The Office: Is the Robert California Experiment a Failure?

With “Doomsday,” the sixth episode of The Office’s eighth season, I think we must finally acknowledge the elephant in the room: The addition of James Spader as Robert California is not helping this series survive the departure of Steve Carell. To be fair, the show was in decline even while Carell was still there, but producers milked a good season out of his rekindled romance with Holly. Spader’s character is a lot more successful a fit than Will Ferrell’s, whose brand of comedy was just too broad, too surreal for the Dunder-Mifflin crew. Robert California has definitely added some menace and mystery to the proceedings. He’s funny, too. But the way the show is using him so far—sparingly, as an aloof, omniscient, and fearsome motivator—is essentially as nothing more than a plot instigator, and it’s doing nothing to enrich the series. It’s also getting repetitive.

Thursday's episode began with Robert complaining to Andy about mistakes in orders and accounting, and telling him to stop them, period, immediately. The doomsday device the title refers to was Dwight’s idea—he's decided to embrace his number two-ness and help Andy, in his own, dastardly way. Basically, it was a computerized “accountability booster” that counts mistakes: Five made in a day, and an email is automatically sent to Robert containing a report on the inefficiency of the Scranton branch, as well as every nasty correspondence about him ever sent between the group. It’s far-fetched (though not as far as the scenario from a few weeks ago in which Jim wrote and published an entire book about garden party etiquette just to prank Dwight), but I somehow was willing to go along with it.

The B-story tossed Gabe a plot, in which he and Darryl sparred passive-aggressively over a new warehouse hire, Val. As a Gabe fan (and there aren’t many of us), I was delighted to see him up to bat. And it started out promisingly, with an awkward moment during which he stood in Val’s way as she tried to leave the room: Gabe’s definition of flirting. The conversation with Toby, too—when Gabe wanted to file HR paperwork even though he'd barely exchanged three words with Val—was really funny. Hearing Gabe try to bend his hopelessly dweeby and asocial persona around frat boy tropes (“I don’t want a bunch of bureaucratic red tape wrapped around my jock!”) was inspired. But then in the warehouse, things quickly devolved to the point of absurdity, with Gabe lingering and launching insults at Darryl to impress Val. Gabe is a social disaster, but I hardly believe he’s that hopeless when it comes to women. Similarly, Val didn’t seem turned off enough by his behavior, and Darryl, who’s not one to mince words when he feels he’s being disrespected, didn’t seem pissed-off enough, either.

Back in the office, the doomsday device initiated its sequence, leading to an oddly written face-off between Dwight and the group over their commitment to Dunder-Mifflin. I’m not sure what felt so off here: Was it that the mistakes were so minor? Was it that Andy had too willingly granted Dwight all the power? Was it that primal scream by Kelly and Erin? I’m not sure, but the episode started to veer off the rails at this point. (I guess when you set up Bondian doomsday scenarios, that’s bound to happen.) A group of the “nicest” employees visited Dwight at home with hopes of convincing him to turn off the doomsday device, while Jim tracked down Robert (remember him?) at a squash court in with plans of intercepting the email. Ultimately, the home visit worked, Dwight had second thoughts, the email was never sent, and another odd episode ended, uneventfully.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t funny lines and moments! And Dwight was responsible for quite a few of them:

» Dwight: “Last night I dreamed that the number two was the most valued number in the world. The vice-president had all the power. Athletes fought for silver medals. Women were considered the best gender...”

» Dwight untying the string clasp to his doomsday plan.

» Gabe: “Whom I’m seeing is Val, down in the warehouse. I’m not technically seeing her. But I’ve seen her, with the eyes, and there was definitely attraction. At least in one direction.”

» Toby: “She’s going to be screaming her own last name?”

» Dwight, reading emails sent by the rest of the staff: “Robert’s favorite songs: ‘Creep’ by TLC, ‘Creep’ by Radiohead. Remember that, Jim?”

» The warehouse worker with the Afro who goes, “Hi Gabe!”

» Dwight, in response to Pam’s joke, “Pobody’s nerfect!”: “Did you just have a stroke, Pam? It’s ‘nobody’s perfect.’ Nice stroke, Pam.”

» Dwight: “Can you tell me now where paper comes from?” Kevin: “Uh, the man tree puts his penis...”

So what, if anything, can be done to salvage the character of Robert, and maximize the contributions of James Spader, the intensely gifted actor who embodies him? For starters, I think the writers need to spend more time figuring out who this guy is. The fact that he plays squash is not an interesting detail. What are his weaknesses? Everyone has weaknesses. Is he gay or straight? (He's the one who said, "There is only sex. Everything is sex," after all. And yet the guy moves through life like a neutered automaton.) In fact, a great idea for an episode would be for the Dunder-Mifflin employees to decide to trail Robert for a day just to learn something, anything, about him—and having their expectations completely turned on their head. Maybe he's a loving family man? A closet country western fan? Maybe he's homeless? Whatever the case, the forcefield around this guy needs to come down, and soon.

How are you liking Robert California, and this season of The Office, so far? What do you think the show is doing right? What do you think it could do to improve?

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