A Grand “Office” Party Amid an Uncertain Future

The cameo-filled season finale offered some great moments. But where does the show go from here?

James Spader, playing a creepily overconfident job candidate determined to run the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Sabre, sardonically summed up the new dynamic of “The Office” during Thursday’s season finale: “People seem like they’re in prison, waiting out life sentences in a dying industry.”

The cynical line showed “The Office” at its best: a cuttingly accurate yet comic depiction of an often soul-deadening workplace, in an era when most of us aren't in a position to quit our jobs.

With departure of office manager Michael Scott, the employees of Dunder Mifflin Sabre have been plunged into deeper uncertainty – a limbo-like feeling of insecurity and dread thickened by the pathetic parade of would-be bosses who packed "The Office" during the special, hour-long episode.

Of course, this being television, the prospective office managers were played by big stars, who provided some hilarious and memorable moments.

Ray Romano’s fatalistic sad sack munched on a sandwich during his interview (“If I take [the job] I’m never going to quit. Then 25 years go by…I’m going to die here”). Will Arnett’s blowhard character, echoing Richard Nixon’s secret plan to get out of Vietnam, refused to divulge his strategy for saving the paper company. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett portrayed a candidate who haggled over pennies. Jim Carrey showed up as a mealy-mouthed wimp obsessed with going on vacation. Catherine Tate’s wannabe manager schizophrenically teetered between expousing a Zen management philosophy and unhinged ruthlessness.

Then there was Ricky Gervais, co-creator of the brilliant original UK version of “The Office,” who resurrected his grating David Brent character – via a Skype interview: “Hey, you’re looking for a new boss, yeah? Someone to tell a bunch of discontented, under-encouraged drones what to do everyday, is that it?”

The quality of the performances – and the obvious lack of quality of the candidates – highlighted not only the plight of the office drones we've grown close to, but the challenges facing the producers to keep the creative level at the heights we’ve come to expect.

Thanks to top-notch writing and Steve Carell's nuanced performance, his annoying Michael Scott transformed over seven seasons from the devil-you-know-is-better-than-the-devil-you-don't kind of boss into a flawed, but oddly affection-inspiring character. Or, as Jim Halpert put it in what passed for the most serious and emotional moment of Carell/Scott's bittersweet final episode last month: “What a great boss you turned out to be. Best boss I ever had.”

Carell, as underscored by the stars who paid homage to him with their cameos Thursday, is not replaceable. But we’re hopeful for the show’s future, given the recent strong run of darkly comic episodes, which included the respective self-destructions of Will Ferrell's D'Angelo Vickers and Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute.

Still, it's going to take more than stunt casting – and the ongoing speculation over who will be the new boss – to keep the show going in the long run.

Like the real-life workplace Dunder Mifflin Sabre reflects, constant reinvention, innovation – and a good sense of humor – are required to keep "The Office" open, if not for a life sentence, then for a few more good seasons to come.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter. 

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