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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im watcbin season 8 now and i dont like robert. boooo
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Sorry, writers. James Spader wasn't (isn't) funny. This show should have been given a decent burial when Carrell left-or even before. The Office forgot what it was originally about. Does anyone remember? It was a take-off on a movie called "Office Space" I believe. I hope they get the hint soon - - bye bye
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I couldn't agree with Seth more regarding James Spader. I was really excited about his joining the cast, firs t, because he is so talented and, second, his interview for the manager's job was hilarious. Here was an opportunity to take The Office to a whole new level. So what did the writers do for this wonderful character/actor? Nothing. What is wrong with them? Why don't they develop this wonderfully fresh character California more? The show is stale and not funny, but expanding Spader's role and giving him something he can sink his teeth into could change all that. I tune in only to see Spader, but I don't know how much longer I will continue to watch the show unless the writers make some changes.
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I love Robert Californa, but I love James Spader so there you go. I think he is hilarious. We need to talk about how lame Gabe is, he is the worst. (used to be Toby that was the worst, now Gabe has him beat_)
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Spader's character is just not funny, and I really thought he would be great. Snorefest. Jim's pranks lately are lame - like he'd publish a book just for that garden party prank? So silly.
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This show is not funny anymore, so my wife and I have decided not to watch it.
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Wow, my sentiments exactly!



I am mildly enjoying this season of The Office, but the under usage and under development of the Robert California character is frustrating. As you said, James Spader is an "intensely gifted actor" and to give him so little character wise to play with is a sin!



Andy, on the other hand has been used way too much. This character was fun as one of the salesman, but up to this point has lost what made the character work in the whole of the show.



As things stand, my opinion is they should have brought in a new person as the Regioal Manager; either have hired Spader as RM or someone else plus a more developed Robert as CEO. At this point I would hate to lose RC because he is the character I am most enjoying even if he is severely underwritten.
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Gabe sucks.
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I'm not that concerned with Spader right now since I feel the Halloween ep. has started getting the Office back being The Office. Since the Halloween ep. it's more like the old Office we know and love but nothing beats the hey days with Carrell
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"The addition of James Spader as Robert California is not helping this series survive the departure of Steve Carell."



I disagree. The Robert California character is pure genius! While I watch this season's The Office, I forget that Michael Scott was ever a part of the scenery. I thought I'd never be saying that, as I was so sure the sans Steve Carrell program would circle the drain. I breathe a sigh of relief that The Office is alive and well!
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I don't really miss Michael, I don't mind California too much (I wish he was less important as well though) and I don't think Andy is bad as the boss, but there is some lacking in the writing. I miss all the Jim and Dwight interactions. It feels like they are really few these days. Also, I want to know what's going on with the lives of the other characters. Like has Oscar found himself a boyfriend? How is Jim and Pam's daughter? What about the Senator and Angela? Will Kelly ever get married? What about the Scranton Strangler that may or may not have been wrongly convicted?



Actually, to me it feels like Andy and California are the least interesting characters right now.
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I wish Spader had joined Parks & Recreation instead. Robert California would be the perfect fit for Pawnee.
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"CJ42090

I wish Spader had joined Parks & Recreation instead. Robert California would be the perfect fit for Pawnee."



then they could have a Bad Influence reunion!
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I think Robert California is a fantastic character with real potential, but I also really feel he's being misused. Misused to the point that I kind of feel lied to about this season.



Going into this season we were basically told that it wouldn't be on Ed Helms shoulders to carry the show but would be on the ensemble. There would be some early Andy-centric episodes to establish him as the boss and then it would rely on the talent of their very deep bench to move the story along. The problem is so far I feel like not only has Andy been given too much to do, not beyond Ed Helms abilities but beyond Andy's level of interest to the fans, and instead of the classic characters pitching in and moving the story the rest of the weight seems to have been placed squarely on Robert California.



Is James Spader capable of being the central character on a television show? Absolutely. But Robert California is so foreign to everything that is The Office that he should be used as a distant side character, not dissimilar to Jan in the early seasons. Show up from time to time, put everybody on edge, motivate/berate Andy, but ultimately, not an overbearing regular presence. Because he is so dominate less is more.



The future of The Office? I'm still uncertain. Too much Robert California and too much Andy does not make us forget Michael Scott. It's no wonder that the majority of the humorous memories pointed out from this episode involved neither. This bench is deep enough if they use them correctly. Show us that you don't need stunt casting to drive the series and we can become believers again.
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The two worst characters they showed last season to replace Scott were Robert California and that annoying woman who basically had no own mind at all. It is quite telling that the producers/writers chose to bring these two characters in for this season.



