Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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He’s metal and small and doesn’t judge me at all.
He’s a cyberwired bundle of joy.
My robot friend.

In 2004, a coworker of mine convinced me to start watching South Park again. I’m not really sure why I had stopped. I was one of the show’s early adopters — which isn’t saying much; there were many — and I was always happy to defend it as being more substantial than its mountains of violence and profanity led the easily insulted to believe. It was a great show, I thought, with clever writing and some genuinely intelligent insight into touchy subjects and controversial material. But at some point, probably around season five or so, it became less important for me to tune in regularly. I think, in a way, I didn’t want to watch it become a shadow of itself. I never saw the quality slip, but my turning away was a preemptive measure. It’s what would keep me from having to see it devolve and degrade itself before me, becoming less of an artistic statement and more of a way of keeping Comedy Central swimming in merchandising profits as the years went on.

But my coworker assured me that that hadn’t happened. That South Park was just as good as it ever was, or probably even better. So I tuned in for the first time after a long absence, and watched each new episode of season eight as it premiered. And though the kids were all the same age and the adults were no wiser, South Park as a show revealed to me just how much it managed to grow up.

The self-imposed tight turnaround on South Park episodes sounds like a living nightmare when you hear creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about it in interviews, and often that fatigue shows in their responses to the interviewers’ questions. They sound careless and dismissive. They don’t seem particularly invested or enthusiastic. But it works wonders in terms of keeping the show fresh — note I’m saying nothing about topicality — and I think that’s the reason it glides so smoothly along to this day, periodically achieving greatness sixteen seasons on.

Why do I think this brutal tightness of schedule might be a facilitator of quality? Well, because of “AWESOM-O.” And because of many, many other things that this episode leads me to think about.

In the week leading up to the premiere of “AWESOM-O,” Comedy Central ran promos promising the return of Lemmiwinks. Lemmiwinks was the gerbil from the deservedly popular “The Death Camp of Tolerance” episode from two seasons prior, and while I could understand why they’d think fans would appreciate a callback to that episode, I wasn’t quite sure why I was supposed to be getting excited about another episode centering around the sexual insertion of rodents. But then the night came, and there was no Lemmiwinks. Instead we got a title card, explaining that due to the recent tragedy in Hawaii, that episode would not be aired, and we would get something else instead. That something else was “AWESOM-O.”

“AWESOM-O” is easily one of my favorite episodes of South Park, and I could fill another post by simply listing the reasons for that. It’s also, apparently, the episode with the fastest turnaround time in the show’s history: three days from conception to air. That means that when the Lemmiwinks episode vanished, they didn’t just air a rerun, or slap up something else that was ready to go. They built something from the ground up, a ramshackle creation of whatever they could get their hands on quickly, much in the same way Cartman must have constructed his robot costume. There was no tragedy in Hawaii. They just made it most of the way through the process of producing an episode that it turned out they didn’t believe in. And rather than just finishing it and shipping it off to air and be forgotten, they stopped. They had the courage to throw it away, and to begin again. With a deadline looming and nothing to show for the work they’d already invested, it was up to them not only to replace an episode in the lineup, but qualitatively justify the fact that they had thrown a different one away.

That’s something that few shows have the luxury of doing, and it’s why South Park is able to continue to feel fresh: in a very literal way, it always is.

A show like The Simpsons — which was beginning to show its age not long after South Park shuffled into view, and was well past its prime by the time South Park gave us “AWESOM-O” — has a turnaround time of around six months per episode. That means that by the time all the pieces are put together, it’s too late to do much corrective work. Even if the entire creative staff is unsatisfied with the way the pieces fit, little more than polish can be applied. The episode, as it is, six months after the final script was written and recorded, is airing whether you like it or not. South Park, fortunately, never had anywhere near that turnaround. Parker and Stone started off with Comedy Central working at a frantic pace and never stopping to catch their breath, and that’s the way it remains today. It means the two of them don’t get much sleep and often feel as though their creation is eating them alive, but it also means that if they produce an episode that they don’t like, they can destroy it and start fresh. They are in the habit of doing so, they have a production style that was built to sustain such changes in trajectory, and there isn’t half a year and several million dollars invested. Ironically, the tighter time frame and smaller budget allow the South Park crew to do more than shows with more bountiful resources.

