The Case for Robert California

As we discussed in our previous article, there’s no denying that The Office went a little broader as the seasons went on. From a bleak show chronicling a number of characters stuck in a rut it turned slowly into a ol’ fashion “we’re all a loving family” show, which is hardly how workplaces operate regardless of how well we get along with our co-workers. By losing its acidic and dreary edges The Office stopped showing us what “real people” were like, and as the characters got bigger and goofier they stopped looking so much like (slightly blown out) versions of people we knew, and became instead caricatures of who they once were.

When I first watched seasons 6-9 I decided to cut them from my future rotation, and for many years of rewatching I only watched season 2-5. Eventually I memorized those seasons and decided to give 6-9 another shot, and while I think they lack the heart-breaking honesty of the first few seasons, they’re still enjoyable. And though the characters grow broader they still reveal some interesting truths about our interactions with and understandings of each other.

My favorite late season character is Robert California (James Spader). I know he’s divisive. I know he’s weird. I also hated him the first time I watched him. Though he’s “larger than life” in a lot of ways his core characteristics and journey are some of the most honest work the later seasons do.

When we first meet Robert California in the Season 7 finale he is off putting but magnetic. As Jim puts it: “He creeps me out, but I think he might be a genius.” It’s a tough line to walk, and Robert California continues to walk the line when he joins the cast full time, only slowly revealing his true nature to his co-workers. Whenever faced with a enigmatic person, especially one in power, it takes a long time to “unpack them” and Robert California is a perfect example of this. What once seemed impressive, cryptic, illuminating, when repeated ad nauseam, begins to lose its glow and the broken bizarro person underneath begins to poke through.

It’s important, I think, that Robert California never really changes but is instead unmasked. He goes through a divorce during the season (beginning in probably one of my favorite episodes of the late offerings of the show: “Mrs. California”). But the underlying character doesn’t change. As discussed in our Doc Sportello article, when the veneer of superficial first impressions are wiped away and you realize the bits you observed fit into the puzzle in a different spot than where you thought they went. When a character is put in a tough spot their true tendencies and person shines through. Doc Sportello reveals himself, under a pot addled anti-establishment brain, to be an essentially good person regardless of exterior circumstance. Robert’s transformation is the opposite. His charm is only skin deep but his predatory and destructive nature pervasive. His divorce and the stress of running a company brings out bad traits in him, but they were there already, simply under a mask of inscrutability.

Robert California has a strange arch in The Office. I can only assume he was always meant to be a one season stint, because that’s how his downward spiral reads. I’m not going to say that it always tracks. He’s a weird dude and some episodes go out of their way to prove that point without necessarily building on what we know about him. But the growing frustration and confusion, as well as the powerlessness, of his underlings at the office are an honest microcosm of the workplace and a relationship, and what’s more it’s a new shot of energy into the show. Michael Scott may have been an idiot, but he wasn’t actively tanking the company, and if anything peeling back his layers endeared him to people. How do you deal with a man you once thought impressive who reveals himself to be a total mess after you’ve put him in power? (Honestly didn’t realize that sentence would have political undertones until I was halfway through writing it).

For those reasons, I think Robert California was a (perhaps poorly handled) step in the right direction for the aging seasons of The Office.

And he will also forever have one of my favorite lines in the history of The Office:

“I am so tired of the Black Eyed Peas. It’s rock and roll for people who don’t like rock and roll, it’s rap for people who don’t like rap. It’s pop for people who don’t like pop.”

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