We knew Robert California would be featured less chiefly after last week’s promotion of Andy Bernard to regional manager. We didn’t know California would almost disappear completely. The Mametian force, played by James Spader, stopped by twice, total. Where does a man like Robert California hang in Scranton when not at Dunder Mifflin? What local Carvel or Sam’s Club could possibly meet his impossible standards?
Anyhoo, in his first appearance, California delivers a rousing monologue about the company’s bright future, a preamble before notifying a befuddled Bernard of his A-story: doubling the company’s profit. And like that, California’s gone. Andy freaks out, which so far is the most noticeable difference between him and Michael Scott. Where Michael was frantic, but assertive, Andy is frantic, but milquetoast. His go-to strategy is “seek help.” So Andy plops down Indian style on Jim’s desk, and what ensues is the closest you’ll see to a writers’ room sketch without watching a Neil Simon play. The employees (many of whom are actually the show’s writers) spitball one-liners, punch lines, and story paths — most ideas/jokes fall flat. It's like we’re watching them cobble together the next beat in real time.
But what we’re really watching is The Office treading water. What should Andy do? What should everyone do? Is this joke funny? How about this one? And what’s next? Not just for this episode, but this season? The whole shtick puts agita right in the chest. Aha! This is how Andy feels. Desperate, Andy acts, deciding to incentivize good work by awarding points redeemable for prizes, like a maternity shirt or a vibrator. (If only we could have seen Andy shopping for this stuff.) Of course no one wants Andy’s junk, so he ups the ante. For 5,000 points, Andy Bernard will get a tattoo on his ass because, hey, there’s something about a tattooed Ed Helms that people can’t get enough of.
The prospect of humiliating their new boss is so inspiring, in fact, that everyone hits the phones. Except Kevin, who hits two printing calculators at once — a callback of sorts to the cold open, which had Kevin dropping the use of conjunctions because it saved him time. We’ve rarely seen the gang “work” at work, let alone like the high-powered, capable employees of an Aaron Sorkin show. Everyone’s walking and talking and taking calls and shouting jargon and passing papers — television shorthand for getting down to business! There’s even a graph of Andy’s hind side that Erin fills with red ink, inching her way up from his ankles to the team goal: tush tat.
Andy’s graph-ass is rosy by day’s end. As they review butt tattoo options — “Do Not Resuscitate,” “I’m not as think as you drunk I am” — the formerly listless group is now noticeably spritely. It took the episode a while to find its bearings, but with a clear motivation, the dialogue starts humming. It outright sings at the tattoo parlor. A terrified Andy steps outside, where Jim meets him. Jim has always had a way with speaking to distressed superiors.
"What am I doing here?,” asks Andy. “Why did Robert pick me?"
"Do you like it?” replies Jim. “Are you having fun? Everyone else is having fun.”
Come on. Is Jim talking directly to the writers’ room? The first half of this episode was so concerned with figuring things out and giving everyone something to do that it wasn’t having fun. It was working. All it needed, in the words of The Great, All-Seeing Halpert, was to chillax. Andy does just that, leaping back into the parlor to get that tattoo, dropping trou in front of everyone. Everything happened so fast, but I swear Erin has a big grin on her face here.
The original tat design the office agreed upon was a baby coming out of Andy’s butt, which, yes! awesome! but Pam asks the artist to make a last-minute change. Outside again, Andy takes a peek in a side-view mirror, spotting on his left butt cheek a puppy wearing a sweatshirt with the word Nard on it. Nard dog. His nickname. He cries, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t soften up a little. The episode is almost totally saved by this moment of too damn cuteness. This is the show’s sweet spot: nice people lovingly pranking other nice people.
And then California shows up in talking-head form for his second appearance. I mentioned last week that California seemed to have taken Michael’s duty as the weekly proverb giver and I stand by that. Over the image of Andy’s ass, he says, "There's something about an underdog that really inspires the unexceptional.” Andy might not be Michael Scott and the show’s confidence might not be fully restored, but watching the gang piece together their future has been quite enjoyable thus far.