‘The Office’ – ‘The List’: Winners and losers

“The Office” is back, with James Spader as the new CEO and a new branch manager, and I have a review of the season premiere coming up just as soon as I agree with your analysis of Elmo…

I was very happy when “The Office” producers chose Spader as the new boss, as he made by far the strongest, funniest impression in last season’s finale. But it was unclear whether the sheer insanity that made his job interview so funny would be sustainable as an ongoing character. If “The List” is any indication, Paul Lieberstein and company have decided to tone him down a bit from the charismatic lunatic he was in “Job Search,” and while that may be a wise decision for however many years the show has left(*), it definitely made Robert California a much less funny character.

(*) And I’ll head off the usual “NBC should just cancel this show without Carell” rhetoric by once again reminding you that it’s the only NBC comedy that is a genuine, standalone hit, and a network that is buried deep in fourth place cannot afford to cancel hits. Period. I’d wager the show’s got, at minimum, one more season after this one, and we’ll see about the rest depending on how the numbers hold up.

And I think even the eccentric, inscrutable but not ridiculous version of California can work as an engine for comedy in seeing how people react to him, but it didn’t work out incredibly well here. Where “The List” was funny was mostly on the edges(**) – the montage of Dwight dealing with the planking menace, Pam crying at the dog video – while the story of Robert’s list wasn’t particularly amusing.

(**) Though not all those marginal gags worked. Stanley Hudson would never, ever, be interested in coming up with his own catchphrase and/or running gag. He wants to clock in and clock out with a minimum of hassle and interaction with his co-workers, and the show has managed to make that funny for a very long time. He is not the “and shove it up your butt!” guy.

Part of the problem may be the choice of Andy as the new branch manager. I like Ed Helms, and I understand that “The Hangover” movies have made him the biggest star in the returning cast, but the Nard Dog has always had a little too much Michael Scott in him with his pathological need to be liked, even if that manifests itself in different ways. I really liked the way John Krasinski played off of Spader in the finale and would have liked to see Jim be the one who has to directly deal with the strange new boss (even this milder version of him), and I think that could have felt fresh.

But this story fell a little flat, at least up until Andy went in to confront Robert and stand up for the losers. It wasn’t a funny scene, but it was sweet and felt genuine, in the way that made the show’s early days feel special even if Michael was acting way too over-the-top that week. Similarly, Pam’s reaction to Jim’s own version of the list was a really nice moment for those two.

That “The Office” can still hit the emotional beats right is a reassuring sign. But this was a modest beginning overall to the Robert California era.

What did everybody else think?