Monthly Archives: January 2017

Overthinking the Office Part 8: Robert Californication

When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

Meet the New Boss

When we last left the drones of Dunder Mifflin, there was some uncertainly, before and behind the cameras, as to who would be taking over as the new manager with Michael Scott having departed.

The producers of MASH did kind of an interesting thing every time a cast member left. They would bring in a new character to fill the same basic role (Hawkeye’s pal, the CO, Hawkeye’s rival), but would reverse some aspect of their predecessor. Trapper John was as much of a womanizer as Hawkeye, BJ was devoted to his wife; Colonel Blake didn’t take the army seriously, Colonel Potter was career military; Frank Burns was enthusiastic about the military but only competent as a surgeon, Charles Winchester was apathetic about the army and Hawkeye’s superior as a surgeon. So did The Office go this route in season eight?

Yes and no.

The new regional manager of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch is Andy Bernard. And as I said back in part three, Andy is a cypher. He’s whatever the show needs him to be, which is why early season three Andy is barely recognizable as the same character compared to later seasons. And what they needed him to be in season eight was basically “Michael lite.” He keeps Michael’s need for acceptance, the need to be liked, but it’s toned down and its origins are made more clear. After a few seasons of hearing about how much more his parents loved his brother than him, we come face-to-face with it in Garden Party, as Andy’s family make their proper on-screen debut. To us, and to the other characters. This makes the redemptive moments when they reach out to and support Andy a little warmer, and rarely as unearned as some of Michael’s. On the flip side, however, Andy never really goes to the levels of cringe and idiocy that Michael did, meaning that while there’s no Scott’s Tots, the ceiling for his comedy is lower.

They do find some Andy-specific things to play with, though. For instance, a cold open which reveals that every day at 5:00 Andy signals the end of the work day by trying to lead the staff in a rendition of Closing Time by Third Eye Blind Semisonic. Andy doesn’t have the same relationship with Dwight that Michael did, but has a much closer relationship to Darryl than Michael ever could have had. And there is still the lingering “When will these two nuts get back together” plot with Erin, whose ending should have been triumphant but is just kind of… there. Overall, however, promoting Andy meant they didn’t have to worry too much about creating a new manager-staff dynamic, as Andy slid into Michael plots pretty easily. Especially towards the end of the series, when… next time, next time.

They did go a whole new direction, however, with Andy’s boss.

Reign of California

You know what the dumbest part of the season seven cliffhanger is? The fact that we have to be told who the new manager is at the start of season eight means that the Documentarians took their annual vacation while the new manager was being picked. Jim said “We’re going into this room and we’re not coming out until we pick a new manager,” and the Documentarians looked at the clock and said “Ah, geez, our flight’s in two hours, just catch us up in September.” Just… I know the Documentarians haven’t really been a big part of the story lately, but narratively that’s just weird.

Anyway, as Jim explains in the obligatory “How we spent our summer” catch-up talking head, James Spader’s Robert California was hired as the new manager, but after taking one look around at his new employees, he got back in his car, drove to Florida, and convinced Jo Bennett to give him her job as CEO of Sabre. It’s an entertaining build on the hypnotic quality he brought to his two scenes in Search Committee. But since The Scranton Branch Is Special (and because Robert owns a house there, and dislikes Florida), he spends half of his time working out of the Scranton conference room. Thus does James Spader not only join the ensemble, but he becomes the second of only two people to be added to the main opening credits (the first being Ed Helms, who was promoted to the opening credits… let me see… why, just after The Hangover came out, fancy that).

He’s not an obvious fit to the cast. Spader brings a very different energy than we were used to, and that’s precisely why he works. Robert California is unlike any VP, CFO, or CEO the Dunder Mifflin staff has ever dealt with, and he throws every person he interacts with delightfully off balance (save maybe Kevin). Spader’s gift for speech-making (wonderfully familiar to fans of Boston Legal) means he easily commands any scene he appears in, and the writers play into that. This is established right away, as Jim explains that when he’s in the office, he picks one staff member to lock in on for an “intense small talk.” As Jim puts it, “You just hope it’s not you. And yet, you hope it is you, too. It’s very strange.”

