There's something different about 'The Office' this season, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Did Jim get a haircut? No, that's not it. Did Jim get Pam pregnant again? Yes, but that's hardly different. Wait a sec, did Jim buy a new tie? Yes, that must be it! That's what's different this season, Jim bought a new tie. Mystery solved. Those clever writers sure do know how to shake things up. Also, Steve Carell isn't on the show anymore, but I really think it's the tie thing that's tripping me up. You see, for better or worse, it turns out that 'The Office' is still very much 'The Office,' even without its former star. While some viewers expected a dramatic shift in quality, season eight is really just business as usual for the popular sitcom. Unfortunately, that business isn't as fresh as it used to be, and the once hilarious show has really run out of gas. It still has its moments, but the characters continue to veer into caricature and the storylines feel redundant. There are some laughs to be had, and Carell's departure actually does lead to a few bursts of creativity, but the show is clearly well past its prime.
Since Michael Scott (Steve Carell) stepped down as manager of Dunder Mifflin last season, viewers have all been wondering who's going to replace him. We saw a variety of possible candidates in the season seven finale, and now we finally get our answer. Andy (Ed Helms) is stepping up as the new boss. Well, sort of. You see, it turns out the enigmatic Robert California (James Spader) was offered the job first, but quit and then somehow manipulated his way into becoming CEO of the entire company. Though Andy is technically in charge, California spends a fair amount of time overseeing the Scranton branch, and their power struggle plays a big part in the season's overall arc. Other recurring subplots involve the birth of Angela's baby (who might actually be a Schrute), the potential return of Erin and Andy's romance, and a business trip to Florida.
By promoting Andy and adding California to the cast, the producers seem to want to have their cake and eat it too, and unfortunately there are some problems with this approach. Instead of smoothly transitioning from Carell's departure, the writers present a murkier situation, and Spader's presence ends up diminishing Helms assent to the manager position. While the two characters' conflict is a major element of the season, it seems like the show would have been better off just picking one or the other. As it stands, the transition is now clunky and it feels like the series has one foot in the past and one in the future, unable to fully commit.
Likewise, though I admire Ed Helms as a comedic performer, as written this season, Andy is rarely more than a Michael Scott stand-in. Sure, there are certain unique quirks to the character, but by and large he is far too similar to Michael to really stand apart. Many scenarios, awkward reactions, management decisions, and even mannerisms mirror those that Scott would make, and these strong similarities keep the show feeling oddly stale, when, if handled differently, Carell's departure could have actually livened things up. Thankfully, there are some attempts to flesh Andy out, but his season long struggle for acceptance and recognition is far too reminiscent of similar Michael Scott subplots.
While Andy's rise in prominence left a lot to be desired, I must admit that James Spader makes for a fairly welcome addition to the cast. Robert California is an interesting character, and his bizarre, sex-crazed, suave, over-bearing persona can be truly hilarious. Spader plays the role with an odd blend of enigmatic mystery, bond villain bravado, and debonair charm. His coolly delivered, intimidating, yet often ponderous rants remind me a bit of Brando's famous character in 'Apocalypse Now.' He's like a perverse "warrior poet," and like Colonel Kurtz he seems to have a God complex too. As funny as Spader can be, the character does work best in small doses, and thankfully, for the most part, the writers seem to be aware of this. With that said, California's schtick can get very repetitive and he doesn't really get fleshed out much. Like I said earlier, his presence seems to be an attempt to add a little spice to the show while still maintaining the status quo with Andy. It's an interesting strategy, but it just doesn't work very well.
To make matters even more convoluted, the writers introduce yet another manager about halfway through the season in the form of Nellie (Catherine Tate), who also made her debut in the season seven finale. While I'm a fan of Tate, the character really isn't necessary, and just serves to once again temporarily shake things up. Still, the British comedian is funny in the role, and her presence does lead to one of my favorite lines in the entire season ("Why is Jim treating the magician poorly?").
Like always, the show finds humor in the monotony of the average work place (though with this crazy group, it's really not very "average" anymore, is it?), and longtime viewers will find more of the same. The characters still have great chemistry, and there's some genuinely funny bits peppered throughout the twenty four episodes. Unfortunately, these bursts of creativity are often surrounded but rather tedious stretches that recycle plotlines and jokes. By far the worst subplot involves an attempt to introduce some drama in Jim and Pam's relationship through a new temp named Cathy (Lindsey Broad). The character tries to put the moves on Jim but the whole situation feels very contrived and lacks any real drama since we all know that SPOILER ALERT Jim isn't going to cheat on Pam. I hope I didn’t spoil that for anyone who hasn't seen the season yet, but if you actually consider that a spoiler, then I don't think we've been watching the same show.
Characters also continue to become more exaggerated and unrealistic. Erin and Kevin's stupidity are the best examples, and their idiotic behavior and comments remain just as annoying as they are funny. Jim's continued torment of Dwight is still faintly amusing, but his scheme in "Garden Party" is far too unrealistic. He writes an elaborate fake book just to mess with Dwight. While previous pranks have been pretty involved, dedicating that amount of time for the sake of a joke isn’t really funny, it's downright psychotic. Andy also starts to demonstrate some of the worst Michael Scott traits, and his theatrics in the season finale are just plain dumb. Going along with this, one of my least favorite aspects of the show's recent seasons, Andy and Erin's relationship, also plays a large role in this batch of episodes. While I still find their on again/off again coupling to be more irritating than romantic, they at least get some closure.
