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The ‘Law & Order’-ification of ‘The Office’ has its benefits

Still in the process of finding its post-Steve Carell sea legs, “The Office” has sailed into two new questions about its longterm future — namely the possible migration of two longtime Sabre/Dunder-Miffliners, Mindy Kaling and Rainn Wilson, to projects in development.

Kaling (Kelly Kapoor) is starring and exec producing in a Universal TV pilot for Fox, while a potential “Office” spinoff featuring Wilson’s Dwight Schrute (seen in the clip above) is reportedly in the works for 2013. These would seem to be deathblows to a show that some would say can’t afford them — if it isn’t well past that point already. Was “The Office” really meant to be shuffling its cast into a second decade and launching spinoffs like some latter-day comedy “Law & Order”?

Such grim thoughts, however, ignore the reality of what “The Office” is and has always been.

1) “The Office” has always thrived on generating discomfort.

From the very beginning, unapologetically awkward characters and situations have been the bread and butter of “The Office.” I still remember blogging after Jan (Melora Hardin) had her “Dinner Party” meltdown — this during the show’s heyday in 2008 — in the wake of some saying that the show had taken her too far off the deep end. For years, how many times did Michael Scott push the envelope to the point where many viewers were saying it was too much?  And in retrospect, how lovingly are those episodes remembered?

Pool party 1aWithout a doubt, “The Office” is only as good as it is funny and/or meaningful. Gratuitous, unrewarding craziness does not go down well, and to be sure in 2011-12, there have been more than a few moments of that. Some scenes, even entire episodes occasionally, have been plain clunkers. At the same time, I think some of the negative feelings toward the post-Carell “Office” resemble the very same negativity that sometimes sprung up for Carell himself. But without Carell there to shoulder the burden, and with the show’s creative zenith in the past, it becomes easier to dismiss the enterprise entirely.

The most recent new episode, “Pool Party,” was a 600,000-gallon tub o’ weirdness, with inappropriate behavior spilling out almost from the start, and three male cast members spilling out of their swimsuits at the finish. And yet, it took risks, gave us a number of laughs and not only came together as a story, but as a story unlike anything you’ve ever really seen on TV (see clip below). In other words, it was anything but an episode of a show that should be tossed in the dustbin — certainly not by NBC, which has much bigger major ratings and creative issues to deal with.

2) As important as Carell was to “The Office,” turnover in the cast has been prevalent.

Roy. Jan. Karen. These are just a few of the many characters who, even if they weren’t all series regulars, played an integral role in “Office” stories on a weekly basis but are now years into the show’s past. No, “The Office” isn’t the same without Carell (who, by the way, deserved way more awards recognition than he received over the years, including at Sunday’s SAG Awards). But the show was always bigger than Carell, always an ensemble more than a one-man tour de force, and always a series that benefited as much as it suffered from cast members coming and going. (It’s worth noting at this point that Kaling’s onscreen role is already pretty minor at this point, while Jenna Fischer’s Pam has been largely absent from the entire 2011-12 season because of pregnancy.)

If anything, there’s a strong argument to be made that turnover in the acting ranks would help “The Office” more than it would hurt. Jim (played by John Krasinski, who has a burgeoning film career) has struggled for inspiration at this stage of his “Office” career; a farewell arc for him and Fischer could be every bit as rewarding as Carell’s was a year ago. Conversely, the addition of quirkmeister Robert California (James Spader) has added zest, even if his unpredictability sometimes smacks of the writers needing him to act a given way in a given moment. Without Spader, you don’t have the great conclusion to “Pool Party.”

Office HolidayChange for the sake of change is no answer to any problem — success depends on execution, and there are a lot of ways things can go wrong. Season-six addition Gabe (Zach Woods) has been mostly insufferable from the get-go. But clinging to the status quo isn’t an answer either. The relocation of Dwight, Kelly or any others could create new and potentially fruitful paths.

Those of us who became fans of “The Office” fell in love with the characters, the humor and the decidely roundabout take on life and society the show offered. If the show ended this season, some former fans would barely take note, and few would say it was a departure that came too soon. But in my mind, it remains a franchise that has more to offer.

I remain curious to see what comes next. If “The Office” tries and fails, we still have the earlier episodes to cherish. And if it essentially becomes NBC’s halfhour “Law & Order,” believe me, there are worse sins in this TV world.

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