As a last-minute substitute, “AWESOM-O” makes perfect sense. The germ of the idea (Cartman dresses like a robot to play a prank on Butters) is simple. It doesn’t require much thought to flesh it out; it’s an episode where kids behave like kids, making it a good fit for the characters, and also an easy night in the writers’ room. There’s no need for topical jokes or complicated inversions of established tropes; this is a chance for two of the show’s most popular characters — and, arguably, the show’s single most fruitful dynamic — to take center stage and entertain us.

It’s also, however, a brilliant little character piece, offering both Cartman and Butters the chance to display emotions they don’t often get to tap into. It’s a small story that could have taken place entirely in Butters’s bedroom, but its themes are powerful and universal. “AWESOM-O” is a story of friendship, like Double Indemnity before it. And like Double Indemnity, it’s a story of underhanded dealings, dubious motives, and the climactic disappointment of the piece’s only innocent man.

Cartman decides — off camera, for reasons we never hear — to play a prank on Butters, and it’s his most cutting and personal one yet: by pretending to be a robot, he’s going to let Butters believe that he has a friend for life, and then take that friendship away from him.

For comparison’s sake, two of Cartman’s previous pranks on Butters are recounted in this episode: he once locked him in a bomb shelter for several days, and he imitated Butters on the phone so that his father would come home and beat him. Either of those pranks sounds significantly crueler than the helpful robot persona Cartman adopts here, but a step back reveals that that’s not the case; either of the other two pranks would have worked just as well on any of the other children. There’s nothing about either of them that target Butters as an individual…he’s simply a victim, and might as well be anonymous. Here, however, Cartman is preying on something he knows Butters — and only Butters — will respond to in the necessary tragic way: a friend. For any other child, friends come and go. Betrayal is unfortunate, but not uncommon. In order for someone to be betrayed, however, there must be a relationship to betray, and Cartman knows that Butters has never had that. He will befriend the boy for the sole purpose of breaking his heart. It’s the most hurtful thing Cartman can do to Butters, and so of course he can’t resist.

Of course Cartman’s plot falls apart the moment he finds out Butters has blackmail material on him: a videotape of him dressed as Britney Spears and dancing with a cardboard cutout of Justin Timberlake. Butters doesn’t intend to blackmail him, and in fact doesn’t even remember where the videotape is, but once Cartman learns of it existence he’s unable to reveal himself, and is therefore unable to break Butters’s heart. He is, instead, forced to become and remain the actual friend that he was going to make Butters look foolish for believing in.

You’ll notice that there’s nothing about Stan, Kyle or Kenny in the above discussion, and that’s because they’re relegated to cameos here. They show up to wonder why Cartman is still keeping his robot ruse going, but, technically, that scene didn’t even need to be there. They serve no purpose as characters, and the script doesn’t try to force them in where they don’t belong.

I noticed this when I watched it new, way back in 2004, and it’s just a broader reflection of why the tight schedule works so well for this show: with no time to lose, Parker and Stone are used to throwing away ideas that don’t work, and shifting directions at a moment’s notice. It’s an approach borne of utility, but in a larger sense it works in the show’s favor, as it’s conditioned them not to hold fast to what no longer interests them for the sake of maintaining status quo.

If you think I’m going to bring up The Simpsons again as a point of comparison, you’re right. After all, there’s no better reference point for either of the two shows than each other, and whereas The Simpsons has been recycling plots and echoing itself in gradually deteriorating whispers for the sake of remaining familiar to whatever small audience still chooses to follow it, South Park has been ditching characters and ideas since season two, scrambling up core dynamics and introducing new regular characters in order to explore avenues that they previously couldn’t reach without stretching characters beyond their scope of believability.