Andy spends the first half of the season desperately trying to curry favour. Jim is more intimidated by him than any boss or executive he’s had save for Charles Miner, the only one to actively dislike him. Dwight’s usual toadying tactics and Number Two self-importance are swatted away like biplanes circling the mighty Kong. When the show was struggling to adapt to a post-Steve Carell reality, Robert California kept things lively.

And then in the back half he disappears for six episodes, and everything begins to go wrong.

Dual Pregnancies

Another revelation in the “How we spent our summer” section? Both Pam and Angela are pregnant. And Angela’s “Senator’s Wife” smugness is cranked up to 11 as she notes how much bigger Pam’s become, calling them “Big Pregs and Little Pregs.”

And here’s what’s messed up about that.

Pam’s first pregnancy was a plot choice. Her second pregnancy was the producers writing actress Jenna Fischer’s real-life pregnancy into the show. Whereas Angela Kinsey (who plays Angela Martin/Martin-Lipton… they weren’t always super clever in devising character names) is wearing a prosthesis. So Angela spends the season passive-aggressively pointing out how much less weight she’s put on, and how much faster she loses it, and how much faster she’s back at work, and in doing so she’s making fun of Jenna Fischer’s real life pregnancy weight and maternity leave.

It just seems kind of mean. I’m sure Jenna Fischer signed off on it and everything, but still. Throw in the fact that Darryl’s plot in several episodes revolves around being attracted to Val, the new warehouse foreman, but is self-conscious about how much weight he’s put on in the last couple of years (rehab is a bitch on the ol’ waistline), season eight is a weird year for fat-shaming the cast.

When Angela’s baby is born “prematurely,” but comes out huge, it reveals that Angela got pregnant before her wedding to (State) Senator Lipton, and makes Dwight begin to suspect that Angela’s baby is a Schrute. I know what you’re thinking. Well, no. No I don’t. WordPress is not currently able to sense readers’ thoughts and email me a notification. I just know what I’m thinking, which is “What a great opportunity for Pam to shove some of Angela’s moralistic judgements about multiple lovers and getting pregnant out of wedlock” right down Angela’s throat. And you’re right, me, it would have been a great opportunity for that. But it doesn’t happen. At the very least, though, when Pam and Angela find out that they’re both planning to name their babies Phillip (Pam after her grandfather, Angela after her favourite cat, no she does not see the difference), Pam does not back down. Anyway, only Dwight and Angela (and the Documentarians) know there’s cause to think baby Phillip might be Dwight’s. The fact that the cameras are present when Dwight confronts Angela is played as a factor in her doubling down on denying the possibility.

Pam’s pregnancy leads to a new character being introduced: Cathy, Pam’s maternity replacement, who somehow sticks around after Pam’s back to work. Cathy… the second time I watched season eight (which took a while), I’d actually forgotten about Cathy. I don’t have the DVDs past season five, so I can’t be sure, but I have a suspicion that like Creed in season two, most of her material was cut for time. There may be all kinds of Cathy material in the deleted scenes. It might be funny. I don’t know. What I do know is that she’s in half of the season, but after her introduction in Pam’s Replacement, she fades mostly into the background for six episodes.

There’s a half-hearted at best romantic triangle plot going on, as her early appearances indicate she’s a little into Jim (paranoid and insecure, Pam allies with Dwight in an attempt to coerce Jim into admitting he thinks she’s attractive as well… it’s… awkward), and in the season’s major plotline, she starts making a play for him, but just like Pam and Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, it’s never presented as a major threat. Jim’s devotion to Pam is unshakeable, so Cathy’s seductions fall flat.

Let’s talk about that major plotline, now that I’ve brought it up.

