In the Summer months since we last shared 22 minutes with our friends at "The Office," speculation has been rampant as to who the new branch manager at Dunder Mifflin might be, replacing the amazing and criminally under-Emmy'd Michael Scott (played to utterly glorious perfection by Steve Carell). Of all the names going around the water cooler, few seemed to consider the one buffoonish contender right beneath our noses the entire time: Andrew "I went to Cornell" Bernard.
In last night’s season premiere episode, “The List,” we learn that Pam is very pregnant (in real life as well), Angela is pregnant (supposedly with her husband the Senator’s child, though I suspect there will be a Schrute complication down the line), and James Spader's brilliantly intimidating Robert California character somehow talked Sabre CEO Jo (Kathy Bates) into giving him her job. Despite the upheavals and developments, the atmosphere in the office is thankfully familiar, despite the purgatorial sense of "what now?" in Michael's absence.
While an entire episode could've been built around Pam's hormonal freak-outs, breakdowns and erraticism, writers wisely focused on the spooky new guy and his ability to mindf*ck the entire office. When Robert leaves his notebook at the reception desk, Erin discovers a two-column list with everyone's names split between each side. As they struggle to figure out what the list means and why certain people are on particular sides they convince their unsteady new leader Andy to ask Robert what the list means. Robert tells Andy he makes lists instead of drawing doodles when he’s bored, while erasing Andy's name from one column and moving it to the other.
Robert decides to take everyone on the left-hand column (Jim, Angela, Toby, Oscar, Dwight, Kevin, Darryl) out to lunch, leaving the people on the right-hand column (Phyllis, Stan, Andy, Pam, Erin, Ryan, Kelly, Creed) behind. Desperate not to feel ostracized, they throw a depressing pizza party – an act of leadership that gives us our first inkling that Andy might not be a bad manager fit after all. Meanwhile, at the lunch, Robert reveals to everyone that they are the winners – and those still in the office are losers.
Cue Jim's eyebrows-up camera glances and Toby's fumbling "I don't belong here… just picture me back there. I was never here" departure, before a return to the office that brings out the bullying ugliness in the more juvenile employees (cough-Kevin-cough-Dwight) brings the issue to a boil. With true concern in his eyes for the well-being of those in his professional family, Andy steps up to his first real leadership challenge. He tells Robert why each "loser" should be on the new CEO's winner list, with exception of Gabe's placement, which he's fine with. It's a moment of selfless honor, sticking up for his underlings and former associates, and won huge points with this longtime fan of the show.
Andy also wins what he assumes to be a valiant fight for an extra half-day of Columbus Day vacation, only to learn that they got that every year from Michael anyway. "Well, you got it this year too," Andy replies without resentment as the employees pass him on their way out the door for the weekend, each giving their own spin on recognizing & respecting the new boss' position as they say goodbye. It's enough for him that the staff continues to experience life as they've known it – he clearly only wants to do justice to his new position at Dunder Mifflin, and take care of his people.
Of course, we couldn't escape the season premiere without a dose of Jim and Pam focus, which arrives via Pam's discovery of Jim’s deliberately 'dropped' list in which he's put “Pam/Cece/New Baby” in one column and “Everything Else” in another. Naturally, Pam is a blubbering mess of conflicting emotions, with adoration for her considerate hubby winning out in the end.
Andy sticking up for his branch and his friends is a great way to win early favor with viewers, and "The Office" has a truly great opportunity to grow new legs and establish a sense of freshness that most programs could only hope for with a departed leading man (here's looking at you, Two and a Half Men"). They've locked our attention – now let's see what they do with it.
Best quotes of the night:
"I act like I'm telling someone how to do something. I go over the long description, and then I say, "and shove it up your butt!" — Stanley, on his "new thing". Please, please don't let this stupid phrase catch on. I can see the T-shirts now.
"Chins up, OK? Bad joke." — Andy, comforting emotional "fat mom" Pam
"Jim, shut the door. This is just gross." — Dwight, reacting to Andy's kind words about each staff member