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The Office: California’s Better Half

THE OFFICE -- "Mrs. California" Episode 809 -- Pictured: (l-r) James Spader as Robert California, Ed Helms as Andy Bernard, Maura Tierney as Susan California -- Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC

Enough! Robert California is the worst thing to happen to The Office. Full stop. Cruel and crudely drawn, the sure-spoken CEO is an inciting incident in a sport jacket, a nine-week-long red light keeping Regional Manager Andy Bernard from becoming the leader the show deserves.

This week, Robert delivers another neatly packaged premise. His wife, Susan (guest star Maura Tierney), is job searching and Andy must, under no circumstances, hire her. At least that’s what he says behind her back. When Susan appears, Robert strong-arms Andy into finding something, ANYTHING for the Mrs. to do.

Cue the Andy Bernard sweat act: A plot in which Robert California relentlessly punishes Andy Bernard for his kindness and honesty, and Andy scrambles to save his rear. The conflict is never so much between Robert and Andy but Andy and his glands. Robert’s pleas to just hire Susan already pour out in dull, thumping whines that call to mind Chinese water torture. And of course, Andy — stewing in his jacket turned crockpot — cracks and hires Susan on the spot. Robert flashes a glare that says, “Bad dog!”

After a welcome commercial break, California calls Andy (from wherever it is he hides for the majority of each episode) and tells him to fix this problem, which is to say fire his wife, because California is a despicable, ugly, unwatchable character — maybe that’s the joke? Rather than continue the conflict with Robert, Andy turns to the entire office to resolve his crisis. Everyone, he says, must be mean to Susan so that she’ll be driven to quit. And everyone, for the most part, goes along with this. Except Jim, who has a soul.

Meanwhile, Dwight opens a gym! In the building! That makes sense! And Daryl’s his first customer. See, Dwight has a business philosophy: “Get the black people to do it to get the white people to do it. Then you've got to get the black people to stop doing it."  The gym starts out as a couple of phone books (for ripping), tin sheets (for cutting), and rusted farm equipment (for lifting/slinging), but by the credits, the room is stuffed with professional equipment. Dwight creates a legit gym that employees pay to use. Read that back.

Anyway, a hurt Susan airs her concern to Robert that the office is displeased with her arrival, but her husband dumps the problem back on Andy’s lap and scampers away with one of his now patented “Seeya!” escapes. (One of these days we’ll find a California-shaped hole in a Dunder Mifflin wall.) Andy and Susan bond over their shared victimhood, and Susan promises to help Andy out. And by help, she means confront her husband, saying she believes Andy is concealing Robert’s real wishes. This act ends with Robert hollering to Andy: “You lying son of a bitch!"

Robert, furious, and demanding Andy take back what he said, calls Jim in to settle this. Jim, wisely, bolts. He doesn’t have the ability to disappear like his boss. Instead, he “rolled slash crawled” out the door (good Erin observation), down the stairs, through the parking lot and into his car, before being stopped by security at the gate. He leaves the car and climbs onto the roof of the office. These measures would seem extreme were he trying to escape anyone else.

Jim is eventually caught and pressured to speak. Because Jim is not a cold, mean, humorless character, he does so from the heart. He loves working with his wife. Pam’s on maternity leave, he says, but he’d love to see her face outside that door. Ed Helms must be dying for this sort of character arc. (Speaking of, where is that girlfriend Andy’s supposedly been seeing for months? Or the new girl from shipping? I definitely saw her scanning a clipboard at one point.)

Like Grecian violence, the fight between Susan and Richard isn’t seen, but we get a taste of its repercussions when Andy escorts Mrs. California to the parking lot. Andy says the gang would have liked to work with her. Maybe things will be different when this all settles down, she says, adding, “It’s a date.” Wait, what? And with that, Andy gets his fourth love interest! And we almost certainly are promised more California-Andy conflicts!

Why, Robert California? Why must you be so uninteresting? So absent? So villainous and yet monotonous? How long must we wait before your heart grows three sizes? (I smell true-meaning-of-Christmas material! And it smells like spiked eggnog and regret!) It feels like, at least with California around, Andy’s real job is shit receptacle. Eater of whatever the big boss dishes out. A passive non-character who gets dragged from one scene to the next like an abused prop. What should take one act is prolonged for an entire episode.

Jim sparkled because he acted — sanely! A problem arose and he did something. He was asked a question and he gave an immediate, genuine answer, which propelled the story. That is great storytelling, overshadowed by the quaking California. How many more aftershocks must we take?

Photo: Chris Haston/NBC