Tuned In

Office Watch: California Role

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Spoilers for last night’s The Office below:

That was encouraging. I am not nearly ready, after one episode, to declare that the retooled, post–Steve Carell The Office has solved its problems. Without Michael Scott as its focus, no matter who Dunder-Mifflin/Sabre hired for this or that position, it was going to need to become a different show, and we got a glimpse of it in “The List”: a more ensemble-based comedy, with the wackiness, and the more-real moments, spread more widely. “The List” was not an episode for the record books, but it at least showed that a season 8 Office is capable of delivering the funny as well as the character grace notes.

After a season that dragged out the question of who would replace Michael, then left it open over the summer hiatus, “The List” wisely ripped the Band-Aid off and told us: Andy Bernard is the new regional manager, and Robert California… the new CEO? The corporate shift was necessitated by Kathy Bates’ starring in Harry’s Law, and her The Office tried to turn its implausibility into an asset—a sign of the disconcerting sway that Robert holds over everyone he meets. (As Jim says about Robert’s unsettling walkabout conversations: “You hope it’s not you. But you hope it is you too, it’s strange.”)

It’s going to be harder to suspend disbelief that the new CEO (if reports are correct) will be spending even more time than Jo did overseeing operations at one regional branch of one of Sabre’s businesses. That said, I’m really enjoying Spader as California, who practically seems to be in a dysfunctional boyfriend relationship with the entire office. And the list idea was an ingenious way to dramatize how he unsettles the office, while also focusing on the character relationships and problems that already existed. After all, only half the issue here was that California had divided his team on paper into “winners” and “losers.” (One of whom he simply called “Old Man.”) The other was that—let’s be honest—most everyone in the office knew which half of the list was which before he came right out and told them.

This was a tricky first test for Andy, who dislikes confrontation as much as Michael did, and yet in an entirely different way. I lobbied before for Jim as new boss, because that would have reflected an earlier version of The Office that I’d like to see return: a show about dealing with the limitations of your dreams and discovering that your job has become your career. (You can still see echoes of this theme, for instance, in Pam’s monologue about going from the cute receptionist / aspiring artist to “fat mom.”)

But that ship has sailed, and I can see the potential to Andy in this role. Where Michael had to work against his own overweening confidence, Andy has to fight against his underconfidence, as we saw in episodes like “The Seminar” last season, and I’m interested to see what Ed Helms does with the spotlight.

As I said, I don’t want to oversell the episode, but “The List” at least gave me hope that, if The Office had to continue after Carell, it can still give me a half-hour worth watching this season.

Now for a quick hail of bullets:

* Physical humor that worked: Phyllis sending herself heels-over-head as a distraction; “Left side of the list–attack!”

* Physical humor that didn’t: planking.

* “Just to show you I’m being fair, you had Gabe in the loser column. I think that is astute.”

* “Now it is my job. And my prob.”