Tallahassee

As the Michael Scott Paper Company was the centrepiece of season five (well, sort of, it did happen towards the end, not in the middle), the centrepiece of season eight is Tallahassee. Dwight, who had been after Robert California for a promotion, gets an opportunity… he is tasked to head to Florida to create and possibly run a chain of Sabre stores. To do so, he’s asked to build a team to bring with him. Dwight assembles his dream team of Darryl, Oscar, Angela, Phyllis, and Toby… only to be given the team of Stanley, Ryan, Erin, Cathy, and (due to gently demanding texts from Robert) Jim. Openly angered at first, Dwight comes to see this team’s potential to help make this project his path to greatness, but a couple of unexpected reunions are awaiting them in Florida.

The Sabre Store is being overseen by Sabre’s new president of special projects, Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram, back for the long haul after having been rejected for the manager position. Catherine Tate wasn’t available for the start of the season, but once her Shakespeare run in London was done, the producers snapped her up. Dwight’s mission is to impress Nellie in order to be made head of the Sabre Store chain, but he has competition in a returning Todd Packer, last seen heading for Florida due to a prank Jim and Dwight pulled in an attempt to get him fired.

Nobody really expected Todd Packer to outlast Michael Scott. Or at least I didn’t. But he makes a good nemesis for Dwight. Cunning, vindictive, and super easy to root against. It certainly seems like the producers felt we would all be generally on-side with Dwight by now, but hey, every little bit helps.

There are… there are strong points to the Tallahassee arc. Stanley embracing Florida life is reliably amusing. (He drinks and parties hard enough that Jim comments “I’ve spent so much of my life telling myself ‘Please, don’t end up like Stanley,’ and now I’m wondering if I even have what it takes.”) Erin’s plan to never return to Scranton, due to heartbreak over Andy’s commitment to his new love Jessica, doesn’t seem like much on paper, but Ellie Kemper doesn’t know how not to be funny. Well she probably does, she could likely manage a dramatic role, I’m just saying she’s damn funny. The test launch of the store is a solidly funny episode, filled with references to a show I dearly loved, Chuck. (Chuck is the official sponsor of Sabre’s triangle-shaped tablet, the Pyramid.) When Jim learns that Robert California plans to scuttle the Sabre store (explaining to Jim that Sabre printers are too cheap and unreliable to sell to people in person), and that Dwight will go down with it, Pam guilts Jim into doing whatever is necessary to save an incredibly smug Dwight’s job… leading to a mighty amusing fight as Jim is forced to physically block Dwight from attending the pitch to the board, allowing Todd Packer to fall in his place. (The highlight? Dwight shouting “Jackie Chan,” attempting to run up a wall, and collapsing to the ground.) But there are problems.

First of all, the bulk of the Tallahassee arc falls during Robert California’s six episode absence. He only turns up in the last chapter, just in time to scuttle the store. And the quality of season eight is often directly linked to the amount of Robert California in the episode. And touching on his absence… this is only the second time the show ever visited Sabre’s seat of power (the first being earlier in the season), and the lack of Sabre management present feels like a wasted opportunity. Robert isn’t around, Jo Bennett is mentioned (primarily as Nellie’s patron and endorsement in this project) but due to Kathy Bates having her own show at that point is never seen. Even Gabe is missing more often than not, and season eight has enough problems without sidelining Zach Woods. The face of Sabre is Nellie, and she’s great because Catherine Tate has some game, but it would have been nice to get a better look at Dunder Mifflin’s soon-to-fall overlords (yeah, Sabre leaves with Robert California at the end of the season).

Second of all… I mentioned back in part three that when the office staff is split between two locations it’s a dicey prospect for the portion that’s getting the B-plots. In the Time of Two Offices, the Stamford gang did well with the B-plots. During the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, the Dunder Mifflin loyalist stories were hit and miss. During Tallahassee… I’ve seen this arc two, maybe three times… no, only twice… and I can remember exactly one Scranton plot off the top of my head. And the best I can say is “It had its moments.”

