x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

There's a new recruit in The Office

As the new chief executive Robert California, James Spader tries to fill Steve Carell's big comic shoes with some serious weirdness.

Of all people, why James Spader? So say many fans – some angrily, some sadly, some simply baffled – on websites around the TV planet as The Office enters its eighth season without the fan favourite Steve Carell on board to manage the comic mayhem.

Things just aren't the same these days at the Dunder Mifflin-Sabre Paper Company in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Shocking but true: Carell is out. Spader is in.

Such separation anxiety among the fans is to be expected. After all, Carell first flashed his comic starpower as a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and later outright stole scenes from Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty (2003) as the baffle-gabbed, tongue-twisted news anchor Evan Baxter, later getting his own sequel with Evan Almighty (2007).

When one thinks of James Spader, one thinks of eccentricity – of that snooty rich brat in Pretty in Pink (1986), of that pompous lawyer puffing on a cheroot with William Shatner in Boston Legal (2004-2008), as a filmmaker obsessed with female sexuality in Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), as a dimension-hopping geek in Stargate (1994), or as a young widower in over his head in a sizzling class-struggle romance with a much-older Susan Sarandon in White Palace (1990).

The point? "Frothy comedy" and "James Spader" rarely occupy the same sentence.

Trying to describe what Spader brings to The Office is like trying to staple Jell-O to the boardroom wall – he's colourful, full of flavour and comically vibrates to the nonsense around him – but where Carell played it hot, this multiple-Emmy winner plays it cool.

Where Carell, as the manager Michael Scott, would react to situations like a fidgety, often yappy, neurotic terrier, Spader, as the full-of-himself super-hedonist chief executive Robert California, always seems to emerge like some strange lunker-fish from under a shadowy rock in the story stream, at the perfect moment, to weird everybody out with his pronouncements. He's surrealistic here, perhaps an acquired taste.

"He's not as concerned about being loved," Spader told an NBC press event last summer. "He's very different and brings with him a very different energy. I don't know a great deal about how Michael Scott functioned within the office, but Robert California, the character I play, is not so concerned with how loved he is."

This Americanised docu-reality sitcom and parody of office life – created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, based on their BBC series that premiered in 2001 – first appeared to low ratings as an NBC mid-season replacement in 2005. It was only after Carell's blockbuster movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, topped the US box office that The Office went on to become the highest-rated scripted series on NBC and win four Emmy awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series (2006).

The Office's best trick has always been how superbly it takes observational comedy and transforms it into a kind of corporate "street theatre". Instead of some nightclub stand-up at a mic telling us about all the dumb, scheming, neurotic things we do at work – The Office dramatises our foibles and shows us what fools we can be. We become the fly on our own office wall. We laugh, indeed - and yes, we're happy to report, we laugh even with Spader on board.

In the season eight opener, California tosses the office into turmoil when he pops by for the first time as the chief executive. When he leaves behind a mysterious list that has a line down the middle – with the names of every member of the office on either one side or the other – his neurotic, insecure employees frantically try to figure out what it all means.

This terrific ensemble cast – with standout performances in the opener from Ed Helms (as the now-regional manager Andy Bernard) and Rainn Wilson (as his fascist-nerd "number two" Dwight Kurt Schrute III) – still spins a rich half-hour of comedy.

Give Spader a chance, urges Jimmy Collins of Yahoo!: "California seems to be able to read people very well, and this is likely what he will do when he fully takes over... This means the character will be able to mesh in any way that he needs to in order to fit in with other characters, and ultimately make the fans happy."

Office life can go on without Michael Scott, writes Becky Quinn of The Baltimore Sun: "This new season will take the Scranton office in a new direction. We no longer have Michael's blind optimism and naive self-absorption for laughs, but Robert's weirdness sends a wave of discomfort through the office that forces you to cough out an awkward giggle."

Admittedly, Spader's the underdog now – but don't count him out. As he says, as chief executive California, to his screwball staff: "There's something about an underdog that really inspires the unexceptional."

 

Season eight of The Office returns on Saturday and is broadcast on Saturdays and Sundays on OSN Comedy and OSN Comedy +2

 

artslife@thenational.ae

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