Compared to the early seasons of South Park, “AWESOM-O” seems like an almost completely different show. It looks and sounds the same, but so many staple features have been abandoned in the meantime. Chef doesn’t sing an inappropriate song, Kenny doesn’t die, Kyle doesn’t learn something today, Stan has been ousted as the central figure by a previously unnamed background character we now know as Butters, the town doesn’t riot, and no grand observations are made about politics, religion or society. Officer Barbrady and the Mayor don’t exist anymore, Mr. Garrison no longer speaks through Mr. Hat, Ike doesn’t show up for a round of Kick the Baby and Randy Marsh has gone from “Stan’s dad” to breakout character. Things have changed, and the show let them change.

This is a simple story of a boy and his robot friend, and it’s a thousand miles removed from anything the show laid the groundwork for in its early years. The reason? That groundwork proved limiting and was growing tiresome, and so the creators chose to evolve rather than to stagnate. It was a wise decision. After all, despite what any network executives might think, it’s not the familiarity that keeps people tuning in…it’s the quality. Lose familiar elements and an audience might stick around, but lose the quality and you’re finished for good.

The promotion of Butters to main character status is probably one of the most fruitful changes the show ever made. It was a sacrifice of familiar elements made in favor of maintaining quality, and it allowed them to write the kinds of stories that were previously off-limits. After all, Butters is a different type of child…one that was not represented within the main group. Stan was logical and well-centered, Kyle was the moralist, Cartman was the asshole, and Kenny was…well, Kenny was several things, but outside of a few grand exceptions (like his Mysterion arc) he was simply crude. They were all distinct characters, as you can see, but none of them were at all fragile. In fact, that’s what won over audiences — and infuriated parents — when the show premiered: these kids didn’t take any shit. The cursed, they fought back, and they were perfectly capable of resorting to things we never thought we’d see children do on primetime television.

Butters, however, does none of that. He is fragility incarnate. Easy to hurt, and yet always willing to get back up and let you hurt him again. He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body, and he is endlessly selfless and caring. He’s neither rude nor profane (he blurts out “Oh hamburgers,” when he’s particularly upset), and he just wants everyone around him to be happy. This makes him an excellent foil for the boys in general, but especially, of course, for Cartman in particular.

Cartman doesn’t just get annoyed by Butters as the other boys do…he actively wishes to harm him. In Cartman’s world, there is no room for a Butters. It is impossible to co-exist…the fact that Butters is fragile and helpless is a clear-cut reason that he must be destroyed.

Butters, on the other hand, sees the boys — and, again, particularly Cartman — as his friends. He must; without ever having had actual friends to compare them to, he assumes that these boys who talk to him must qualify. It doesn’t matter how badly they mistreat him, or how callously they abuse him…Butters sees them as friends. Which is why “AWESOM-O” is interesting. Cartman assumes that Butters has never experienced friendship…despite the fact that he himself is often on the receiving end of Butters’s declarations of loyalty.

But he’s right. What Butters has with AWESOM-O is different, and even Butters must feel that on some level. At first, he’s just another friend. But once he listens to what Butters has to say, helps him with his chores and engages in social activities with him in public — all things his other “friends” never did — Butters knows that this is really what friendship is supposed to be, and he falls for it. Hard. Listen to the wistful way he sings the word “friend” in the song quoted above; there’s an enormous gravity hanging from that tiny word…a large investment of emotion that, previously, had nowhere to go. And when AWESOM-O asserts himself and expresses desires contrary to what Butters now expects of his friend, there’s a telling moment during which Butters scolds him, and even resorts to physical violence: a spanking. He has a friend now…and he’s not going to let him get away.