While some fans criticized the season's multiple episode excursion to Florida, I actually liked this arc quite a bit. Separating the characters leads to some interesting dynamics and with the exception of the aforementioned Cathy subplot, I found the Florida antics to be very amusing (I particularly enjoyed a fun shout out to 'Chuck'). On that same note, despite all my criticisms, the show does continue to be funny. I don't laugh as consistently throughout episodes as I once did, and I've sadly ceased caring about most of the characters, but how can one not chuckle at a conversation praising the hotness of a pregnant Helen Mirren? Or Dwight's exclamation of shock when he thinks that Darryl is trying to lose weight in order to impress Val Kilmer? Or a serious office debate about whether Stanley has a mustache? Yes, this has become a seriously flawed show, but it still has its charms and is certainly entertaining. It just pales in comparison to what it once was.
The eighth season of 'The Office' isn't a total disaster, but it does fail to provide the type of reinvigorating spark that the series so desperately craves. Steve Carell's departure proves to be a lot less eventful than one might have expected, and in reality the show is pretty much the same. Unfortunately, the cringe worthy awkward humor that used to feel so fresh, now feels rather stale and occasionally mean-spirited. It's still funny, but it lacks the creativity and heart that made it so special. The chance for the show to go out on top has sadly long since passed, but at least NBC has finally made the right decision by announcing that this upcoming ninth season will be the series' last, hopefully ensuring that it can at least end with some dignity.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal presents 'The Office: Season Eight' in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack. Five BD-59 discs are housed in a foldout case with a cardboard slipcover. The reverse side of each disc houses a DVD version of the show, and an insert with instructions for downloadable UltraViolet digital copies is included. Unfortunately, the packaging once again leaves a bit to be desired as disc one and three are housed partially on top of two and four, requiring you take out the top disc in order to get to the bottom Blu-ray. It's not a huge deal, and it's a pretty common packaging decision, but it's still rather annoying. After some logos and warnings, the discs transition to standard menus. It should be noted that I was unable to play disc one on my Sony BDP-S570 Blu-ray player (discs 2-5 worked fine) but the disc did load on my PS3 and PC drive without any problems.
In a rather odd decision, discs 1, 3, and 4 are presented with 1080p/VC-1 transfers, and discs 2 and 5 are presented with 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers. I'm not sure why Universal decided to switch up the video codecs on this release, but I didn't detect any notable differences between the two. All of the episodes are in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Anyone familiar with the show's previous Blu-ray releases will know exactly what to expect here, as the series continues to look quite nice.
Shot digitally in high definition, the source is clean and free of any major artifacts or noise. Detail is nicely resolved, but the image does have a predominantly flat quality. Still, colors are well saturated without becoming unrealistic, keeping in line with the show's mockumentary style. Contrast can be a little blown out, with slightly blooming whites, but black levels remain consistent. Like in previous seasons, the office setting itself is rather mundane (as it should be) which limits the show's visual appeal, but a few excursions (Gettysburg, a pool party, a trip to Florida) provide some decent variety and liven things up.
'The Office: Season Eight' features a strong video presentation that is free of any notable technical issues. Its mockumentary aesthetic doesn't offer a whole lot to get excited about, but the series looks exactly like it should with pleasing clarity and natural saturation.
The series is provided with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. The audio here is comparable to previous seasons, and while perfectly fine, the mixes don't offer much to get excited about.
Dialogue is the main emphasis and thankfully speech mostly comes through well. With that said, there is some very minor peeking and some lines can have a slightly muffled quality. The overall soundscape is tiny with a front heavy presentation. A few faint ambient effects will hit the surrounds occasionally (telephones, copy machines), but they don't add a whole lot to the experience. Dynamic range is pretty flat and outside of a few isolated instances, bass activity isn't much of factor.
Like I said in my review of the previous season, these modest mixes suit the material well, and more aggressive sound design would likely seem out of place. The audio is very basic, but it succeeds where it counts.
Well, if one needed further proof that the producers just don't care anymore, look no further than the supplements on this release. While previous seasons have had a nice assortment of commentary tracks with the cast and crew, here we get… none. It would have been interesting to hear the writers discuss how they worked through the post-Carell transition, but alas, I suppose those insights will have to remain unheard. Thankfully, the show's other recurring supplements do find their way to this release, with a solid assortment of deleted scenes, bloopers, webisodes, and two extended episodes. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
'The Office: Season Eight' is a mildly amusing but mostly stale effort from the long running series. Steve Carell's absence actually has little effect on the show's quality, as the series' major flaws continue to stem from redundant stories, exaggerated characters, and mean-spirited humor. The show is still funny, but it's way, way past its prime. The video and audio are comparable to other seasons released on Blu-ray, and offer a very solid experience. While the exclusion of commentaries from this set is disappointing, the plethora of deleted scenes is worthwhile. Despite a few bursts of creativity, it really seems like the writers are just going through the motions now. This is a set that will only appeal to really big fans who continue to stick with the show.