It’s not like Scranton is devoid of talent. Darryl, Pam, Andy, Kelly, and Creed are all still there. It’s just that they’re not getting much to work with. Because this point in season eight is when the writing begins to suffer.

Stray Thoughts

  • Season eight isn’t anywhere near season two or three’s level. It just isn’t. But it’s not without highlights. Erin snapping at Kevin in the episode Lotto, for one… Dwight and Jim try to put it gently that an idea he’s pitching isn’t going to work, but when he doesn’t get it, she grabs him, and with more venom than we’d ever seen from her, hisses “You need to drop it, OK? They hate it. I like it a lot but they hate it so drop it!” and it is hysterical.
  • Season eight ends (over the course of several episodes) with Andy driving to Florida to win back Erin (Hey Andy, planes called to say “We exist, dummy”), Nellie usurping his job while he’s gone, Andy being fired/quitting as a result, and convincing a returning and newly rich David Wallace to buy the company from Sabre, which is circling the drain. Once David buys the company, Andy is reinstalled, but Nellie stays in Scranton as the head of special projects. I was going to make a longer section about this, but… this is the point when I actually stopped watching the show during its original broadcast. There’s really just not much more to say about it.
  • Sorry to keep harping on this, but Ellie Kemper even makes sadly pining for Andy funny. She’s not just gifted, she’s a gift.
  • Early in the season, Andy takes the staff (the willing ones, anyway) to Gettysburg, and tall, lanky Gabe is mistaken for an official Abraham Lincoln impersonator (despite lack of beard). Turns out this happens often enough that he has an audience-pleasing Abe Lincoln routine ready to go. It’s scenes like this that made me miss Gabe when he was absent for chunks of the back half. That and chiding himself for getting out-shmoozed at Andy’s garden party… “I can’t believe I didn’t think of toasting Robert. Get in the game, Gabriel! Why aren’t you talking to Stanley’s mistress?”
  • Nate transitions from Dwight’s lackey to warehouse staff. He remains reliably funny.

Key Episodes

I’m-a mostly stick to big Robert California episodes here, since he is far and above the best part of this season. The List, the season premiere, is the best for establishing Robert and his impact on the office. Garden Party not only shows us why Andy is the way he is, but is one of the year’s funniest, thanks in large part to Dwight buying a book on how to throw garden parties that turns out to have been written by Jim. In Spooked, the final Halloween episode, Robert tries to learn the staff’s greatest fears in order to form the perfect scary story. And Mrs. California brings us farcical Robert, as Robert’s wife decides she might like a job at Dunder Mifflin, which Andy learns when Robert informs him she must not receive one, only to pressure him to hire her while she’s in the room. It involves a truly funny chase sequence when Andy tries to drag Jim into his tough spot, and Jim frantically tries to escape being involved.

Skippables

<Heaves a sigh>

Not gonna lie to you, peeps. When I’m doing a rewatch, which happens a lot (as I write this I’m in late season three, it’s a sickness), when I hit Goodbye Michael I have to make a choice. Sometimes I stop there. Sometimes I power on. And sometimes I just skip to season nine.

Because there is, I promise you, there is worthwhile stuff in season nine, and I’ll make my case next time, but sometimes season eight can be a drag. So you can, if you want, skip the whole the whole damn year. The ninth season premiere will brief you on Dwight and Angela (in short, as of the premiere, he no longer believes himself to be young Phillip’s father), Andy’s dislike of Nellie might be a touch confusing but you’ll catch up. And Andy and Erin will be back together, but the sad thing is, for all he risked and lost to get her, that stops being a relationship we root for almost instantly, making the end arc of Andy, Erin, and Nellie feel kinda… irrelevant. Pointless. Andy making a grand gesture that is ultimately futile and self-destructive.

Guess he is the new Michael Scott.

Notable Guest Stars?