I don’t know precisely what it was about “AWESOM-O” that made me like it so much at first, and what still causes it to resonate with me today. Maybe it’s the writing-workshop approach to the script, the alchemy of pressing deadline pain into gold. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a small, human story instead of some grander, topical plot. Or maybe it’s just something simple: the small satisfaction of seeing Cartman on the losing end for a change, and watching him struggle to reverse that, as his prank backfires and he’s stuck in an endless premise with no conclusion. The plan was to give Butters a taste of friendship and then take it away, but he’s unable to progress past step one, and the joke’s on him: like or not, he really did become Butters’s friend. As the scientist observes at the end of the episode, it doesn’t matter if AWESOM-O is a robot; what matters is the very human spirit of friendship it brought to the boy who loved him. Of course the scientist believes Cartman to actually be a robot when he says that, but it rings true for the eight-year-old boy inside the cardboard suit as well: whatever Cartman’s motives, it felt sincere to Butters. And that made it real.

“AWESOM-O” might not be what you’d think of when defining a South Park plot, but it’s a perfect fit for the universe created by Parker and Stone. After all, at its best, South Park has always been about the characters rather than the situations. That’s why most viewers, when asked about their favorite episodes or highlights, will tend to point toward smaller scenes or moments or interactions than any broad celebrity caricature or townwide apocalypse. And the show is still, another eight seasons after “AWESOM-O” premiered, finding new and impressive ways to let those characters be themselves, and find their voices, and live their lives. The Simpsons, at its best, was also about its characters, but that show is no longer anywhere near as interested in letting them be themselves. What made The Simpsons so brilliant is that they started with a palette of stereotypes, and layered and explored those characters until they felt like real human beings. What unmade The Simpsons was that, at some point, they destructively stereotyped them again, and left them there.

I don’t know what the Lemmiwinks episode was supposed to be about. Perhaps I would have loved it. That doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the creators weren’t pleased with it. They took a long hard look at what they accomplished, and they made a difficult decision: to throw it away, and to try harder.

It’s an interesting coincidence to me that this episode was part of South Park‘s eighth season, as I’d say that the eighth was the last truly great season of The Simpsons. From season nine on, it was a slope that got more slippery all the time, and now, I’d argue, it’s no longer even interested in climbing back up again. South Park was poised at that precise point three days before “AWESOM-O” aired. Would they take the easy way out and just air some mediocrity, and hope that the show would fix itself in the future? Or would they keep working until they had something worthy of carrying the reputation that they’d built?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and South Park could not travel both. It took the road less traveled by.

It chose not to follow the path to ruin and creative bankruptcy. After all…Simpsons did it.

I don’t think it’s even a slight exaggeration to say that The Cleveland Show is absolutely the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of everything.

For starters, I’m still not sure why it exists, ever has existed, or will continue to exist. Perhaps the Family Guy writers were sick of having a character around that hadn’t yet devolved into a sociopathic asshole and so they shipped him off to his own show so they would never have to write for a second character type again. Or perhaps we all just raped a lot of grandmothers in our past lives and this is our karmic retribution. Whatever the reason, it’s shit.

Then again, with the exception of the first episode, I’ve never sat through an entire installment of The Cleveland Show. Oh, I’ve seen a bunch of them most of the way through, but I rarely pay much attention to it. And as Fox has won me over with two recent animated shows that I expected to be utter garbage (Bob’s Burgers, which is legitimately brilliant, and Napoleon Dynamite, which isn’t awful and therefore qualifies as miraculous), I figured I’d give this one another shot, liveblogging my thoughts as I go. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up loving it. If so, I’ll end the liveblog with a justin.tv link to my live, streaming suicide.

Oh, and before we begin, The Cleveland Show is currently in its third season. That’s at least a season more than three of my all-time favorite shows were allowed to have. And this would be the season that saw the still-brilliant American Dad! airing episodes of such stellar quality as “The Vacation Goo,” “Meter Made,” “Dope & Faith,” “The 42-Year-Old Virgin” and “Widowmaker,” all of which would be serious contenders for my list of favorite episodes of anything ever. SO LET’S SEE HOW THE CLEVELAND SHOW MEASURES UP I’M SURE IT’S GREAT.

