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MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: THE OFFICE and the zen of Robert California

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: THE OFFICE and the zen of Robert California

Taking its cues from James Spader’s performance, the NBC show has become warm, relaxed and mysterious.


By Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play Contributor

The post-Michael Scott version of The Office isn’t what I expected, but it’s growing on me. First I had to get over the fact that James Spader’s character — Robert California, CEO of Dunder-Mifflin’s parent company — isn’t quite the scary, malevolent person I hoped he’d be, based on California’s debut in last season’s finale and Spader’s track record of playing unhinged oddballs. California is a mind-effer, to be sure, but he’s more benevolent than expected.

There are times when he casually shatters his employees’ confidence simply because he’s a powerful man who’s used to saying whatever pops into his head without fear of punishment. (When he prompted Andy to talk about his attraction to Erin, and Andy obliged, California cut him off with, “I’m afraid you’ve lost my interest.”) But so far there’s no indication that he’s anything but fundamentally decent; based on last week’s Halloween episode, during which he brought his son to work, he’s also a good dad with a deep (if unusual) connection to his child. He’s not a craven, impulsive, inadvertently destructive person, as Michael often was. He’s wry and aloof. He seems to view the goings-on at the Scranton branch from a lofty perspective — including the reflexive ass-kissing that greets his every pronouncement, no matter how whimsical or baffling. His visits to the Scranton branch are charged with an excitement that no other regular Office character ever summoned, and it’s not just because he’s the CEO. His peculiar energy sparks love and respect as well as fear. (Andy greeted him by blurting out, “Hi, Dad.”)

The Office loses something by having Spader’s Zen master drive the action instead of Michael Scott. When Michael was running things, the Comedy of Discomfort flowed naturally, but with California in charge, it doesn’t — not quite. And when the series ventures into that old, familiar vein (see the garden party episode, which was more silly than mortifying) the discomfort is mild compared to, say, “Dinner Party” or some other Michael Scott-era exercise in cringe humor. I don’t mind, though. Seven seasons of the show showcased enough knife-twisting comedy to last a lifetime. If The Office had to continue — and in a bottom-line sense, it absolutely did — it would have seemed desperate and pathetic if the producers had replaced Michael with a Michael-esque character. Thankfully, they didn’t.

You can read the rest of Matt’s piece here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play.

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