We have our third and final veteran of The Wire in Turf War, as Chris Bauer appears as a salesman from the Syracuse branch who quarrels with Dwight and Jim (and ultimately the recently fired Andy) over a big client of the Binghamton branch, which Robert closed while on a bender. The client? He’s played by the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta.

Robert California’s son is played by future Kid Bruce Wayne David Mazouz, for anyone who still cares about Gotham. And his soon-to-be-ex-wife is played by Maura Tierney, from one of TV’s greatest comedy casts, Newsradio. They set up a possible and wonderfully awkward romance between her and Andy, but since she never makes a second appearance, it doesn’t go anywhere.

Josh Groban makes his first of two appearances as Andy’s younger and far more beloved brother, Walter Bernard Jr. After all, if Andy’s going to have a younger brother his parents would see as his better in every way, he’d better be a damn fine singer.

Not only is Jack Coleman back as (State) Senator Lipton, post-Tallahassee his fellow Heroes vet Sendhil Ramamurthy turns up as Kelly’s new paediatrician boyfriend, who Pam actively encourages her to choose over Ryan. 

Wow. For the closest thing The Office has to Community’s infamous “gas leak year,” (when series creator Dan Harmon was off the show and the quality noticeably dropped) I sure had a lot to say about it.

Next time… how does it all end? Might need to cover the wrap up in a few goes…

Overthinking the Office Part Seven: Goodbye, Michael

 When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.

These are mine.

The Road to Farewell

The one, true, key episode of season seven is Goodbye Michael. A year after announcing that the show’s one main star and central character, Steve Carell, would be moving on, the staff of Dunder Mifflin said an emotional farewell to their insensitive, loving, sometimes awful, sometimes pretty OK boss Michael Scott, as Michael left Dunder Mifflin and Scranton to move to Colorado with his one great love, Holly Flax.

Much like the Michael Scott Paper Company arc two seasons back, it would be easy to think Michael’s departure arc started when Michael announced his intention to move away three episodes earlier. And again, you’d be wrong. There’s a lot of ground to cover before Michael’s ready to jet off to his own blue heaven.

Now we’re not going to get into whether or not Michael deserves a happy ever after. It’s been seven years, at this point you’ve either learned to see past Michael’s faults or you haven’t. And if you haven’t you might not have made it this far. So no, we’re just looking at what needed to happen to get Michael to a point where he was ready to leave the company that was his home and that staff that were his family behind. The path begins in the season premiere, and runs right up until Garage Sale, when Michael makes his choice.

In the season premiere, “Nepotism,” the annual “how was your summer montage” reveals that the new and inept intern everyone hates is Michael’s nephew, who he has hired in an attempt to reconnect with his half-sister and her family.

Notice how this is the first time we’ve ever heard of Michael having a half-sister? Or a nephew? Or relatives other than his mom and step-dad (his father having walked out a long-ass time ago)? Notice how other than two phone calls to his mother and a failed attempt to get his grandmother to invest in his paper company, he seems to have no interaction with his family at all? That’s the key. That is why he is. Michael tries to force Dunder Mifflin into being a family because most of his own flesh-and-blood family rejected him.

Other key steps… in “Sex Ed,” an ingrown hair that an easily swayed Michael gets convinced is herpes causes him to revisit all of his relationships from the past six seasons. Encouraged by Dwight to inform all of his lovers that he may have given them herpes, he calls Holly. But after an actually sweet moment, she claims that they never had the deep, pure love he thought (I mean, you can see where she’s coming from, she and Michael dated for a week whereas she and her new boyfriend AJ have been together for two years), and he tends to over-romantacize. This causes Michael to use the herpes informing quest as an excuse to reexamine his relationships with Jan, Carol, and Helene to see if he really does blow these things out of proportion. And in so doing, he sees his past loves for the dysfunctional messes they were, and realizes he does, in fact, over-romanticize his relationships… but not Holly. Never Holly. The exercise only reinforces his belief that she’s the one great love of his life.