6:15 — The plot summary for this episode says that Cleveland goes deaf, his wife Roberta goes back to school, and his son runs against his step daughter for class president. So, the three blandest plots imaginable in one easy-to-swallow episode. I’m just sorry Cleveland doesn’t also have to impersonate his Texas cousin Austin and then have to run back and forth between two blind dates.

6:30 — It begins. God I hate this theme song. Not that Family Guy or American Dad have real winners or anything, but is this whole thing just an excuse to have him sing “happy mustache face?”

6:31 — Cleveland is crawling through some heating ducts. Then he’s done and his wife starts crying. Excellent writing so far.

6:32 — Cleveland attempts to “use the force” to get a remote control to levitate into his hand, and then he convinces his son to make him a sandwich. This is on the air, folks.

6:33 — New scene, Cleveland Jr. is talking to his teacher about being class president, or something. Then the teacher flashes back to…a few hours ago maybe? He’s singing “Fuck You” in a barbershop style. This was a lot funnier when the chickens sang it in the recent Muppets movie, and even there it wasn’t particularly funny.

6:34 — Cleveland said that something’s got his wife all “insane in the femme brain.” That’s the closest thing to actual humor I’ve heard in this episode yet, and it’s long out-of-date reference to Cypress Hill. Does anyone even know who they are anymore? And did I almost laugh because it was funny, or just because I recognized it? It’s probably the latter…

6:36 — Cleveland’s step daughter showed up to a class presidential debate dressed as Sarah Palin, because Sarah Palin was also someone who was at some debates once. I guess.

6:37 — Cleveland’s wife tells him he can’t go on a hunting trip because he might get killed. Then she plays “Taps” on the recorder. I’m honestly not sure if these even qualify as jokes, so much as they’re just things that happen after other things happen.

6:38 — The bear drinks a lot of beer and burps.

6:39 — Cleveland Jr. hires the talking baby (whose name is Black Stewie, or should be) to convince the Sarah Palin girl not to run. Then we cut back to Cleveland who hears a gun go off and then is deaf.

6:40 — First commercial break. What’s happened so far? I can’t even summarize it. There’s no narrative flow to speak of, which, hey, isn’t a huge deal in itself for a cartoon show, but there also haven’t really been any jokes. I almost think that this show must be written for toddlers, the way all the jokes seem to have the word “fart” or the sound of a burp as a punchline. That’s where we’re supposed to be laughing, people. And I do imagine it would be a fucking riot if I was…six.

6:41 — Commercial is over; that was quick. Cleveland is at the doctor and speaking in a steotypically hilarious “deaf guy” voice. This sure bodes well for the rest of the episode.

6:42 — In order to hide his impairment Cleveland is just agreeing with everything his wife says. Fortunately the “deaf guy” voice went away, which is a good thing but probably wouldn’t have happened if any of the people writing this thing gave a shit.

6:43 — A sign outside the school says ELECTIONS TODAY, and two children hold up the letter R, giggling, before they change the sign to read ELECTRONS TODAY. That’s genuinely clever. Credit where due…I’m happy to admit it when good writing works its way into this show.

6:44 — The deaf guy voice is back. That didn’t last long.

6:45 — Cleveland’s hearing comes back, because I guess the writers ran out of funny jokes to make about serious injuries resulting in permanent hearing loss.

6:46 — Cleveland is wearing ear plugs so that he can go on agreeing with everything his wife says…though I’m not sure why he has to be deaf to do that, particularly when he was hiding the fact that he was deaf anyway. Shouldn’t the fact that his hearing came back just sort of…solve the problem?

6:47 — Cleveland’s wife sold his baseball cards, which I’m sure we never heard about or cared about in the past, to pay for school. Because she’s going to school, I guess. As a direct result of this, Cleveland dresses up as a giant sandwich and then runs away from his fat son, screaming. Another commercial begins because, seriously, where the fuck do you go from there?

8:50 — Cleveland summarizes everything that’s happened so far, in case the viewers needed to be reminded that nothing’s happened so far.

