The Case for Robert California

Why Robert California is a central character in the saga of ‘The Office.’
James Spader The Office
NBC Universal
By  · Published on March 10th, 2018

Like most people with a Netflix account and a penchant for procrastination, I have seen every episode of The Office (U.S.) more times than I would care to admit. Not only is it my favorite sitcom, but it is also my go-to “background show,” the one that acts as white noise as I fold laundry, pretend to study, or work on posts like this one.

When Albert Einstein came up with his definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results — he did not know about binge re-watching which, as we all know, almost always yields different results. By doing so, we notice, learn, and question more than we did the last time. With The Office, this is the case.

After Michael Scott (Steve Carell) decided to leave the office for Colorado, many viewers, myself included, did not believe the show could go on, much less find a replacement for the world’s best boss. Each time I watch The Office, I cannot help but appreciate one character more and more: Robert California (James Spader).

A Few Bad Apples

Whenever Quentin Tarantino is asked (stay with me) why he will only make ten films, he brings up the legacy of his filmography. He does not want to be one of those directors that just keeps making movies for the sake of making movies. Like a good auteur, he believes, rightly so, that a few bad movies weaken a director’s filmography, thus changing how we view even the best of a body of work. The same is true for television.

By choosing to carry on the series for two seasons post-Michael Scott, NBC risked devaluing past seasons and the legacy of one of their best programs. It was a major gamble, especially since they had already proved the haters wrong by successfully bringing the show across the Atlantic. While not a titular role, Michael Scott was as essential to his sitcom as Jerry Seinfeld or Lucy Ricardo were to theirs. Who could fill the void he left behind?

In the immediate wake of Michael’s departure, it was Deangelo Vickers (Will Ferrell). Like Michael, Deangelo was clueless, idiosyncratic, overly self-confident, and seemed to be without a friend in the world. Unlike Michael, Deangelo is not endearing or likable despite his flaws. The Deangelo Vickers episodes are bad, yet important. They help us navigate the Michael void, leading us to the realization that it must be filled by the antithesis of Michael Scott, a character like Robert California.

Michael v. Robert

Michael Scott’s moronic tendencies lead him to moments of brilliance. As he says to Jan after inking a new deal, “Yeah, well, maybe next time you’ll estimate me.” By the end of his tenure, Michael turned his office into Dunder Mifflin’s most profitable branch. Inversely, Robert California lands the job at Dunder Mifflin-Sabre because of his intelligence. “I think he might be a genius,” says Jim, who chairs the hiring committee. Despite his apparently high IQ, Robert reveals himself to be an incompetent boss, driving the company into bankruptcy and back into the hands of David Wallace.

Robert’s most notable trait is his primal desire for sex. “All life is sex,” he says. “There is one person in charge of every office in America, and that person is Charles Darwin.” Each of his interactions is informed by sex, whether it is in pursuit of someone, making a business decision, or, in many cases, both. Michael too has a sexual drive, yet he is out of a genuine want for companionship. And if given a choice between sex and friendship, he will always choose the latter. “It’s not about the horniness,” he says after breaking up with Jan and spending the night in New York with Ryan and Dwight. “It’s about the loneliness.”

The most important difference between the two is how they are introduced to the viewer, and how we interpret their interactions with other members of the office. When we meet Michael, he is an insider, a manager who has worked at Dunder Mifflin for most of his adult life. He is the conduit through which we get to know the other characters. We know Dwight as the kiss-ass assistant, Andy as the try-hard, Oscar as the gay man he insulted, Meredith as the woman he hit with his car, Pam as his secretary, etc. While the cast does develop during the Michael years, there just isn’t enough room for them to grow. It is not until Robert California enters that the character arcs of the other Dunder Mifflin employees start to develop in a meaningful way. Because Robert is an outsider, he must become acquainted with his employees, thus affording us the same opportunity.

Robert v. Everybody

One such episode, “The List,” begins season eight. Robert divides the office into two categories: winners and losers, naturally causing a rift between members of the office. He invites the winners to lunch, while the rest of the office eats pizza alone as losers. When the winners return to the office, Andy Bernard, then regional manager, defends the losers. It is here he begins to become a leader, more than just the annoying Cornell alum we have come to know. Without Robert California as a foil, likable Andy does not exist. Another character whose story arc takes a new turn is Kevin Malone’s. He is also put on the winner’s list and promptly texts those who are not, “Suck it losers.” Kevin’s development continues later that season in “Gettysburg,” where Robert hosts a jam session with a few employees. Robert ends up spending the entire day with Kevin, whom he wrongly believes is a genius after he mistakes a comment Kevin made about cookies for a metaphor about the paper business. In seasons eight and nine, Kevin Malone helps fill the comedic void left by Michael Scott in a big way.

The best storyline of season eight is the one in which Dwight Schrute, at Robert’s requests, assembles a team to travel to Florida and create a Sabre retail store. Dwight had a chance in season seven to serve as interim manager but was fired after he discharged a gun in the office. He failed in his first real leadership role, and it seemed as though he was going to be stuck as assistant/assistant to the regional manager forever. Robert, however, seeing Dwight’s ambition, selects him to lead the Florida team anyway. Though Dwight ultimately fails to land a promotion, he comes out of the experience a proven, humbled leader. It is after Robert’s invitation that Dwight shows he is ready for the job he will ultimately land in season nine

Jim Halpert develops in the presence of Robert too. When Robert decides to let Nellie Bertram take Andy’s job, Jim is the one who leads the charge against the decision. When Jim realizes Robert is going to fire Dwight in Florida; he goes out of his way to save his rival. With Michael gone and the crazed Robert in charge, Jim casts apathy aside and becomes an active leader of the office. It is this new Jim that will eventually start Athlead.

And finally, Robert’s best performance comes in the eighth season’s fifth episode, “Spooked,” where he uses the office Halloween party as a chance to learn his employees’ deepest fears. It is here we learn that Kelly fears she will never marry, Creed can’t stand the sight of a snake, and Meredith squirms whenever she is near Jim.

The Lizard King

So, what have we learned here? Have I just written my magnum opus? Or have I wasted your time and 1,500 words? Both? Perhaps.

Of course, Robert California is no Michael Scott. Yes, he’s hilarious, but by the end of one season, we’ve had enough. That being said, at the end of that season, I did not miss Michael as I did at the end of the previous one. The void had been somewhat filled, partly by Robert California, but more-so by the same old cast of characters that developed under his hectic tenure. He is the bridge between the Michael years and season nine, where we play witness to the genuine development of a cast of characters unlike any other. We go beyond Michael and get to truly know the office.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.