March 19th, 2009
When it was announced that Idris Elba was going to be joining The Office as the new Jan, or Ryan, I was (like most TV critics and fans who have watched The Wire) pretty ecstatic. Stringer Bell was a stunning character study in someone who didn’t have time for games, who was all business even while involved in the illicit drug trade, and had an appreciation for order and structure which would turn Michael Scott’s life upside down. We knew, as Greg Daniels and Co. are fans of the show, that this casting combined with Michael’s relationship with authority had a great deal of potential.
But I’ll admit up front that “New Boss” wasn’t working for me, maybe because I underestimated just how antithetical a Stringer Bell type (and Elba is not branching far from that role here) is to the fundamental purpose of this show. It’s not just that Charles Minor is an interruption of Michael Scott’s normal routine, but the entire office is thrown into a tailspin by his arrival. Rather than have Michael give a large awkward seminar and let Minor watch as it all tumbles to the ground, Minor interrupts him, stops him, and shuts down things before they can transcend to the level of real conflict. The problem he presents is not that he and Michael don’t agree, but rather that he is so unwilling to interact with Michael on the level Michael desires that he is there to keep things from happening as opposed to reacting to them.
And while I think that there is a lot of room to grow within this relationship, and I still remain convinced in its potential, “New Boss” is that introduction where these polar opposites remain too far apart for it to really come together, and where the dramatic elements are here but there isn’t the comedy to back them up.
While technically divided into three storylines, all of them are about Charles Minor, whether he is a new obstacle, a new person to impress, or a new person to try to sleep with. And if this new person was someone like Holly Flax this could have worked great, considering that she was at some level another employee, another person who’s trying to fit in. Charles Minor is not that person – he is there to improve productivity, to oversee Michael’s activities, and to help the country through a financial crisis. None of this involves fraternizing with the guests, and none of it is desperate, frantic, or particularly novel. He is the very definition of management, and it’s a problem for the characters and, I feel, for the show itself.
It’s just too much of a change: yes, Jan shut down Michael’s policies and threatened him when things went wrong, but they had a rapport, and she was also herself a little bit off kilter even before the writers sent her off the deep end. Before then, she was still giving ridiculous womens’ seminars, so she felt like she fit into this world. Minor, meanwhile, isn’t from this world at all: he’s playing by someone else’s rules, rules that have always had a translator into “wacky or zany” before reaching the office itself. And it’s not that there isn’t value in this, as it does manifest one storyline that felt particularly effective, but it’s something that will have to crack in time because its dramatic impacts were all dealt with here.
As for Michael, I really felt for him in this episode. While he is being unreasonable about Minor’s requests, this is his way of life and the way he has been running things, and operating without a Jan has been a huge weight off of his shoulders. He has also developed a close personal relationship with David Wallace, so for them to be someone coming between them would create a period of readjustment. However, Minor hasn’t shown the same attempts: he closes himself off in the conference room, shuts down the Party Planning Committee, and is operating entirely against any of Michael’s sentiments about this being a family, about celebrating his 15 years with the company, or anything similar.
The problem is that we never get to see, in this episode at least, Charles Minor realize this. He needs to realize that you can’t change Michael Scott that easily, just as David Wallace realized that the plan of giving Michael a direct supervisor who was more strict was going to be an issue as he tried to placate him by throwing him his party and attending personally. Yes, Michael is a horrible manager in terms of time management, and this is a highly unproductive work environment, but he has proven loyal to the company in the past and has been willing to play ball in taking out small paper companies or coming up with ideas that are off the wall but somewhat effective. There is some value to that, and it feels like Minor stepping in and crushing it was just to create that final scene where Michael quits, crazily but with his pride on the line.
Getting there, though, felt like it was never quite hitting the right mark: his first introduction was suitably awkward, and his recitation of people’s sex lives was what I had expected, but after that it was talking to a wall. And we needed to see that wall show some human characteristics with some of these characters, for Charles Minor to go beyond being a bureaucratic hurdle to being an actual human being. Jan as a character really struck that balance well until she went over the deep end (a decision which still frustrates me), and Ryan was never bureaucratic since we had known him in the context of the lowly temp. Minor, however, is thus far too far removed from the comic centre of the show for me to feel that he lived up to his full potential here – I want to be able to laugh at him, or with him, and right now it’s just nothing. He’s a construct, little more.
It’s an effective construct from a dramatic perspective, moreso than a comic one. Jim, for example, finds himself caught in one of his pranks on Dwight as the day goes on, but it’s never played for comedy outside of the initial setup. Once that cold open is gone, and once Jim has his first talking head, it is like Jim is being shamed, and we’re being shamed for being privy to his juvenile behaviour. Minor breaking up the Party Planning Comittee meeting was just uncomfortable to watch, as you realize that these are supposed to be adults and, with Minor’s perspective in the room, you stop enjoying it and start considering its frivolity. And while I like the initial feeling, the episode doesn’t go beyond it, and Jim is just sad and pathetic and fatalist once he starts to try to redeem himself and realizes that the very foundation of his behaviour (making fun of Dwight) has no place in Minor’s world.
The other storyline was the one that was supposed to be the funniest, but it just didn’t work: Kelly and Angela fighting over Minor’s affections was funny on occasion, but because they never really interacted with Minor it didn’t feel like it really mattered. It also seemed to clash with the rest of the episode: Stanley’s worried about layoffs and everyone is concerned about overtime, and yet here’s Angela of all people getting hung up on this man? It’s weird, but the real “comedy” in the episode often felt forced – there’s a reason that Dwight barely had a role in this episode except to take things too far (with the Kidnapping phone call, or in the Cold Open/Party Planning scenes), because there just wasn’t room for it.
And I felt like they needed to make room, that they had to set not just the polarizing nature of Minor’s character but the potential for him to eventually come around, some flaw or some part of him that could be friendly, that could be part of this culture. He bought everyone lunch, but it wasn’t a real gesture: it was something he did for everyone, and I don’t blame Michael for calling it hypocritical (Sorry – Hype-o-critical). And while I get that we were meant to get Michael’s view, and the Office’s view on Minor’s appearance, it was just so fatalist. There wasn’t one person in the office who welcomed him, one person who saw that he was just trying to help, no human connection with Minor that could give us hope.
It was just a guy who was trying to introduce rules of order to a game that has always been played the way it’s been played – and we know that doesn’t work, and I wish we would have been given even a glimpse at how it might shape up in the future.
- Michael quitting isn’t going to last, we know, but I think that it was a moment of pride for Michael. He always picks those very carefully, and the speech he gave to David was, if a bit misplaced considering how unreasonable he had been before, quite inspiring and true, so he knew where a good exit might make a difference. However, I think he’s going to regret that decision pretty quickly.
- Michael’s C-shaped bagels weren’t even a joke, as far as I can tell – they were just another point of this sad sort of view on this world, not so much extravagance or insanity but just a pathetic and sad attempt at being welcoming. That’s not funny, though – just sad.
- Another example of the comedy being held back: Michael’s “the more immature his comedy routine, the more he’s angry or uncomfortable” introduced by Pam could have been a long sequence, but Minor was just “shut it down” and wanted to move on. Nobody has so clearly wanted to move on before.
- The one moment of comedy that felt like it really hit between Michael and Charles was Michael mistaking the name of the Steel company for his wife’s “weird African name.” That was my biggest laugh of the episode.