8:51 — The step-daughter is elected president and then immediately resigns, which is hilarious, as that’s definitely the kind of joke we need to be making about a minor news item that’s three years out of date.

8:52 — Black Stewie walks down a hallway and disappears.

8:53 — Cleveland admits to his wife that he couldn’t hear for a while, but then could, explaining why he was agreeing with everything she said, making this, I don’t know, the third time the show needs to explain itself to us. Maybe if it didn’t worry so much about whether or not we understood its nonsense, it might find time to make us laugh.

8:54 — Then again, the funniest thing in this episode is still the Cypress Hill reference so…fuck that.

8:55 — Cleveland’s house is in turmoil because his wife was at college. Then she comes back. Wow, that plot development lasted a full minute, and didn’t really give us any jokes unless you count the fact that Cleveland thought his wife’s new friends were pretty as a joke. Which, well…why the hell not. Might as well fill out the numbers.

8:56 — Third commercial break. The story so far: Cleveland was deaf for two minutes, his wife was at college for sixty seconds, and there was an entire school election plot that happened entirely off-camera. I honestly think I’d get more out of this show by not watching it.

8:57 — Oh, it’s over? Nice…uh…punch line. For those who weren’t watching, it ended with Cleveland walking upstairs.

Thanks for sharing the laughs, everybody!

Office Life or death

March 3rd, 2012 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal | television - (0 Comments)

I’m a bit late reporting on this, so I apologize for having had other things to say instead, but my potential appearance as a superstar celebrity awesome guy on the upcoming reality show Office Life has been been kiboshed.*

This is neither surprising nor upsetting. We, as employees of an organization that pays us to do work and not — I must say — monkey around for a camera, were only told that management discussed it and decided that the cons outweighed the pros. Being as my own personal list of cons consisted entirely of “We go out of business because we were made to look like idiots” and my own personal list of pros consisted entirely of “We get to be on television,” I have to agree.

There’s more I’d like to say on this subject, as I’m not sure I’m entirely finished processing it, but I did want to update about this to say that there would be no forthcoming updates about this, except for the update about this that I will write when I decide what I want to say in my update about this.

THANKS FOR READING

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* My browser’s spell checker doesn’t like the word “kiboshed,” and wanted me to type out “had the kibosh put on it” instead, but I kiboshed that noise.

There’s absolutely no way this is the first place you’re reading this, but James Spader will be leaving The Office at the end of this season. According to Paul Lieberstein, who pulls triple duty as show runner, writer, and actor who plays Toby, this was in the cards from the start, and it was always the intention that Spader wouldn’t stick around for longer than one season. According to common sense, on the other hand, that’s bunk.

I could get into the behind-the-scenes reasons that we already know this isn’t true, but I don’t really care to do so (unless someone asks), as I’m far more interested in pondering what this means, and what it says about the show as a whole right now.* Suffice it to say that something changed here, and since it’s Spader leaving The Office and not The Office ditching Spader, we can pretty easily guess what it was.

I’d like to imagine that Spader signed up expecting to be part of a very good show. Probably not with any expectation that the show would be as good as it was in its heyday (more on that in a moment) but at least that he’d be part of a television comedy of relatively high quality. What he got — an interpretation reinforced by the fact that he’s announced his departure now, before the season’s even over and these sorts of announcements would feel more at home — was something he couldn’t be as proud of. He signed up to play a masterfully intimidating creature of intrigue, and he was immediately reduced to an assortment of fumbled character quirks trapped in a world of broad-and-getting-broader caricatures.

Perhaps he knew that this was the direction the show had been taking for a few seasons now, but thought he could help it get better. Perhaps he hadn’t seen the show since, oh I don’t know, when Michael started his own paper company. Or perhaps he’s never seen the show and his agent just told him it was really good. Whatever the reality, it didn’t live up to the fantasy, and Spader told Lieberstein he was leaving, perhaps with a disarmingly intense glower that was a far more effective use of his off-puttingly seductive anti-charm than the show ever let him display on camera.

