By Larry Teren
Is “The Office” ripe for cancellation? A 2.2 Nielsen ratings and 6 share for an April, 2012 aired episode translates into a 4.31 million viewership. In previous years, the show was good for more than double the numbers.
Ricky Gervais is a British comedian who hit pay dirt with a brilliant idea for a tv series sitcom called “The Office”. It was so popular with Americans who loved watching English humor (humour?) that he developed a tv series version for U.S. Audiences. What made the tv show so singularly entertaining was the standout performance of Steve Carell as the boss, Michael Scott.
Steve Carell decided to leave the show at the end of last season after success with a string of hit movies. Much to do was made in the final four episodes of finding a replacement. Among the several candidates to take the helm (no pun intended [spoiler alert]), one was played by Will Ferrell who quickly realized one of three things: a) he was a bad fit- different type of comedy than he was capable of doing, b) bad chemistry with the other actors, c) was disinterested in shrinking his monetarily rewarding movie career to perform in 22 episodes of a television series. In fact, the storyline on how he bowed out of the plot was an insult to the intelligence of loyal viewers.
Those of us who don’t think much of Mr. Ferrell as an actor (although he had a great five minutes at the end of the “Wedding Crashers” movie) were glad he did not look to make the guest role a more permanent one. Then at last season’s final episode, actor James Spader appeared on the scene as Robert California. He proceeded to do his way-too-obvious imitation of William Shatner (that’s what he got for hanging out with Bill on another television series [Boston Legal] for a few years) and turned the show into a Luigi Pirandello Theater of the Absurd. The fictional Mr. California was put in charge of the company at the corporate level and he chose to promote Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) to the task of office manager. Having Andy Bernard as the office manager made regular viewers happy.
Midway through this new season sans Steve Carell, Ricky Gervais decided to hire Catherine Tate to play Nellie Bertram, an over-the-top nervous-laden Britisher as permanent replacement for Andy Bernard when he took a temporary leave of absence to earn back the love of his life. It is still too early to know how the story line plays out.
Historically, a few tv series have been lucky when there has been significant changeovers in the cast. The most obvious was “MASH”, which McLean Stevenson exited after seventy episodes and was replaced by Harry Morgan who stayed with the tv series for 179 episodes until the end. In addition, Wayne Rogers was replaced by Mike Farrell and Larry Linville by David Ogden Stiers. In all three cases, each new actor blended in well with the existing cast even if their personalities were different than their fore-bearers.
Another famous cast switch was in “Bewitched” where the same character, Darrin Stephens was played by two different men- Dick York for 156 episodes, and then Dick Sargent for another eighty-four. It was a testament to Elizabeth Montgomery’s acting ability that she showed very little change in her demeanor or on-screen relationship after the switch. Another interesting tidbit was that Sargent was originally offered the role and had to turn it down because of other obligations. It was only after York became ill and no longer able to perform did they go back to their first choice.
There are those who think that the “classic” episodes with York showed more poignancy. In addition, with the disclosure by Sargent years later that he was homosexual changed the perspective of those who now watched the reruns of the later episodes to read more into the interacting than there may have been. Interestingly, Florence Henderson discusses in her autobiography how she had to adjust her on-screen interaction with Robert Reed, who played her husband in “The Brady Bunch” tv series, after she quickly figured out that he had a non-standard sexual orientation along with the fact that he really preferred to wear togas and other costumes and teach Shakespeare to acting classes.
However, with “The Office”- what the heck was Ricky Gervais thinking? Didn’t he bother to look at the daily rushes on a television monitor to see if Tate’s performance was working or not? For one, Ms. Tate photographed terribly and was a pain to look at. Not her fault- this reality check had killed the careers of a lot of talented people. For another, her sense of timing and humor was totally not in synch with the rest of the cast.
If the purpose of this subplot was an attempt to stir the pot and shake the audience out of its comfort zone and renew the show’s fascination- it failed miserably. It didn’t help either that the extended maternity leave taken by Jenna Fischer’s Pam Halpert in both real and play role life neutered Jim Halpert’s (John Krasinski) performance.
Even in today’s scattered audience loyalty with so many cable channels, four million is a low turnout. Ricky Gervais could probably care less about this criticism and advice. Still, I’ll say it regardless- Put the show back to the way it worked so beautifully in the past. Let the core group of actors play off each other with their unique quirks and eliminate the disjointed attempts at mixing different methods of acting styles. Maybe word of mouth will then get you back to a regular eight million plus viewership. Or risk losing the remaining four million viewers to the next hot British transplanted show.
July 2012 postscript-
I now hear that two other long-time cast members have left the show- Mindy Kaling and B. J. Novak. I’m wondering if the only thing that will save this show is an occasional Steve Carell guest appearance- maybe two or three. Ricky Gervais, do the right thing.