Looking Back on The Office Season 8: C'mon Guys, It Wasn't THAT Bad

Andy won back his managerial position from the British usurper Nellie. Dunder Mifflin Sabre is now just Dunder Mifflin again. Robert California is out as CEO; David Wallace is in (again). Erin and Andy are together. Kelly and Ryan are not. Angela's baby is probably Dwight's and her husband is definitely into Oscar. On paper, The Office Season 8 was not the most eventful season! (Unless you're a superfan for the status quo.) And although it was widely disliked by both fans and critics, I'm here to tell you it wasn't entirely a waste of time. No really! It was occasionally pretty good, even!

At this time last year we'd just had our first taste of a post-Michael Scott The Office and we definitely weren't convinced it would work. Sure, seeing huge stars like Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey flirt with the idea of taking over was a fascinating distraction, but the sinking feeling that Season 8 would be an aimless, superfluous exercise was mostly confirmed by the 22 episodes that followed. Let's be real: Season 8 definitely wasn't the show's best and the seemingly general consensus that The Office should've ended along with Michael Scott's employment was/is entirely valid. Unfortunately the TV business just doesn't work like that. The show still gets strong ratings and is a lucrative moneymaker for NBC, so Season 8 was always going to happen and it was always going to be a challenge to the writers' room: How can you keep something fresh when it's so clearly out of steam? Well, not to be all contrarian about it—because, again, Season 8 wasn't the best—but there's a strong possibility that while everyone was busy being disappointed, The Office sneaked in some genuinely great jokes, new characters, and affecting plotlines. All things considered, this is still one of the best shows on TV.

The main problem with Season 8 was that it came after Seasons 2, 3, and 4. Be honest: The critical pummeling this show has taken all season is mainly a problem of relativity. The Office was just SO good in its earlier seasons. But take away that comparison and we're left with a sitcom that stars Ed Helms, Craig Robinson, Rainn Wilson, James Spader, and Mindy Kaling. Imagine if, say, a movie came out with THAT roster of comic actors. It'd be must-see for any comedy nerd! But in the context of The Office legacy, that roster is just a bunch of people who don't include Steve Carell. See what I'm getting at? We're mostly disappointed because we can't let go of what used to be. So let's put aside the legacy of The Office and talk about Season 8 by itself. Specifically, what worked and what didn't?

First, the most obvious aspect that didn't work: The bosses. Bosses are crucial to a properly high-stress work environment. For most of the season Andy sat in the managerial chair, but something never quite clicked. Although Ed Helms is extremely funny (and increasingly movie-star famous), it turned out that Andy Bernard the character works better in small doses. We first met him as the back-biting yuppie douche Jim worked with at the Stamford branch, and his fratty buffoonery provided a new annoyance for our everyman hero. Over time Andy's plotlines have become a series of emasculations and abuse invitations that haven't quite been as endearing as Michael Scott's childish-yet-competent attention-craving. Sure, Andy was always drawn more broadly than most of the other characters, but his character seemed to work best when he wasn't 100 percent pathetic.

Unfortunately, rather than prove that Andy had what it took to lead the office AND lead The Office, this season painted him as an almost unlikable, feeble wallflower whose lack of backbone made it hard to get invested in. His romance with Erin—another character who works best in small doses—proved to be a maddening, tired cycle of unrequited love between two characters so cartoonish that it never felt compelling. Fortunately Andy's plotline recovered by the end of the season once he and Erin were squared away and he'd found himself out of a job because Nellie had literally stolen it. The stakes finally seemed seemed high and Andy's enusing scheme to get his job back was both engaging and rewarding. Maybe there's hope for him yet!

The other two authority figures, Nellie and Robert California, were both interesting characters in and of themselves, but the inclusion of TWO low-key psychopaths only served to make the show seem jumbled and unfocused. On the upside, I never once grew tired of Robert California; to me he was the most consistently hilarious character, and the slow reveal of his crumbling personal life was one of the best things this season did. But with that said, was there ever a good reason why the supposed CEO of the corporation was constantly hanging out in the Scranton branch? It was a plausibility-stretching conceit on a show in which stretching plausibility can be fatal. Anyway, while I loved the novelty of this new character and his effects on everyone else, it's probably a good thing that James Spader won't be returning next season. It's unclear whether we'll see more of Nellie next year, but she had some great moments. Darryl introducing her to tacos was one of the funniest scenes all year, plus the late-season reveal of just how sad Nellie's life is made her machinations more compelling and forgivable. I'm not sure Catherine Tate's subtle absurdism works as a lead character, but like Robert California, it WAS refreshing getting to know a new character at least.

Which brings me to my last main criticism: How thoroughly mined these characters' personal lives have become. Sure, that comes with the territory when you've followed the same group of people for so long. But that's probably why I was suddenly excited when earlier this year NBC floated the idea that perhaps they'd reboot The Office with a brand-new cast. I'm not sure such a total shakeup is necessary, but I DO wish there'd be an influx of new characters, similar to when the Stamford and Scranton branches merged suddenly during Season 3 and the characters were forced to share space with strangers. The constant revolving door of employment is such a major aspect of real-life work environments, so it's fairly surprising how much this show has actively avoided it. I say open the floodgates and actually make these characters live in constant risk of firing or layoffs. Not enough of them have office enemies (and we ALL have office enemies), and the relationship options have dwindled to zero. Heck, move them all into a new building, switch around the desks, something.

Among the bright spots this season had to offer, my favorite by far was Darryl's burgeoning friendship-cum-romance with Val from the warehouse. This recurring subplot hearkened back to the old days when Jim and Pam were kept separate by circumstance and longing. That frustrated romance grounded The Office and made it crackle with possibility. The Office USED to do longing so well—particularly in the fourth season when many of its episodes were stretched to an hour-long format and we really got to know the characters intimately—and the more it gets away from those emotions, the staler it feels. These people SHOULD develop impossible crushes on each other; they SHOULD pine away for better careers. Val was a new character but I instantly cared about her more than some of the old faces. How great was it when she mortifyingly showed up to the Christmas party overdressed in an evening gown, then Darryl tried to make her comfortable by running home to put on his tux? These kinds of funny, human moments are what I love about The Office. It's no surprise that my favorite moment in last week's season finale was a tiny one: When Val stood beside Darryl in his family portrait and quietly took his hand. That felt real, it felt earned, and it made me care again.

When The Office returns for Season 8, it'll be short a few cast members: Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak will be off making her Fox sitcom The Mindy Project, plus Rainn Wilson's due to get his own Dwight Schrute spin-off at some point. But I hope NBC will take the opportunity to sorta-reboot things. I stuck with this season due to the aforementioned bright spots, but as long as the show stays mired in old tricks—Dwight's criminal wackiness, Jim's camera glances—otherwise great ideas will continue to get lost in the ho-hum. Find a stronger boss who's more nightmarish to work for. Refocus on the emotional lives of the characters, their longings, their frustrations. Bring in new faces to keep the constant churn of awkwardness (and threats of layoffs) going. I want The Office to say something about our jobs. I don't want it to feel like one.

Did you watch this season of The Office? What did you love and/or hate about it? What would you fix, if anything, for Season 8?

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