Greg Daniels and the future of ‘The Office’

Office1

With the show having been nominated for a comedy series Emmy six years in a row, it would be premature to assume that “The Office” is out of the Emmy running for 2012. You’re in until you’re out, one might say.

But even as one acknowledges that this is the first time in a long time the NBC comedy isn’t a veritable nomination lock, part of me is loath to dismiss the chances for the “The Office” to return to Emmy’s good graces — in 2013.

Last season, its first full campaign without Steve Carell, “The Office” showed some creative spark but also suffered more critical disenchantment than any preceding season. For what it’s worth, it also bled audience: Average viewership overall and in the 18-49 demo declined about 15%, and the season finale (with 4.5 million viewers) was the show’s least-watched ever.

The feeling of a show wrestling with transition rather than waltzing to its typical shower of praise was inescapable. And for all the considerable strength of the show’s ensemble, Carell was a magnet, and it would make sense that the permanence of his departure forever released the hold the show has had on TV Academy voters.

DanielsAs a counterargument, here are two words: Greg Daniels.

As he was quick to remind me when we chatted recently, exec producer Daniels (right) has never left “The Office” since adapting the British version for its 2005 launch on NBC. However, he hasn’t been the show’s principal showrunner of late, with Paul Lieberstein most recently handling those duties.

But while not leaving the show entirely, Lieberstein will be preoccupied with shepherding a potential Dwight Schrute spinoff starring three-time Emmy nominee Rainn Wilson (itself perceived as another sign of air fleeing the “Office” balloon). As a result, Daniels has thrust himself back into more proactive status.

“I’m less looking over someone’s shoulder and more getting to drive,” Daniels said.

At this point, you have to ask yourself, would you bet against the man who did what many thought couldn’t be done to begin with?

Seven years ago, skepticism was sky-high that “The Office” could ever be reborn Stateside. And when that show headed into its second season, thoughts about it were still mixed. In its six-episode initial season, it seemed to be fighting itself (by clinging too tightly to the British template, some surmised) and was not yet thought of as a show that could thrive on its own.

But given time to tinker, Daniels led the show to a comedy series Emmy one year later.

The coming ninth season of “The Office” presents similarities in both challenge and opportunity. As was the case with Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, viewers who still remember Michael Scott need to be given a reason to forget him. Viewers who don’t bring those memories need compelling reasons to watch. And an executive producer and writing staff with nothing to lose by following their instincts have the wheel.

Daniels predicted the show would have “a big year” in terms of story.

“I’ll tell you that the last couple of years, I don’t think we did any big arc-type things in the way that we used to in the beginning,” Daniels said. “I think the thing we’re going to do is bring back a lot of arcs, so there’s going to be a lot of change in (the characters’) status and their relationships from a week-to-week basis.

“And other sort of major things happen, and my hope is we’ll get some of that feeling of needing to see it on the night that it airs, because you don’t want to miss the big changes that are happening to people.”

That would certainly be music to NBC’s ears, if it’s not too late to convince viewers.

Office 2There’s no denying that the cast isn’t 100% stable. Wilson will be with the show for a minimum of 13 episodes, but Mindy Kaling (Kelly) now has her own Fox sitcom to star in, James Spader’s year-long run as Robert California is over, B.J. Novak (Ryan) will have little-to-no presence and Ed Helms (Andy) will miss some episodes while filming “Hangover 3.”

However, as Daniels points out, this would be more significant on a smaller show, while the regular ensemble of “The Office” numbers close to 20.

As for replacing Carell, you could say that ship has sailed. Catherine Tate (Nellie) has been upgraded to full-time status, while other additions are in the works. But to use a gameshow metaphor, there’s no center square.

“I don’t think we’re really telling the story of who’s in the manager’s chair,” Daniels said. “We’re definitely telling different stories where different characters are the leads of them.”

So Daniels downplays the discussion of cast changes, noting the full-time return of such stalwarts as John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, while saying that the fluctuation behind the scenes is more striking.

“There are a lot more new writers than there are new cast members,” he said. “Since we’re in pre-production, the more interesting part is to try to get this large writing staff (16 in all) with a lot of new players on the same page.”

It all sets up “The Office” to be one of the more interesting shows to watch in September, whether it’s part of this year’s Emmy party or not. The existential question of whether NBC’s “The Office” exists without Michael Scott perhaps will finally be answered, once and for all.

 

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