Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Walking Papers

As I was growing up, my father coached high school basketball. His least favorite day every year was cut-down day, as he would inevitably have to break the news to a handful of well-intentioned young men that there was no room for them on the team. Now if you know my father, you’re probably considering the fact that any remorse or empathy he felt in these moments was at the very least matched by his overall disdain for any personal or emotional interaction with people in general, but I can assure you that it was honestly more of the former – despite how true the latter might be.

In the meetings and practices leading up to cut-down day, my father would always make a point to say something to the effect of, “A wise man knows his limits” or “There’s no shame in knowing when to walk away.” Naturally, my dad can’t remember the exact phrasing of this annual ritual (although neither can I, for whatever that’s worth), but the sentiment around it always stuck with me. Yes, he was obviously trying to make his job a little easier by subtly encouraging those on the bubble to recognize their shortcomings on their own and step aside without him having to mediate the situation, but it spoke to something greater than that – beyond high school, beyond basketball, beyond sports. It suggested how important self-evaluation can be, and the heights one can reach and maintain in life by recognizing where they excel and where they struggle – knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, as Kenny Rogers would say. It was as if he was reinforcing the idea that there is honor in failures and tribulations, as long as a person can recognize those things for themselves and grow from them. Maybe you had to try just that much harder; maybe you had to move on to something that better-suited you. In either event, you weren’t failing if what you took from the situation made you better in some way. I’m not sure if my dad realized this or if others felt the same way I did, but I always found that phrase – that moment – to be quite profound. Obviously not profound enough to remember exactly what was said, but whatever…

And yet, self-evaluation is difficult, which is why there are far too few people or institutions that recognize the right time to walk away. The Office is one of those.

A year ago at this time, I wrote a post pontificating on the potential future of the NBC television show, which had always been one of my favorite programs. The show had just wrapped its 7th season, the final one for main character Michael Scott, portrayed by the great Steve Carell. In that piece, I put forth a (now clearly off-base) theory about how the show could potentially thrive even in Carell’s absence, with the supporting cast and second bananas stepping up and seizing the moment in a collective effort of success and greatness. I by no means assumed it would be easy or quick or as decorated as the Michael Scott-era, but I believed it was possible. I assure you, my lies that day were made in ignorance, not malice.

The Office just wrapped a 22-episode 8th season that was wretchedly painful to sit through. This isn’t an indictment on the writers or actors or show-runners specifically, but ultimately a reflection of two things: a) the show sticking around long enough to exhaust any semi-plausible/enjoyable/entertaining plot lines for the characters to be involved with, and b) the chops of Steve Carell enabling the show to be funny for that long to begin with.

Eight seasons is a long time for a sitcom to last, especially a network sitcom in today’s TV landscape. The select few others that have lasted that many seasons/episodes (and beyond) have either been really good, had really strong ratings, been off the air for a few years now, or some combination of all of those. For a fledgling paper supply company to extract eight years of storylines (with somewhere between six and seven seasons worth of episodes being great/entertaining) is quite impressive. Plus, you can really only pin major plots on about five of the regular characters on a consistent basis. And when the most reliable of those characters – the straw that stirs the drink – is gone, it’s only going to make things that much tougher.

The foremost plight of this season has been the transition of Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) from salesman to Michael Scott’s vacated manager position. If the show was going to continue after last year (which it was committed to doing), someone was going to have to step up. And as disastrous as the Nard-Dog’s promotion has been, it was actually the best decision that could have been made at the time. The fault was simply that no one was going to successfully fill that void. It was a suicide mission, like dating Ryan Gosling’s ex-girlfriend.

Unless the show was going to bring in an outside name (the James Spader experiment was their only true flirtation with this), the legitimate candidates for the new “lead role” were essentially limited to Andy, Jim, Dwight, Daryl and Pam (in terms of character and actor). Based on the success of the respective actors playing these characters, Andy Bernard/Ed Helms was the best choice, someone that had a very successful mainstream and critical résumé (Daily Show; The Hangover; Cedar Rapids; Jeff, Who Lives at Home). What failed was the show’s structure. Based on the setup, the manager is always going to be integral to the story line (preventing them from putting a nobody in the position and going with an ensemble show). And while Helms was the best acting choice of the established candidates, Andy was a poor character choice. The Nard-Dog was a reformed rage-aholic turned emotional fancy boy/borderline incompetent salesman – which was often hilarious in that capacity. But it’s simply not believable or sensible (or advantageous) that his character would be propelled to this new position, especially when guys like Jim and Dwight and others have more credentials and seniority. For all the shortcomings Michael Scott possessed as Regional Manager, he at least had a stellar sales record to fall back on (which was often alluded to) and plenty of moments where he showed his worth and aptitude for a managerial position. Yet even on top of all of that, the show was starting to get that running-on-fumes feel, even towards the end of Michael Scott’s time at the helm; Steve Carell was simply able to compensate for this. Who knows how much longer that would have lasted even if he’d stayed? Maybe in the end, it was only Carell that realized where things might be heading.

What’s most disappointing is how far the show has fallen. As a long-time fan of The Office, I would have been hesitant to have it culminate with Carell’s departure at the end of last season, but I’d much prefer that route to what I’ve seen now. I was weary that it could head in this direction, and it’s too bad that those involved couldn’t sense this as well. One of my favorite shows of all time now has a noticeable stain, and yet it looks as if we are still headed for another season, presumably on this same, uneven path. As unfortunate as it would have been to have the show come to a close, it would have at least prevented my memories and appreciation from being tarnished. It would have recognized its own limits and acknowledged its own shortcomings. There’s no shame in that. Especially with the greatness that preceded it for so long.

I’ll undoubtedly look back on so much of The Office quite fondly. I also won’t forget the pit it ultimately fell in to. The natural consequence to not knowing when to walk away is always the inevitable disappointment that follows.  It’s a record that will forever be undefeated, a fate met by far too many and avoided by far too few.

Or something like that.



Thanks for reading

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