And so we begin the eighth season of “The Office”. We’ve moved into the ‘Life Without Michael Scott’ years, but the show’s creative team has blunted the sadness of Steve Carell’s absence with the addition of the excellent James Spader. As the perfectly deadpan and mysterious Robert California, he is now the CEO of Dunder Mifflin Sabre. Then there is the business of finally finding Michael Scott’s replacement as regional manager. No doubt the decision will be hailed by some, while derided by others. Season eight’s debut episode was strong, but the balance was off slightly without Michael Scott as the anchor. But the stellar ensemble cast kept the ship rolling along – with a pleasant gust of fresh air in its sails due to the arrival of Spader.

The Players:

  • Director: B.J. Novak
  • Writers: B.J. Novak
  • Cast: Rainn Wilson, James Spader, John Krasinski, B.J. Novak, Jenna Fischer, Ed Helms, Leslie David Baker, Brian Baumgartner, Creed Bratton, Mindy Kaling, Ellie Kemper, Angela Kinsey, Paul Lieberstein, Oscar Nuñez, Craig Robinson, Phyllis Smith

Episode: “The List”

We first met Robert California in May’s seventh-season finale. Now he’s back as the new Dunder Mifflin CEO – replacing Jo Bennett (Kathy Bates). In the season eight debut he leaves a piece of paper with a line down the middle that has the names of the Scranton staff on the left and right side of it, leading everyone in the office desperately trying to figure out what it means.

The Good:

  • Andy Bernard, Regional Manager: Who knows how long the creative team deliberated over who to drop into Michael Scott’s regional manager’s chair, but the arrival of James Spader’s Robert California as the new CEO of Dunder Mifflin Sabre helped lessen the aches of change. The position itself seems to have been lessened slightly, seeing as it was so connected with Michael Scott, allowing for a smoother transition to this new, Carell-less version of “The Office”. And yet, it works. Ed Helms is terrific and perhaps his shift into the boss’ chair will open up some interesting storytelling.
  • Robert California: James Spader is awesome for numerous reasons, and now I am adding his new “Office” character to the list. He had some nice, understated moments in the episode.
  • Cold Open: The cold open was top-notch! You get the news that Andy Bernard was named as Michael Scott’s replacement, only after Robert California was hired, but bailed on day 1, drove to Florida, and talked Jo Bennett out of her CEO job. Then, it seems, that planking has swept through the office. Meredith planking in the mens room is just good all around.
  • “Warning… Warning…: Kevin Malone takes matters into his own hands! The sound of his voice and look on his face is hilarious.
  • Angela: The pregnant senator’s wife had some tasty zingers for Pam. She is definitely feeling good these days!

The Bad (but not that bad):

  • Andy Bernard, Regional Manager: Just as some will cheer the news that Cornell grad Andy is boss, others will howl with anger. It was Robert California who was given the job, but, as shown in the open, he aspired for more. Say hello to second choice Andy Bernard. The re-cut opening credits were funny with Andy arranging his desk, ala’ Michael Scott, at the end, but it’s really a big unknown how it will work. Ed Helms is a-plus, but this is the big pivot for the show. No more Michael Scott to hang their hat on – even with a great ensemble cast. With Spader on board, I think Andy, though regional manager, will
  • Pam, Crying: Jenna Fischer’s Pam character is pregnant again – it’s a boy! Pregnant women get emotional, and the writers drove that point home with one scene after another of Pam crying because of sad TV commercials and really, just about anything. Love Pam/Jenna, but this was the weakest part of the premiere.

Overall:

With a superb ensemble and addition of James Spader, season eight opened nicely in the post-Carell era. Those who feel the show’s best days are long since past are probably still in the same camp, but with Andy as regional manager and the mystery that is Robert California hopefully unraveling throughout the season, the show proves it still has new avenues of comedy to explore. There is plenty of life left in “The Office”, and this particular episode proved it could very well be a solid season of comedy.

The Top Ten “Office” episodes need not worry about losing ground to the season eight debut, but it was funny and touching and quirky – just how we always liked it with Michael Scott and just the same way now that he is long gone.

Rating: 8/10

“The Office” airs on NBC at 9pm (ET/PT) on Thursday nights.

What did you think of last night’s episode?