Well, it was nice while it lasted. After seven-and-a-half seasons and a major change to the original lineup (a frequently devastating blow to even the most successful of comedies—sorry, Ashton), NBC's The Office needs a shot in the arm, or the head. If there was a time to turn around the show (which, to these eyes, has been in steady decline since peaking with season six's episode "Niagara"), this season was it, and so it pains me to report that the first nine episodes have been the most frequently recycled and uninspired in the show's impressive run. The loss of Steve Carell was unfortunate, yes, but also a huge opportunity to inject new life into the series, and the choice to replace him with the enigmatic James Spader as the new CEO Robert California seemed like just the offbeat touch needed to keep things afloat. Instead, the show's been just barely treading water.
The cast is still on top of their game, and most of the pleasures to be had in this season consist of the performers finding new idiosyncrasies within their long-established personalities, which I can only imagine is difficult when the material you're working with stinks of mold. Most of the obstacles faced by the Dunder-Mifflin gang this season are slight variations on former plots, if they vary much at all. The effect suggests something stagnant even when we're clearly watching a still-dynamic environment (as evidenced by the occasional relationship or life event, the most prevalent being Pam's second pregnancy). We've come to appreciate these characters as something like flesh and blood, but now they seem one-dimensional (to describe them as "cartoonish" would suggest more personality than is actually displayed) and incapable of learning from past experiences.
One can only wonder how many more good ideas are waiting to come down the pike, and whether or not they're worth sorting through the rubble to find. I could count on both hands the moments I found inspired throughout the first half of this season, notably Robert temporarily mistaking Kevin's (Brian Baumgartner) incompetence for misunderstood genius. Likewise, I quickly lost count of the number of times I felt completely embarrassed by, and for, the show and everyone involved in it, as if the writers decided to capture the squirm-inducing social anxieties of Curb Your Enthusiasm without actually understanding what makes that show hilarious, as opposed to merely exploitative and pathetic. Not one full episode from this season so far has emerged as a keeper. "Doomsday" is worth a few chuckles, but that may only be because it manages to connect Dwight Schrute's (Rainn Wilson) unbending ideologies with the diabolical hilarity of Dr. Strangelove. In other words: table scraps. There's still time for The Office to take a much-deserved bow before having completely tarnished its legacy; anything would be better than watching it spiral down the toilet.