“The Office” of Uncertainty

Even with the addition of James Spader’s inscrutable character, the guessing game over the new boss goes on – keeping everybody (including the audience) off balance. Get ready for all kinds of new comic possibilities…

Apologies to Tony Danza, but the new season of “The Office” might as well be called “Who’s the Boss?”

As sad as we were to see Steve Carell leave after seven years of watching his Michael Scott evolve from an infuriating, clueless bumbler to a sweet bumbler who finally found a clue in love, there’s a certain excitement in the uncertainty surrounding Thursday’s season premiere.

All we know for sure is that James Spader’s maddeningly inscrutable Robert California is taking over as CEO of Dunder Mifflin Sabre, whose employees’ nerves no doubt have worn as thin as the paper they sell. But the identity of Scott’s replacement as regional manager remains a mystery.

That mystery offers all kinds of comic possibilities, perhaps to an even greater extent than last season’s long goodbye to Carell/Scott. Still, the stakes for the characters – as well as for the show – are higher: Can “The Office” go on successfully without Michael Scott?

The general sense of insecurity looms as a reflection of the real workplace in tough times, even more so than during the benign vagaries of the Scott era. The reality is that no one – not even Michael Scott or Steve Carell – is irreplaceable.

The Scott character proved an exaggerated, if ultimately endearing, portrait of a classic middle manager, who can please no one, above or below him on the corporate food chain. Spader’s strangely named California is a recognizable upper brass type whose stock in trade rests in keeping employees off balance, via his arrogant swagger, withering see-through-you stares and bizarre pronouncements (“Look at my eyes. Do I look like someone who would waste my own time?”).

“He creeps me out,” the usually unflappable office drone Jim Halpert noted in last season’s finale. “But I think he might be a genius.”

Genius is a rare commodity in any office, but California’s unpredictability and ability to foster anxiety appear to be the keys to quick his rise to CEO (along with the great Kathy Bates' departure because of her commitment to “Harry’s Law”). California also doesn’t seem to care if he’s liked, a stark difference from Michael Scott’s childlike constant search for approval from his office “family.”

The big challenge this season is to move the show forward within this new dynamic without losing the core of the program’s appeal. “MASH” and “Cheers” are among the few classic sitcoms that made successful transitions after the departure of major characters. Those shows, like “The Office,” relied on top-notch ensemble casts and consistently strong writing.

As much as we liked enjoyed some of the stunt casting last season – Will Ferrell, Ricky Gervais, Ray Romano, Jim Carrey, Will Arnett – that can’t be a crutch this year. That Spader’s California made a deep impression in the season finale is a promising sign. It’s also a good bet the scramble for the manager’s job will bring out the worst in the familiar set of officemates – hopefully bringing out the best in one of TV’s most enduring current comedies.

It’s hard to imagine any of the cast of characters – not even Jim – in the manager’s role for the long term. Which is why we're not surprised to learn that another new cast member is slated to join the show at some point. Perhaps Gervais’ fellow Brit Catherine Tate (of “Dr. Who” fame), who was among the eccentric interviewees in the season finale, will get a shot.

No word, though, on whether Tony Danza will apply for the job.

In the meantime, check out this preview of Robert California trying to show his new employees who’s the boss – at least for now.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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