In similar terms, Christening brings Michael face to face with another unpleasant reality: that for all of his attempts to make Jim and Pam part of his family, he still isn’t part of theirs. Much like their wedding last year, Michael ensures that the entire staff turns up for baby Cece’s christening, only to be a) told he can’t sit in the family section, and b) made to say out loud that he understands that he is not, in any way, Cece’s godfather. (Pam tries to be as kind and apologetic about it as she can, but will settle for nothing less than hearing him say the words “I am not the godfather…” also, they met Cece’s actual godparents at a Mommy and Me class? Do Jim and Pam not have friends and siblings?) Being faced with this cuts deep enough that when the people of… whoever’s church this is… Jim? Pam? Is Pam Catholic? Neither of them strike me as Catholic… Anyway, Michael gets caught up in the church community spirit enough that he briefly joins a youth mission heading for Mexico (as does Andy, in an attempt to impress Erin, I’ll come back to that), which goes about as well as you’d expect.

As to more minor stuff. In Counselling, Michael and Toby finally go 12 rounds. Costume Contest allows Darryl to sound off about how poorly Michael’s treated him. Viewing Party challenges his view of himself as the office father figure when everyone starts deferring to Gabe (of all people) over him… only to see that lifetime foster kid Erin legitimately sees him as a surrogate father. In WUPHF.com, Michael comes to terms with his relationship with Ryan being more one-way than he believed.

And then in Classy Christmas, Toby leaving to serve on the Scranton Strangler jury (told you he had a role to play) brings Holly back. Once they get back together, Threat Level Midnight lets him see that Holly is more important than his dreams of making movies (and that the movie he’s been filming with his coworkers and other associates… a wonderful parade of past characters… is actually really, really bad), and Todd Packer provides the final “Michael sees a relationship for what it is” plot, as Holly opens his eyes to the fact that Todd Packer is not the friend or comic genius Michael thinks.

And then there’s nothing left but the farewells. Some are funny, some are incredibly touching, and one is silent, as Pam says her goodbye right after the Documentarians said theirs, reclaiming Michael’s mic pack. (Leading to a silent, goodbye “That’s what she said.”) And when we’re done… well, there’s a bit of a hiccup.

When We Fail to Plan

There isn’t really a concrete succession plan for Michael Scott. Story-wise, there kind of is, as Training Day introduces us to Will Ferrell as Deangelo Vickers, Michael’s impending Sabre-appointed replacement, but one episode after Michael leaves, a head injury sends him packing. Dwight gets appointed acting manager when Jim turns the job down, Creed of all people takes his place when he bungles it. But as for a long-term replacement? Nobody knew.

And I am including the producers in this.

The two-part season finale, Search Committee, ends with the titular committee (Jim, Toby, and Gabe) still not having chosen a new manager. It’s kind of a weak-sauce cliffhanger, because the only reason it’s happening is that the producers hadn’t picked one yet. And really, there is just no excuse for that. Steve Carell announced he was leaving a year earlier, so that the impending return of Holly was teased in the season six finale. So how is it possible that by the end of the season, four episodes after Michael left, nobody knows who the new boss is?

The way it certainly appears, and the way it’s often been reported, is that the producers used Search Committee as a kind of audition. It was filled with big name guest stars, some of which were just there as a lark, some of which were serious candidates to replace Steve Carell. So the producers used this episode, and fan reaction to it, to test-run some potential new managers.

The problem with this is that actors of the caliber they were looking for tend to make other plans if you don’t act fast.

Will Arnett was said to be the first choice, and why wouldn’t he be. His character claims to have a three part plan to rebuild the company, but refuses to share anything more than one small subsection of part two (“Colour code said documents”) until he’s hired. But by the time the producers decided they wanted to hire him, a pilot he’d shot got picked up for that fall (an utterly forgettable show called “Running Wilde,” only occasionally elevated by genuinely funny performances by Arnett, Peter Serafinowicz, Mel Rodriguez, and recurring guest star David Cross), so he was out.