And yes, Andy as the boss is a complete failure. They should've either taken someone totally ridiculous like Kelly or someone where you know it will be war like Dwight. Michael Scott, even when he was sad, was still a bit funny. Andys attempts are just sad.
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For me it finally happened.. I finally just couldn't take it anymore and had to shut the episode off before I even got to the 3 minute mark. I used to love Andy, but as front man he is awful! Never mind James Spader's character and whether or not he's being utilized correctly, I say get rid of Andy as the acting manager because he cannot carry the series like Carell did. The only thing I know now is this: the humor of the show now is so far from witty that they could even take a lesson from that redneck inbreed moron who used to say "get 'r done." In other words, it's idiocy. And if they don't fix it SOON the entire show will have its doomsday.
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I love James Spader, he is such an incredible actor but the show IS using him wrong. Without Michael the show just feels like a flat beer.
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I do agree with you Seth that there is an obvious problem with Robert. But my problem is with the writers...they give him absolutely nothing funny to say and as a result I feel his character only comes off as a mean guy to the audience. Season 7 finale and season 8 premiere had funny lines for him (at least two hilariously involved Sesame Street, remember) and he was excellent in those. But now he only comes in to make a presence in the office and stir the plot. The writers have been good on those two but left out the third thing-the humor! It frustrates me to know that Spader (who I believe to be perfect for the awkwardness of the show and could have easily already become a breakout critical character like Michael) has won three emmys for his hilarious Alan Shore character and yet the writers refuse to give him the time and push in order to make his character successful. It's not Spader's fault...when you have a chance to get him, use him! How much longer before Spader leaves because the writers won't give him the material he wants? And Tate joining isn't exactly going to help his character it will just take up more room. Now, aside from the elephant in the room I have to say that this season has been pretty good so far...
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I'm not a huge fan of Robert California, and to me the show without Steve Carell is no where near the caliber it used to be. But I don't think you can single out the poor character development of Robert California as the reason the show is not what it used to be. I used to really like Jim, but he has lost that boyish quirkiness that he used to have (remember when he made Dwight hit himself in the head with the phone by slowly filling it with coins and then removing them all, hilarious) Now I find his character as tired and depressing as the poor practical jokes he keeps playing. Steve Carell obviously knew this show needed to be put to bed, and if there were any good new comedies to replace it I might agree. But as worn and threadbare as the show currently is, I'd watch it over any of this years debut comedies.
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The shows seem like too much attempted and not enough completed. The most glaring one was the Halloween show where they should have focused at least 2 more minutes on Pam being insane for believing in ghosts. In the deleted scenes they showed more of the discussion which looked like enough to make it a 45 minute or hour show but they cut it due to the multiple storylines. Steve Carell's character used to annoy me because I know so many people like him in management positions and I hate ineptitude but they need him back or whatever writer back that made him funny. Something big is missing and James Spader could be so much better if he were more of the show.
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More Robert California please! Michael Scott - who cares - and the rest of the cast is too annoying to carry the show themselves. I hope to see a LOT more of Robert California when Catherine Tate joins the cast soon to reprise her role as Jo's pet crazy friend - that could make for some great TV if done right - hopefully Spader and Tate will be used to their full potentials. Other than under-using Spader's character - I'm liking him.
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I do not miss Michael Scott at all...the character had ran it's course when everyone became waaaaaaaay to familiar with his ways...like season 4 or 5 was the end for me....until Robert California came along...he's such a perfect character to juxtapose what bored me about Michael Scott, to me Robert California is like who David Brent thought he was........also I like Andy as the boss
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If you remember Robert California does have a son. I think. From the Halloween episode, right? So at least at one point he had a girlfriend/wife. He could be gay now, but I assume he's straight.



As for the character, I agree with you. He's too one-dimensional to give the show any sort of oomph, which is what it needs if it wants to keep going after Carrell's departure.
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I like it so far. Definitely a weaker and much different show. But still so much potential and "watch-ability". I will stick with The Office till the end.
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I hated Robert California since last seasons finale.
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ditto that
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I gave the season a chance after James Spader's amazing performance in last season's finale. After sticking with the show this far, I've officially given up. There's no more interesting dynamic anymore and with Robert California's storyline flopping it's suffice to say that for me, The Office is done.
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Slight Typo, Dwight had nothing to do with the Val situation, it was Darryl.
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You're right! Thanks.
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