This season of the show has been, to put it in the most polite way possible, a pile of stinking shit. But it’s important not to place the blame on Spader, as last season might have been somewhat better but certainly wasn’t good in any sense of the word. (It also included perhaps the worst episode this show could ever produce, the abysmal and embarrassing “Threat-Level Midnight.”) The Office, in short, hasn’t been good for a long time, and I’d argue that it never even lived up to its potential even in its early years, when everybody was going ape over it. To me it just started like a watered-down imitation of its much more confident British cousin, and it pretty quickly started down the road to cartoony nonsense that it’s still hurtling down today.

None of that, again, is Spader’s fault. Nor could it possibly be. In fact, Spader was probably this show’s last hope.

I remember the interview aspect of the final episodes last season, and Spader’s character really seemed like it could take the show in an interesting direction. His coldness had a magnetic ability. He was inhuman, and yet of humans. He was terrifying, and yet the only man you’d want in charge. Whatever he was going to bring to the show, it was going to be interesting.

Then they got him there and just let him flounder as an unrealized distant-manager stereotype, who has spousal issues or something.

That’s not Spader’s fault. That’s bad writing.

My girlfriend and I have talked about the decline of this show before, and a few times we’ve returned to the idea that it can still be funny, yes, but when it’s funny it’s the actors being funny…not the writers. Andy or Creed or Darryl might still make us laugh, but not because they’ve been given good lines…it’s because Ed Helms and Creed Bratton and Craig Robinson know how to deliver even bad ones. The writing has been in decline for ages…it’s the acting that does the heavy lifting.

Spader is a great actor, but his acting didn’t elevate the material. Perhaps because he wasn’t given any material worth elevating. He did his job, he punched the clock, but at the end of the day, there was no reason for him to associate himself with this show, and I think he’s realizing that. They didn’t know how to write a character, and so they didn’t write a character. They’ve never really known how to write characters…they were just blessed from the start with a cast that could bring their own. He was promised (as we were promised) a powerhouse role that would turn the show on its ear. Then he showed up for regular appearances, and they neutered him.

The same thing, on a much larger scale, happened to Andy way back when.

I’ve said earlier that I wasn’t much a fan of the early seasons. I know that puts me in the minority, but I’m okay with that. I’m also okay with the fact that I absolutely adored one of the storylines the show stumbled upon in season three: Jim’s transfer to another branch, and specifically the introduction of Andy Bernard.

Ed Helms, simply, is brilliant in those Stamford branch episodes, and he appeared immediately on the show as one of the most fully-realized characters The Office had ever seen. That, again, is due to the acting more than the writing, as Andy not only had his scripted boastfulness to coast on, but Ed Helms’s hollow swagger, his aggressively sad eyes, and his genuinely endearing musical prowess. Andy was a lot of things at once, and when Stamford was absorbed into Scranton, the show promised some enormous conflict from the merging of the two worlds.

For perhaps the only time, The Office delivered on such a promise. Andy Bernard was simultaneously a suckup and an asshole. He was fiercely loyal and a shifty turncoat. He was endearing, and yet he was dangerous. The episodes allowed his coworkers the chance to needle him as much as he needled them, and though Andy Bernard could certainly dish it out while aggressively maintaining eye contact, he couldn’t take it. Jim plays the comparatively harmless prank of hiding his personal cell phone, and Andy, raging, punches a hole in the wall. This was no cartoon…this was a man with serious issues, and he was stuck in an office with colleagues and a manager who had no idea what to do with him.

Sadly, the show had no idea what to do with him either, and though his mandatory anger management stint made perfect logical sense, it only really served to neuter the character, and he hasn’t been the same since. We’ve spent so much time exploring the fragility of Andy’s emotions and the sadness of his upbringing that we’ve gone so far past humanization that he’s nothing but a walking sack of sad now. Watching his earlier episodes in comparison to what we’re seeing now, it’s sad. Like Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sad, only there’s nobody around with a pillow. Last season, at some point, Andy got upset and threw a pizza at the wall. I finally started paying attention again, because I thought this meant his long dormant anger issues were finally flaring up again. (It would have been logistically sound for this to happen, as well.) But, alas, by the next episode he was back to skulking around dog-faced and masturbating dark bathrooms to pictures of Erin.

