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…

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