Posted Friday, Sept. 23, 2011, at 1:17 AM
Photograph of Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) and Robert California (James Spader) courtesy of Chris Haston/NBC.
The Office’s new CEO and its dearly departed regional manager don’t have much in common. James Spader’s Robert California is incisive, unfeeling, and has a “freakish level of confidence.” Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was dense, insecure, and overly emotional. The two bosses share just one characteristic: They make everyone around them uncomfortable. On The Office, that’s the only thing that matters.
In the series’ eighth season premiere, we learn that the hypnotic California has zoomed to the top of Sabre’s corporate ladder, having persuaded Jo Bennett (Kathy Bates) to hand over her position as head of the company. For reasons that aren’t really explained, the high-powered exec nevertheless spends much of his time camped out in the conference room of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch, where he unnerves employees who can’t decide whether to avoid his icy glare or seek out his approval. Everyone gets more nervous when they find their names separated into two columns in California’s notebook. The two groups, he announces after a prolonged group panic attack, are the office’s “winners” and “losers.”
On a show that has always trafficked in unease, the pathologically self-possessed California—as played by Spader in ramrod-straight-man mode—will serve as a fantastic source of anxiety. Carell’s Michael Scott could never figure out how to act around friends, colleagues, and potential paramours. This new iteration of The Office is an inversion of that old formula: In season eight, the show’s ensemble will have to figure out how to behave around their inscrutable boss.
The folks California anoints as winners choose the path of obsequiousness. At a lunch with the CEO, they praise his rigorous analysis of Sesame Street’s age of Elmo. (Brian Baumgartner’s Kevin, long my favorite character, notes that the thing he likes about Elmo is “the tickling.”) Newly appointed regional manager Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), however, challenges California by defending the honor of the loser group. This regional manager-CEO tete-a-tete sets up a compelling interoffice dynamic. Andy is the show’s perennial doormat. Robert California seems like a guy who’s spent his life stepping on people. The Office thrives on tension, and this is a good place to find it.