Last year at this time, fans of “The Office” were in the midst of an uproar over the departure of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, whose final words were a silent mouthing of his sophomoric catchphrase, "That's what she said!"
His exit left the show’s future uncertain. A year later, the eighth season is set to end Thursday with Dunder Mifflin Sabre at a new crossroads amid rumblings of fresh upheaval on- and off-screen. But there's hope for the show, if not necessarily for the Scranton, Pa., paper company branch: As the cast and writers proved in this first Scott-free season, "The Office" still works.
The early post-Carell episodes got off to a tentative start, perhaps a reflection of the tension and often bumpy shifting of roles that greet any major workplace shake-up. Seeming nice-guy milquetoast Andy Bernard's appointment as new office manager initially felt anti-climatic, especially after last season's parade of candidates for the post that included quirky characters played by, among others, Jim Carrey, Ray Romano and Ricky Gervais, the star and co-creator of the original UK version of the series.
This season has benefited from the addition of two of the interviewees – James Spader as the infuriatingly inscrutable Robert California, and Catherine Tate as neurotic New Age-double speaker Nellie Bertram, both of whom rose to upper management ranks. Appearances by Spader's California signaled a helping of comic menace, via a character who makes up mind games and creates unease as he goes along – most memorably at a raucous indoor pool party at his mansion where he revealed more than anyone cared to experience. The season soared in the second half as Tate's Bertram bulled her way through corporate headquarters in Florida to Andy's office, where she staged a passive-aggressive takeover.
Spader and Tate’s characters injected the show with a re-energizing unpredictability – and familiarity. For all their cartoonish behavior, the duo feel very real to anyone who has worked for a boss bent on keeping employees off-balance. Still, the revelation this season has been Ed Helms’ Andy, who transformed from a Michael Scott-light replacement to a resilient figure able to rebound from almost constant, sometimes self-inflicted humiliation (his disastrous garden party, a messy break-up, losing his job) to win back Erin and steal the paper company's biggest client.
Andy’s business coup sets the stage for Thursday's season clincher, which, while free of the momentousness of Carell's goodbye, is expected to mark the end of Robert California's reign and bring more change. Mindy Kaling, an “Office” mainstay as a writer and as self-absorbed ditz Kelly Kapoor, is getting a show on Fox. A Dwight Schrute spinoff is said to be in the works for Rainn Wilson. Other cast members reportedly have yet to sign on for Season 9. Spade is through with the show and it’s unclear whether Tate will return.
But as we learned this season, life at "The Office" goes on – and remains entertaining, if not always comfortable (That’s what she said!). As we await Thursday's season finale, catch up with scenes from last week’s episode below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.