Second pick was British comedian and former Doctor Who companion Catherine Tate as Nelly Bertram, a friend of Jo Bennet whose interview was as filled with confidence as it was devoid of meaningful content. Tate was already booked to do Much Ado About Nothing in London with David Tennant, from before season eight was supposed to start filming until a week before my visit to London that year. God DAMN it. So she was out… for a while. Stick around and she’ll be back.

There were also three internal candidates: Dwight, Andy, and Darryl. Dwight’s desperate attempts to get back in consideration after being removed from the position in the previous episode are mostly played for laughs, but… there was (to me) a confusing amount of support for the idea. Reviewers, some fans, even Mindy Kaling backed Dwight. And I was just… forget how bad he was at this job in season three, we just did an episode proving he is still utterly, laughably unsuited to any amount of legitimate authority. It’s especially weird to hear writer/producer/cast member Mindy Kaling in support. I mean, was she just not on set that week? Did she miss the writers’ room saying “Let’s do an episode proving that Dwight is still bad at management?”

But the one to watch is James Spader as Robert California. His scary, almost cult-like confidence won more discerning minds over pretty quickly.

Relationship Dramas

Everything is hunky-dory for Jim and Pam this season. Pam secures herself a new job basically by inventing it and claiming she’s had it for months now. And Jim… is present? I don’t think they actually have any major arcs this season.

Angela and Dwight, on the other hand. At the end of season six, Dwight decided he wanted a child, and recruited Angela to mother it. With a contract and everything. But having decided that Pam’s friend Isabel, who he’d hooked up with at the wedding, is a superior specimen, he tries to back out of the deal. Leading to the most Dwight and Angela reunion possible… a legal dispute over their contract ends in them agreeing to have sex to completion on five occasions (an agreement the arbitrator desperately tries not to be present for). As the season opens, Angela is trying to leverage their contractually mandated intercourse to rekindle romantic feelings, as any normal person would in this very common scenario. But eventually Dwight’s disinterest takes a toll, just in time for a new player to arrive… Heroes’ Jack Coleman as The Senator, aka State Senator Rob Lipton.

On the one hand, Angela’s new romance with The Senator (as she insists on calling him at all times) makes her more insufferable than ever, as she is absurdly tacky in her eagerness to throw around her new life as a politician’s girlfriend/fiance, despite Oscar’s habit of swiftly pointing out he’s only a state senator, which is far less impressive. For a time (before Oscar gives up on it), “State Senator” is the new “Assistant to the regional manager.” But on the other hand, Angela’s comeuppance is swiftly written into the arc… upon actually meeting him, Oscar notices that The Senator is secretly gay. (Something Ryan is swift to back up, citing “He liked my Facebook photos at 3 AM.”)

So basically, Angela becomes a monster of smugness and condescension unlike ever before, but at least her amazing new life is a sham, and you know it’s going to blow up in her face eventually. The only issue is that the fuse is pretty long.

Meanwhile… Andy and Erin hit a road bump when Erin found out about him and Angela. And I guess she never got over it, because when the season kicks off, she’s with Gabe.

Erin and Gabe. What can a person say about Erin and Gabe, other than you have to wonder if the writers looked at Erin and Andy, asked why they weren’t on the level of, say, Jim and Pam, and decided the answer was “They never had a Roy.” Erin and Gabe don’t make a lot of sense as a couple. Or any sense. They don’t have chemistry, their interests don’t really overlap, they’re never super believable, their first date story is a textbook case of sexual harassment. “Thank god he’s my boss,” says Erin, “Because I wouldn’t have said yes to dating him if I didn’t think I had to.” How little are we supposed to be invested in them as a couple? Look to one of Gabe’s talking heads: “Yes, we are still together. Why do you always ask me that?” Or when Jim and Pam catch Erin eating lunch in her car to avoid spending time with her boyfriend, and Jim taps out, leaving Pam to deal with Erin. “You’ve got this,” he says to Pam, before telling the cameras “I’m sorry, that… just wasn’t interesting to me.” You speak for us all, Jim.

