TV 101: Can 'The Office' Perform a Televisual Magic Trick?
by Dr. Ryan Vaughan, PhD (no, seriously), posted Apr 22nd 2011 4:00PM
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.