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Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Don't Re-Boo an Office Reboot

Unpopular Opinions is a weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it's asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.

Last week, when it was reported that Executive Producer Greg Daniels was talking with NBC to reboot The Office, the response was a nearly audible groan. One commenter on this very site summarized the collective feeling best with his first three words, “Let. It. Die.” The people have spoken, the show isn’t just on its last legs — it’s basically a legless mass being dragged around like a sack of beets. So why don’t we just let Dwight drag said sack into the sunset and onto his farm-set new show? Why shouldn’t The Office quit while it’s ahead or arguably while it’s behind? Why shouldn’t NBC just let it die? It’s impossible to guarantee that an Office reboot would work but the inherent conceit subversion of rebooting does mean that the potential will be there.

When people talk about show becoming flat, predictable, or unfunny what they often mean is that it isn’t surprising anymore. In his brilliant book, This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin explained that people’s taste in music often comes down to how much they want to be surprised or not surprised. A person who prefers the more streamlined genres like mainstream pop or country are attracted to the comfort of their expectations being confirmed. On the flipside, more experimental styles like jazz attract those who demand their music to constantly surprise. Though the book focused on music, it easily can be applied to any art form, especially comedy, as it’s so rhythmic.

This balance between confirmation and subversion of expectation plays a big part in the growing appeal of shows. Sitcoms often peak in their second and third seasons as it represents the sweet spot in which viewers are used to, but not too used to, the characters and joke rhythms. Happy Endings' lovely second season was a testament to that theory. However, what comes up must come down and that usually means a fourth season that feels a little bit off. Parks & Recreation is a good example of that; the show hasn’t been bad this year, it just doesn’t have the same intangible umph, spark, something. The more you watch a show, the less it's able to catch you off guard.

The fourth season is also when The Office started to dip. Its decline then grew more and more precipitous to a point where in the fifth season the Michael Scott Paper Company arc was seen as a saving grace. Then season six happened and there was near-unanimous consensus that the show wasn’t what it used to be. Season seven carried much of that same stigma, if not more so, but the power of Michael Scott and Steve Carell’s departure offered some distraction. Now it’s season eight and the show has grown tough to watch at times. There is nowhere else for the leads to go, resigning the show to treading water while waves are crashing against it. Simply, the show fails to surprise. But this doesn’t mean the only option is to cancel it. The Office is not a horse with a broken ankle (too soon, Mr. Gervais?); it does have the capacity for rejuvenation.

And rebooting might be exactly what it needs, regardless of its track record. There is an inherent subversion involved with a reboot because the show's universe moves slightly, allowing it to refer back to itself. In a show like Saved by the Bell: The New Class, this was explicit; Screech was there mostly to point out how Zach or Slater or Kelly would act differently than those now filling their archetypal positions. In my estimation, the Scrubs reboot failed because it didn't distance itself enough, as most of the original leads appeared somewhat regularly. The Office could easily maintain some of the base (Darryl, Creed, Kevin, Meredith, Ryan Oscar), while cutting loose its stars (Jim, Pam, Dwight). Plenty of compelling narratives could come out of Oscar frustratingly trying to just be a homosexual in a small-town or Darryl's desire to make something more of himself. In a way, this would be the best of both worlds; there would still be some familiarity with the characters but not a complete oversaturation.

Then they would just need to introduce new characters, something the show has been adept at doing since season one. I'm not referring to their handling of their guest stars like James Spader and Will Ferrell, which never really worked, but the less well known like Ellie Kemper and Zach Woods. Their casting director, Allison Jones (Arrested Development, Freaks & Geeks, Parks & Recreation) is the best in business at finding young comedic talent, so just the thought of giving her an opportunity to place three to six new actors is exciting. The Office is not unlike a paper manufacturer whose product isn't as vital but still maintains a really great HR department.

Television shows are not like old dogs (and thankfully, they're not usually like the film Old Dogs), unable to learn new tricks. Currently, by tightening up the joke engine and increasing the sentimentality, 30 Rock is having its best season in years. Even more drastic is How I Met Your Mother, where by letting the sad moments linger little longer and forcing the characters to make difficult decisions, is in its strongest season since its first. These alterations, though minor in any given episode, add up to enough to bring back surprise to their shows. The Office has just as strong of a creative team behind it so a similar turnaround is very much within their grasp.

There are many things that could go wrong but that doesn't mean they will. In that way an Office reboot wouldn't be too far off from any other pilot. So I poise the same question I did when I first posted about this news: If NBC announced that it picked-up a pilot executive produced by Greg Daniels with B.J. Novak as the head writer, starring Craig Robinson, Zach Woods, Ellie Kemper, and Creed, how exciting would that be? Yes, exactly, super exciting. This could be that show. Come on! A show starring freaking Creed!

If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.

Jesse David Fox is a writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He lives in Brooklyn. He wants to use this opportunity to point out that Saved by the Bell: The New Class lasted A LOT longer than the original did.

  • http://www.collegehumor.com/user:328495 Chase Mitchell

    Scrubs. That '70s Show. Two examples of what happens when you don't just let it die. Let. It. Fucking. Die.

    I'm also blown away that anyone on Earth is of the opinion that HIMYM is having a good season.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jason-Nafziger/1625377858 Jason Nafziger

    I never watched '70s, so I can't comment on that, but I still remember Scrubs fondly. I enjoyed the new characters in the reboot, but obviously it wasn't the same show. Even if it had been downright terrible though, what was lost? The "original" run didn't cease to exist.

    If The Office is seasons 1-4 (or whatever) to you, then what's wrong with that? It should make no difference to you whether there's a season 9, 10 or 20.

    But then there's this: what if this time, they actually do it right? What if they find a way to turn The Office into a sitcom version of SNL, where the "B" characters rotate up to "A" status while a new crop of B's is worked in? It could live FOREVER! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

  • Agent M

    Happy Days was on for, like 12 years. I never watched past season 5 or 6, so those sh*tty Joanie and Chachi years don't taint the memory for me. Same with All in the Family. And I haven't seen a Simpsons ep in about 10 years. So, we do have the choice to preserve our fond memories. On the other hand, THIS was supposed to be the rebuilding year for The Office. I was wary, but thought that Spader was a truly inspired choice. I say they had their shot at a reboot. Why not take a chance on something new, when you're already in the ratings basement?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jason-Nafziger/1625377858 Jason Nafziger

      @Agent M The last part is what I'm afraid of. NBC's clever, intelligent comedies are ratings poison. Why would they replace The Office with a new show that no one (else) will watch? They will replace it with some cheap reality or game show garbage or another "Whitney."

    • Agent M

      @Jason Nafziger …well, yeah. if I have to choose between Office 2.0 and Celebrity Apprentice…