"The Office" began a new era in its season 8 premiere Thursday night, more specifically an era without the beloved Michael Scott (Steve Carell).
Life without Michael seemed grim to a devoted "Office" fan like me. What would Dundler Mifflin (or is it Sabre?) be like without the "that's what she said" jokes and the "World's Best Boss" mug? Who would be there to squash Dwight's dreams and hate on Toby? No one could be as oblivious yet completely devoted to his job like Michael.
Rather than trying to replace him with a wannabe jokester, NBC decided to add James Spader as creepy Robert California to Dundler Miffilin's payroll. Although Spader filled Carell's starring role, it was Dundler Mifflin's resident Cornell alumnus, Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), who took over as the Scranton branch's regional manager.
Bernard reveals that after Robert California drove down to Sabre-Dundler Mifflin's Florida headquarters and was questionably promoted to CEO, he became regional manager because he was "the first choice's first choice." I appreciate that Robert does not try to be Michael; some might even say that he's actually Michael's antithesis. As CEO, he takes residence in Scranton's conference room from where he occasionally slithers out and hones in on one office worker to have an intense chat with. He does not try Michael's entertainer/friend/boss approach; in fact, his presence seems to make everyone visibly uncomfortable.
Ditzy receptionist Erin Hannon (Ellie Kemper) was the victim of one of these chats where she was coached by Robert to never start a recount of her day with "I woke up" because it is a waste of time. During this conversation, Robert leaves his notebook on Erin's desk, displaying a list dividing the office into two groups. This list serves as a catalyst for an episode-long mission to crack the code of the mysterious two lists. Eventually, Spader reveals, in a frank and very anti-Michael fashion, that it was his list of "winners" and "losers," which prompts Andy to man up, for the first time, as regional manager and defend the "losers" (mostly because he was one of the them).
This new season will take the Scranton office in a new direction. We no longer have Michael's blind optimism and naïve 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. Andy can never be the manager that Michael was, but that's OK. No one expects anything from him anyway. Loyal fans should not fret — the jokes stay true to "Office" tradition (plenty of Jim eye-brow raises) and Robert, though strange and uncomfortable, adds a new dynamic that I, even as one of Michael's most loyal fans, look forward to seeing develop in upcoming episodes.
In other "Office" news, Jim and Pam are still going strong with baby No. 2 ("a little Michael Scott") on the way. Oh, Angela is pregnant, too, with her husband, the closeted senator. The highlight of the episode was the office's new affinity for "planking." As a fan of this Internet phenomenon, I commend the office workers for their interesting planking targets. Erin planked a curb, Meredith chose the floor under the urinals, Kelly was found on top of a filing cabinet and Kevin took over Dwight's desk (until he was forcibly removed). Even funnier than the planking was Dwight's anti-planking efforts. As the "enforcer," he shoots Meredith off the top of the bathroom stalls with a fire extinguisher, drops a box of paper from a floor above onto one of the warehouse guys and flips Toby off of the lunch table.