News of James Spader's impending exit from "The Office," ending his brief reign as edgily aloof corporate boss Robert California, certainly won't spur the kind of bittersweet long goodbye that trailed Steve Carell's departure last year after seven seasons.
But Spader's inscrutable California has left a surprising indelible mark on the long-running show during this crucial transition season. His exit does to the show what Robert California does regularly to the staff of Dunder Mifflin Sabre: Throw everything off balance and keep us guessing what's coming next.
Carell's ultimately lovable Michael Scott felt familiar to anyone who’s ever worked for a goofy, wannabe comedian stuck in middle management. Spader's California, in some ways, is more of a boss for these times: His constant mind games, designed to instill insecurity and spur internal competition, reflect a larger uncertainty amid the scramble to overhaul old business models and just stay employed.
California, a master of corporate doublespeak, set the tone in the season opener by leaving an easy-to-find list dividing the employees into two categories only he knew – and by spouting frustrating ambiguities. "Let me tell you some things I find productive: Positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement," he declared.
We saw how well his two-faced management style worked when brought his wife to the office for a job – only to order Andy not to hire her – leading him to divorce and to one of the best episodes of the season. We also saw California turn the paper warehouse into a music rehearsal studio for his buddies and throw a drunken pool party in his swank estate, revealing little about himself (even if his bathrobe left little to the imagination).
California’s appearances may send the office drones into a nervous tizzy, but signal to the audience we’re in for laughs fueled by the unpredictable and uncomfortable. The post-Carell “Office” has worked best when stretching beyond the comfort zone of tiresome Jim-and-Dwight practical jokes, as we've seen with the addition of California and the strong current arc that’s taken some of the staff to corporate headquarters in Florida to help create Dunder Mifflin Sabre stores. The storyline reintroduced us to Catherine Tate's Nellie Bertram, who, like California, first surfaced at the end of last season as candidate for Michael Scott's job.
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Bertram is another self-important spewer of corporate gibberish, though she adds a new age twist and dubious taste in men. We would love to see more of Tate, best known her British sketch show and her turn in "Doctor Who," beyond this season.
At the end of the season opener, California’s list was revealed as his lunch-date lineup, his early take on the “winners” at the office. “Winners, prove me right. Losers, prove me wrong,” he told the staff.
The prospect of California’s departure and new changes for next season offer another challenge to the show’s creative team to keep proving “The Office” a winner.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, milt-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.