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TV 101: Can 'The Office' Perform a Televisual Magic Trick?

by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Apr 22nd 2011 4:00PM
'The Office' - 'Training Day'
'The Office' is treading on treacherous ground, whether they realize it or not, as they plan to move forward with the series even after Steve Carell's departure. The litany of shows that have attempted such a coup in the past is a diverse one, with wildly varying results, but that's not to say that it can't be done. It can.

The better question is: Should it be done? For the sake of the show itself, its legacy, and our ability to watch it without saying "do these people think that I'll just watch anything simply because it's on television?" They're right, of course, but I'm not proud of it.

The case of 'The Office' may be moot, for the basic reason that it probably should have ended about three or four seasons ago, making anything it has done since into the cold lumpy gravy smothering what were once some steaming creamy mashed potatoes with chives.

For me, it was the 'Beach Games' episode near the end of season three that tolled the bell for the show's imminent creative demise, only to be reconfirmed by the 'Survivorman' episode the following season. As Michael got more and more outrageous, and his incompetence/ignorance less and less believable within the framework that the show -- and its British predecessor -- allowed, we started watching the show more out of habit than desire. I have the same relationship with cheeseburgers and porn, and neither is all that healthy.

It's all of this that makes the decision to continue the show such a baffling decision to me. If another, more organic opportunity to end a great show has come around before, please make me aware of it. One of the most iconic characters in the history of television is calling it quits. It's not like Creed is leaving to open a coffee shop that also sells ammunition (although, that would make a spectacular spin-off). The character through which all the other characters relate and function will be gone.

You could cite Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) for Diane (Shelley Long) on 'Cheers,' but I think we could all agree that Michael Scott is more integral to the fabric of his show than Diane was to hers. But the 'Cheers' example brings the question of what it takes to make a successful jump to a new principal character: the performer or the writers?

Kirstie Alley is, by most estimations, a decent Hollywood talent ('Fat Actress' proved this as much as anything), and the same goes for Shelley Long (we've all seen 'The Money Pit'), but it was the writing and the strength of the ensemble characters that made for such a seamless and successful transition. They could have gotten a talking dog to replace Diane and the show would have soared. They basically did just that earlier in the series, replacing Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) with the puppy-like Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson).

The same cannot be said for 'The Office.' I think the writing for the show has steadily declined as Michael and Dwight developed more and more into caricatures of themselves as the show trudged on past its point of real relevance, relying more on over the top antics and "that's what she said" jokes than anything of substance. If this is the case, the show's future success will reside squarely on the replacement's shoulders.

As names began to circulate (Rhys Darby, Harvey Keitel, Danny McBride, Ricky Gervais, Jim Carrey) I was so angry that the show was even considering going forward that I immediately went to the cynical point of view that it couldn't be done, no matter who they dusted off to make a weekly ass of himself. Even Ricky Gervais as the blissfully hapless David Brent couldn't step in and make it work.

It was then, at the pinnacle of frustration and disappointment when I let my guard down and just accepted my fate and resigned myself to watching a sitcom go through the motions for a few more years before bringing Carell back in a cameo role as the series limped toward the finish line... that Will Ferrell changed everything.

Of course! Will Ferrell. Not only does it make perfect sense, it might actually work and be the catalyst that takes a show resting on its laurels and fills it with a renewed sense of humor and energy. If, as mentioned before, the writing is the problem, Ferrell has the improvisational and comedic skill to account for any of those deficiencies.

In many replacement scenarios, networks look for a true replacement, someone to play the exact same role they're stepping into, bringing nothing new to the table: think 'Three's Company' among many others. The most successful transitions seem to come from new characters making the role their own, a departure from the established personality, adding depth and nuance: and after his first appearance, Ferrell might fall into the latter category.

While it is pretty clear that Ferrell will not remain on as Michael's permanent replacement, for the time being my desire to watch the show is rejuvenated... if only because people might finally shut-up about Charlie Sheen taking the job. I think my excitement over Ferrell stems from the myriad of possibilities being conjured in my head, and hopefully his.

Obviously, the character will have to maintain a certain level of lunacy, but the levels to which Ferrell can explore that lunacy within the established dynamics that 'The Office' provides, are virtually limitless. With the other names that were floating around, you kind of knew what you would be getting. Ferrell, new to episodic television (outside of cameos and 'The Oblongs') and the trappings of the sitcom genre, brings a "manifest destiny" element to the show with his sterling comedy resume and his improvisational chops.

His first appearance on the show highlighted the ways in which DeAngelo Vickers (Ferrell) was going to deviate from Michael Scott, and how the rest of the cast was going to engage these differences. They are both simpletons with an eye for hackneyed comedy, but I think that's where the similarities end, and the prospect of a show successfully re-inventing itself, begins.

