Eighth seasons are cursed. Eight is the season That 70s Show lost Eric Foreman, The X-Files lost Mulder, and The Simpsons lost Homer. (Remember Mike Grimes, the character Homer Simpson drove to suicide? He took the show’s humanity with him.) And eight is, of course, the season The Office lost Dunder Mifflin regional manager Michael Scott. The end of season seven made quite the fuss out of who would replace the irreplaceable. James Spader, playing Robert California, got the job, sort of. In an unusually exposition-heavy cold open, we learn that Robert California arrived sometime over the summer for his first day at Dunder Mifflin and was so disgusted that he hopped in his car, sped to corporate headquarters, and persuaded Jo (Kathy Bates) to give him her job as CEO. Then California decided to drive back to Scranton, promote Andy Bernard to regional manager, and hang around in the conference room to do, well, it wasn’t clear. (Oh, and he apparently brought Gabe back with him.) So, to replace Steve Carell, The Office has James Spader, and to replace Michael Scott, the office has Andy Bernard. The new opening credits culminate with Andy at the manager’s desk, thereby officially, absolutely, 100 percent cementing his role as Scranton regional manager and Michael Scott replacement.
Andy’s first order of business was to win the staff’s affection. He would, he’d decided, ask California to give everyone the Friday before Columbus Day off. But in the presence of California, Andy shrivels. Who wouldn’t? Spader’s Robert California is the antagonist of a lost David Mamet script. He plucks his words from a pristine mental quiver, deploying them with crisp, clear, confident diction. When he speaks, the room is quiet. When he makes a demand, it happens. Who knew a receding hairline could be so imposing?
Still, California's managerial skills don't seem, at first, to be that different from Michael Scott’s. Impulsive. Impractical. The sort of boneheaded strategies that would get a real manager axed. Take, for example, the one at the center of this episode: California’s List, which Erin found on his desk, had the Dunder Mifflinitess names divided into two categories, with no explanation. This naturally cued the gang’s paranoia. The best idea they could muster to crack the code was comparing California’s list to a similar book of lists by Dwight. The second best idea: lining the two groups up, then colliding them Braveheart-style.
The third plan had at least some sense in it. The troupe nominated Andy, who still hadn’t confronted California about the Columbus Day vacation, to confront the CEO. Which he did with the sweaty grace of a mouse in a snake pit. And what did California say? That the list was just a doodle. Some people draw. He makes lists. Long. Meaningless. Lists. The way that he spoke: short, precise, totally and hysterically unnerving.
Of course the list meant something, a fact made all the more obvious when the list-maker himself invited Angela (now pregnant!), Phyllis, Jim, Dwight, Daryl, and Kevin out for grub at a pleathered-out mess house that might also feed the boys from Glengarry Glenn Ross. Flippantly, he informed the gang that he thinks of them as winners. Which, as Kevin proudly notes, makes the rest losers. List explained, and by the mush brain no less!
The crew returned from lunch — Erin, Kelly, Pam (also pregnant!), Andy, Ryan, Meredith, Creed, Stanley, and Gabe were already aware of their loser status thanks to the power of text message — and Andy immediately confronted California. Robert California’s reaction couldn’t have been less Michael Scott. Rather than flub his way through some uplifting monologue, he growled a blunt, rehearsed speech about how life is long and opinions change. “Winners: prove me right,” he said, savoring a pregnant pause. “Losers: prove me wrong.”
Anyone who’s worked in an office knows this speechifying to be baloney, but the gang bought it. Except Andy, who wasn’t content to leave things at that. He wanted the list changed, and when California refused, he enumerated the winning attributes of every single employee. And then he asked for that Friday before Columbus Day off. He got a half-day. Which they’ve always had. Not important. What was important for the employees was seeing Andy do what a good boss should do, go to bat. And for the audience, we got to feel some honest-to-goodness warmth for little Bernard.
I’m beginning to understand why the writers chose to “promote” both Andy and California. They are the two sides of Michael Scott: Andy the lovable, dopy half, and California the destructive, conflict-creating half — who also has the honor of delivering the weekly third act proverb. Whether Ed Helms or James Spader are audience-attracting stars, well, that’s up for debate. Possibly combined they equal one Steve Carell? Does that even matter?
I mentioned The Simpsons eighth season earlier, and I can think of three big changes that took root in it that we saw in tonight’s episode of The Office. (1) Jokes became less about character and more about pop culture — the planking and Pam’s C-story obsession with a sappy (and real) bank commercial. (2) The peripheral characters moved toward center stage, as will happen more and more now that Carell is gone. (3) And reality evaporated. When trying to uncover the meaning of the list, Dwight smashed together Angela and Kelly’s heads. He also hurled a cell phone at the wall. And no one ever blinked an eye. Dwight Schrute is The Office’s Homer Simpson, and his antics have looped the loop. He’s a full-on parody of himself.
None of this is bad, per say. It’s just the reality of a show aging. Shows change. This season is transitional, and in the first episode, it felt it. But no one seems bored or resentful to be figuratively stuck in Scranton, and energy will go a long way toward beating the Curse of the Eighth Season. Let's see if they just can't pull it off.