kathy Bates' Jo Bennett, "and I don't know how someone does that." Spader has grown broader and grayer and more oracular lately, as if he's morphing into his old "Boston Legal" buddy William Shatner. Though his Robert California has an amorphous, unsettling quality familiar from other Spader roles, he's something new around Dunder Mifflin: a figure of extreme competence, self-possession and powers of persuasion, he comes off as a kind of cross of a Buddhist monk, a secret agent, an Ivy League intellectual and a lizard.

"The complete self-absorption of Elmo is completely reflective of our time," he says of the "Sesame Street" character at a lunch to which he has invited only half the office (the half, it transpires, that he considers the "winners," driving the other half mad). "Ours is a cultural ghetto, wouldn't you agree?"

Why he is in Scranton at all, working out of the conference room, is a question they still may be debating in the writers' room, but the character is meant to be inscrutable and gnomic and the particular reality of "The Office" doesn't demand sensible motivations, either, just consistency of character. Perhaps he's just a con man. ("Robert California" -- sounds like an alias.) But he'll change the temperature of the room, at least, and force new reactions from the old team.

Beyond sympathizing with the practical needs of the people whose living it represents, I've never felt that any particular series, even ones I've loved, must continue. There were only 14 episodes of the U.K. "Office," including two Christmas specials, but they were perfect and enough. There have been more than 10 times that many episodes of the American "Office," and had they ended with Carell's departure (cleverly taken a couple of weeks early, to get us used to the coming new world), I would have written my eulogy and moved on.

Yet I'm also glad to see it sticking around. What began, in part, as a piece about the airlessness of office life has become, as people who played people who had worked together for years became people who had worked together for years, a celebration of community, and an actual community -- and in that regard the model for NBC Thursday night-mates "Parks and Recreation" and, yes, "Community" -- and of continuity. And continuity wants to, you know, continue. Besides that, the show is still funny.


James Spader joins 'The Office'

Critic's Notebook:  A fond farewell to Steve Carell

Steve Carell's final 'Office' episode: Which cast members cried?

-- Robert Lloyd

Photo: Rainn Wilson, left, James Spader and Brian Baumgartner. Credit: Chris Haston / NBC