I’m saying all of this because it’s is exactly what just happened with Spader’s character as well, albeit at an accelerated rate. Hell, it’s the same thing that happened with Will Ferrell’s awful character, only they didn’t even wait a full episode before they started dancing around and changing what we were supposed to think of him.

An office in reality should strive for seasons free of conflict. The Office on television needs this conflict, though, if it wants to survive. We have nobody we’re asked to hate and too many people the show wants us to love. Yet they’re all just archetypal shades with nothing that makes them feel particularly human. To feel sad is to feel human, yes, but so is to punch a hole in the wall because there’s no way to turn off your ringtone.

In that long ago, totally forgotten arc, the US version of The Office found something so much like humanity it was scary. Too scary even for the writers, who sent it away to anger management training and brought it back neutered and harmless, where it wouldn’t scare or entice viewers ever again.

Personally, I think it’s high time to bring it back. It might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but The Office sure would be more interesting right now if I had to wonder at the start of every episode whether or not Dwight was going to get his teeth kicked out. It’d certainly be a more dynamic situation than the office full of sad-eyed nobodies we’re stuck with now.

Where have you gone, angry ‘Nard Dog? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
—–
*I would also have accepted “The show is a hole right now.”

The interviews were held today for Office Life, and, ultimately, it was about what I expected. A Skype interview to test how easily we could be shaped in an editing booth to fit preconceived notions. Don’t ask me why I expected anything different. I honestly don’t know.

A few of the folks being interviewed really want to be on television. There were assurances tossed around about how “crazy” they are and unpredictable and other things that no doubt reflect very well upon them as employees. Somebody even stood up and did a little dance.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be on television, of course. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe the premise that they pitched to us (“a show about how small business is the key to revitalizing America’s economy”) worked its magic on me in spite of everything I read about the show beforehand, and which was unsurprisingly absent entirely from the interview, in which they instead wanted us to act zany and classify each other into character types like the whip-cracker, the party animal and the mother hen. The might as well have asked us to identify the Dwight, the Kelly and the Phyllis.

My The Office comparisons yesterday were mainly in jest. Now I guess they were just prescient. They want to know this stuff in advance so that they can save themselves the hassle of actually learning something about their subjects, or — horror of horrors — having to deal with a group of people that don’t line up exactly with fictional characters they know from T.V.

They’re coming to film the office next week on Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m not sure how I feel about that, and based upon the interview (from which I checked out pretty quickly, as it became all too clear all too quickly what kind of show they were hoping to produce) I might decline to sign the release form, leaving it to folks who are more comfortable making themselves look deliberately foolish in front of strangers. But we’ll see. They’ve tried to reassure us by saying that they don’t want to milk our jobs for drama, because if they got a reputation of damaging businesses nobody would pick up their series. Which is obviously and entirely true; that’s why you absolutely never see people on television who have screwed other people over to get there. It’s an entirely self-policing process that weeds out any trouble makers and I’m sorry I can’t finish typing that sentence with a straight face.

I’m not saying that I’d particularly like to costar in a documentary series, but I’d at least be open to the idea. But I don’t want to costar in a broad comedy, particularly one deliberately manufactured from “real life” material in which all the scenes that don’t feature archetypal behavior are cut for time and tedium.

In Vineland, Thomas Pynchon famously wrote that “The camera is a gun.” The older I get, the more sense that observation seems to make. It’s often wisest to move out of the way before it starts shooting.

Part of me is still open-minded, but it’s a much smaller part of me now. I’m trying to stay optimistic, but hope no longer springs eternal.

Hope instead springs ’til about next Tuesday.

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