Saturday, May 14, 2011

That's What She Said

Seinfeld is my favorite TV show. If you know me personally or read this blog on even a semi-regular basis, this is far from breaking news. It’s the best. It should be everyone’s favorite show. I find it tough to imagine a scenario during my life in which it won’t be my favorite show. But that doesn’t mean that others haven’t come close.

In no particular order, the remaining 80% of my Top 5 TV Shows are The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Lost and The Office. Interestingly enough, The Office is the lone member of my Top 5 that is still producing new shows. It also happens to be at a major crossroads. The show’s main character, Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell), has left the show as the program winds up its 7th Season. Already slated for (at least) a Season 8, the sitcom has made a commitment to continuing the show in Carell’s absence (who I’ll refer to as Michael Scott the rest of the way). It certainly won’t be easy. The majority of episodes had Michael-centric story lines, or at the very least had him playing a vital role in the plot. The character was so well written and played by such a good comedic actor that it would have been stupid not to feature him so prominently. It’s not a slight to the rest of the cast or the writing team (which are both strong), but rather a testament to the individual character. He found the perfect, comedic balance of ignorance, hilarity, self-confidence, self-loathing, understated sarcasm, outrageous inappropriateness, and genuine sincerity. He mastered the “That’s what she said” joke, making it a pop culture phenomenon. Simply put, he defined the show. It was generally at its best when Michael Scott was at his best. Now he’s gone.

And yet, this doesn’t mean that the show is bound for failure. If that deep, strong supporting cast and writing team is at its best, The Office can still be a consistently funny show. It will probably never have the same ceiling that it had with Michael Scott, but could possibly be a more balanced and eclectic comedy (with “possibly” being the operative word). And in that way, Michael Scott is reminiscent of NBA star Carmelo Anthony. Or more accurately, I suppose, The Office is reminiscent of the Carmelo-less Denver Nuggets.

Anthony is a premier player in the NBA; he’s probably one of the league’s top three or five individual talents, and is often argued as the top “pure” scorer in the game (which basically means that he can put points up like it’s nothing but doesn’t always offer much else). And this past season, he made a lot of news with his trade to the New York Knicks. Carmelo had previously been with the Denver Nuggets since entering the league in 2003, but rumors of him being traded (or requesting one) were rampant before the 2010-11 season even started. About two-thirds of the way through the year, the Nuggets unloaded Melo and a few other veteran players to the Knicks for a host of young, talented role players. At the time of the trade, Melo had led the Nuggets to an impressive record of 32-25 (.561) thanks to his 25 points-per-game-on-19 shots averages, as well as 32.5% usage rate (which means that nearly a third of the team’s plays went through Melo when he was on the floor). Denver was fighting for a top four playoff position at the time, and yet most assumed that a Melo-less squad would simply fall apart.

Legitimate superstars in the NBA are hard to come by, and Melo happens to be one of them. It was sensible to think that the Nuggets would struggle without him, trading an A-list actor away for a few respectable B-and-C-list guys (Wilson Chandler, Ray Felton, Danilo Gallinari). But amazingly, something weird happened. The new-look Nuggets, a team essentially comprised of all role players, were winning in spite of Melo’s absence. In (admittedly) limited action following the big trade, the Nuggets rattled off a very impressive 18-7 (.720) record. Eight players averaged double-figure point totals, but no one averaged more than 15 a night on anything higher than 12 shots. It almost defied reason. A team that traded away its best player (and one of the best players in the league overall) was actually becoming a more successful, impressive, and formidable team. The offense no longer went through one man, but instead relied on team work and equal input from everyone. Each player was counted on to step up, fill his role, and make big plays…but no one had to overstep their bounds. The weight was distributed amongst each shoulder. The loss of one great player resulted in greatness among a group of role players. It was as remarkable as it was unexpected, and yet when you step back and examine the situation as whole, you can see how it would make sense. Winning required increased accountability among everyone, but it was the inherent communal nature of that accountability that made it not only attainable, but somewhat logical.

This is where The Office becomes analogous. Just as the Nuggets lost Melo, the show is losing its all-star team leader in Michael Scott. If it were at all possible to actually calculate, the stats would probably show that Michael had a 65-70% usage rate on the show, and maybe even higher than that. Everything revolved around Michael Scott, because he was the only character that could handle carrying that burden. Jim, Pam, Dwight, Darryl, and Andy are all talented role players, and can even be counted on to carry an episode or two if necessary. But an entire show? A season’s worth of plot? Not possible on an individual character basis. It’s a gift that only the Michael Scott’s and Carmelo Anthony’s of the world posses…unless that supporting cast collectively comes together, just like the Denver Nuggets.

The similarities between the team and show are actually rather startling. I could even go into a 5,000-word discussion, comparing Jim and Ty Lawson, Dwight and J.R. Smith, Andy and Dano Gallinari, Pam and Ray Felton, Darryl and Nene, or even Toby and Chris Anderson. Fortunately for you, I won’t do that (unless you want me to, because I totally could). But the point remains: it hurts losing Michael Scott – he is the epitome of irreplaceable. But if each of the supporting characters – the role players – can step up, accentuate their strong points and cohesively fill the void, the show could easily survive. In some ways, it might even (dare I say) be better.

Don’t get me wrong, post-Scott Office will never reach the peak of Scott-centric Office. For what it’s worth, I think the show is the best network (and possibly overall) sitcom since Seinfeld ended in 1998; its  run from Seasons 2 through 5 should be put on a comedic pedestal, capable of measuring up to any situational comedy to ever grace our television sets. It was incredible. And no matter how much the remaining characters and writers on The Office step-up, the show can never reach the zenith that it achieved with Michael Scott at the wheel. For so long, it was the character’s gift; now it’s quite the opposite.

Again, evidence can be found in the Denver Nuggets. After finishing on an extraordinary late-season tear (minus Carmelo), the squad entered the playoffs as the 5th seed, losing in five games to the 4th seeded Oklahoma City Thunder. As well as the team had played to close the regular season, any post-season accomplishments were practically unattainable without a top-tier player and clutch shot-maker like Carmelo. With Melo, Denver had a shot to beat the Thunder. Without him, the team had no chance. The Nuggets could improve and thrive in certain areas without their star, but the notion of reaching any previously unattainable heights was never really a possibility. And The Office now faces a nearly identical situation.

The show’s greatness during the Michael Scott Era was actually far beyond any comparable greatness that the Nuggets achieved during the Carmelo Anthony Era. Nevertheless, the fact remains that just as the Denver Nuggets and its cast of resilient role players could flourish and bloom without Melo, the remaining cast of The Office could do the same. Enduring as a consistently successful sitcom is not impossible, and it would be unfair to write off the possibility before even giving the show a chance. All the same, it won’t be an easy thing to accomplish either. Michael Scott will be missed.  The show could just as easily falter under this new pressure without him. And moving forward, things will be really, really hard.

That’s what she said.

Thanks for reading

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