No, Gabe and Erin… while nowhere near as toxic a couple as Angela and Andy, because no couple could be this side of Jessica Jones and Kilgrave (and I had to think about that one, that’s how messed up Angela and Andy were)… are not a couple you root for, sympathise with, or even understand. They exist so that Andy can try to win her back. Only to give Andy his own Karen Filipelli in his new girlfriend (thanks to a party invite from Darryl), so that when Erin decides it’s Andy she loves, they still don’t get together.

Works on paper, right? Worked for Jim and Pam, could work again? Sure, except no. No it doesn’t. Because I’m just going to warn you, this isn’t going anywhere worth reaching. Erin and Andy aren’t a perfect couple, or even a good one. Their relationship is a time-filler, a B-plot the writers will eventually lose interest in.

But that’s a ways away yet.

Key episdoes

I mentioned the key episodes of the Goodbye Michael long game. Andy’s Play is a fun one for musical fans. Skip nothing between Classy Christmas and Goodbye Michael, because you can’t afford to miss a Holly episode.

Michael’s Last Dundies is a great one. There are a lot of annual events at Dunder Mifflin that the Documentarians only bother to capture once. We see all but one Christmas party, and a handful of Halloweens, but we only see one company picnic, one beach day, one birthday party for Michael, one inventory, and until now, only one Dundie Awards. But for Michael’s penultimate episode, we take our second and final trip to the Dundies, as Michael tries to coach Deangelo on how to run the event in his absence. That his approach is lifted from The King’s Speech, one of the decade’s more forgettable best picture winners, does not age super well, but other than that, killer episode with a surprisingly emotional conclusion.

Skippables?

I’m not crazy about China, in which Michael successfully proves Oscar wrong about the Chinese economy, leading to a political knowledge showdown, and Pam (as office administrator) and Dwight (as the new owner of the building) clash over Dwight’s draconian money saving policies. Which… can we add this episode to the list of “episodes that prove Dwight was in no way capable of being the new manager, Mindy Kaling?” Dude goes mad with even a small amount of power, why would anyone… but I repeat myself. Anyway. Not crazy about that one.

Notable guest stars?

In addition to Will Arnett, Catherine Tate, and James Spader, Ray Romano, Jim Carrey, and Warren Buffett turn up as applicants for Michael’s job.

When Ricky Gervais, creator and star of the British original, was in town to host the Golden Globes, the producers saw an opening, and filmed a cold open crossover, in which Michael Scott meets David Brent. David Brent returned in Search Committee, having filmed an application for Michael’s job. They make for two cute homage cameos.

Kathy Bates makes her final appearances as Jo Bennett this year. She was missed. That makes it sound like she died… she didn’t. She didn’t die. She’s just busy and expensive.

In addition to Melora Hardin and Nancy Carell returning as Jan and Carol in Sex Ed, Rashida Jones (Karen), David Denman (Roy), David Koechner (Todd Packer) Melora Hardin, and others all return for Threat Level Midnight, to reflect the fact that Michael’s been filming this on and off for five years.

And Timothy Olyphant makes two appearances as Danny Cordray, a rival salesman who also has a history with Pam.

New characters

Robert California and Nellie Bertram are introduced in season eight, and we’ll be seeing more of them, but more significant to this season is Dwight’s new handyman, Nate. With Michael Schur busy running Parks and Recreation, Dwight’s cousin Mose couldn’t be his inept right hand very often, so a new henchman was required. Nate is somewhat clueless, but endearingly earnest and affectionate, making him a perfect henchman for Dwight without also making him one of Dwight’s equally crazy and aggressive friends. He never makes it into the full ensemble, but he’s reliably funny when he does turn up.