"Re-inventing" is sort of a deceptive term as we usually interpret it as a positive, when in many cases, re-inventions have gotten ugly. Have you tried Pizza Supreme Doritos? By teasing us with the ultimate replacement (Ferrell), 'The Office' may be setting us up for the re-invention of the worst kind: the one that doesn't just leave a bad taste in your mouth, it leaves you feeling dirty with the grime of a once great television show gone horribly wrong - and all the Axe Body Wash in the world can't get that stank off.

Dr. Vaughan teaches English/Media/Humor courses at Binghamton UNiversity in upstate New York, and he's your best nightmare. You can also check out his blog and find him on Facebook.

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LOL at people accusing Dr. Vaughan of having a "bias" like it's a bad thing.

Oh no! Opinions! What will we do!?

April 23 2011 at 10:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I understand anyone's maintained devotion to The Office--even his insistence that recent seasons remain equal in quality to the earliest ones, or the perspective, as one poster pointed out, that these latest seasons have offered a new 'growth' to Michael as a character. All valid. I still watch every week, and often enjoy.

But The Office now is not the same show as when it started out. The author of this article recognizes The Office, in its true form, as what it was originally: a satirical illustration of something real. That is what he is saying died at "Beach Games," because that episode, while funny, was not based in anything real. Neither has the feel of the show been since then (exceptional episodes do exist, I'm sure there are plenty that one can name, but the show itself is no longer bound to the realism to which it had been in the early days).
Michael and Dwight are no longer the primary and secondary obstacles, respectively, for a cast of suffering humans. They are now the two most inflated of a cast of cartoon characters, with the gap always thinning. I won't entirely knock this formula: it's fun. But it's not what The Office set out to do. And that, I think, is what the author of this article is trying to express in part.
I won't tackle the replacement of Michael, as I think he said all that needed to be said on that matter. Just wanted to give my two cents on what I think he means about the show itself for those who might have taken issue with it.
Of course, this is just my opinion, and I hope I did no disservice to the point the author was genuinely trying to make. I have no way of knowing for sure. I just really like TV.
-Toby Arbuckle

April 23 2011 at 2:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jim Halpert

why is this article bias? its merely a matter of opinion, which clearly you all like to entitle yourselves to. Based on your inablility to recognize an opposing opinion to your own and analyze it shows your lack of intelligence and thus is why you are infact the biased one with your blind love of the office. i still watch the show, i still like the show, but it is very obvious it has fallen off significantly in the more recent seasons. is it still funny? yes. is it still brilliant? not at all. so it is not surprising that the people that are too stupid to understand an opinion piece are the same people that are too stupid to recognize that there beloved office is not as good as it once was, just because your mind is dull enough to be consistently entertained by cheap laughs doesnt mean the show has maintained its previous stature

April 23 2011 at 2:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Larry The Cable Guy

Will Ferrell's role is making me think that there may be some chance of them actually pulling this off. Hopefully whoever they choose as the actual replacement has what it takes to continue making episodes seem fresh and interesting. That can maybe give the show 2-3 more strong seasons and then they can wrap things before history repeats itself. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Oh and the guy who wrote this is pretty hot.



April 23 2011 at 12:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike G

Michael is a caricature of himself? See, if you'd actually been watching the show, Dr. Ryan, you'd see that Michael has had moments of maturity and introspection that we never saw from him even in the alleged golden years of the show. That's what's making this season work so well. In reality, you're watching the version of the show you've created in your head, choosing to ignore everything that doesn't fit your characterization of it.

The first "that's what she said" joke, by the way, was in Season 2.

April 23 2011 at 12:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is a terrible article. I miss the old TV Squad.

April 22 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ba Ba Bauf

This is one of the most ridiculous stories on TV Squad in a very long time. To say that the show should have ended five years ago is absurd, as we have been given many, many classic episodes since then (The Dinner Party, Michael meeting Holly, the Michael Scott Paper Company, Niagra Falls, etc.), so to say that the show peaked at the end of season 3 is just dumb. Have there been some less-than-stellar episodes along the way? Sure, but so what? There's not one successful show in television history that didn't air a weak episode every now and then.

The real issue, it seems, is that this particular reviewer has a bias against the show (or, more likely, just likes "Parks and Rec" so much that he's using it as a comparrison when no comparrison is needed). Since this reviewer is clearly in the miority in terms of his opinion, and he's writing an editorial, it might be more palatable if he speaks in "I" statements as opposed to "We" statements, since, most definitely, he does not speak for all or even most of us.

April 22 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

no will farrell hes niece and quiet know. but he will start acting crazy. just let the show die.

April 22 2011 at 5:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

With this bias you have for the Office, why do you feel you would write a fair review of the show? Some episodes are better than others. This show has done many unexpected twists in storylines. Instead of predicting doom for the show why don't you stop watching and start reviewing shows that interest you.

April 22 2011 at 5:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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