Earlier today, Matt Zoller Seitz analyzed the state of the post-Carell Office at Salon, arguing that James Spader’s performance as Robert California has allowed the show to settle into a space that is “warm, relaxed, and mysterious.” It’s an intelligent piece, one that compellingly lays out the positive influences that Spader has had on the series, but I’m nonetheless somewhat skeptical of its premise.
It may just be me, but I’m not convinced that Spader’s presence has been as prominent as Seitz suggests. While I would agree that Robert California alters the tone and rhythm of the series when he is present, he isn’t present particularly often (and wasn’t present at all during what Seitz and I would both identify as the season’s strongest episode, “Lotto”) and, even when he is present, he isn’t really being developed as a character with motivations or multi-dimensionality. His omniscience is valuable on some level, but it also creates a distance between the character and the narrative, which makes me reluctant to consider him as Carell’s replacement (which is what Seitz suggests in his piece). In truth, and picking up on something I suggested last week, I think I would be enjoying this season a lot more if Spader were positioned as Carell’s replacement, and we were seeing the season from his perspective.
“Doomsday” continues the trend of going in the opposite direction, positioning Robert California as a figure of authority whose presence is something that the narrative reacts to as opposed to something actually involved in the narrative. Realistically, is there anything about this story that wouldn’t have been identical with Jan, or Jo, or even Ryan? I completely agree that Spader’s performance has a real energy to it, and I laughed quite a bit at his banter with Andy in the early parts of the episode, but is his presence really changing this series in any way when he isn’t actually present?
There are a number of small details about “Doomsday” that I really enjoyed, but this was definitely one of those circumstances where it never felt as though they coalesced into a strong episode on the whole. I liked the idea of Dwight being discontent with his “No. 2” position to Andy and wanting to help out with the accountability problems, but I very much dislike the extreme nature of his proposal, and that Andy would ever actually allow that proposal to move forward once he heard about the “doomsday device” at its centre. Similarly, I like the idea of Darryl kind of subtly testing out the field with Val from the warehouse (and that we actually saw the warehouse), but didn’t care for the broad and unhinged Gabe antics that converged with that storyline. And finally, while Robert California’s time at Dunder Mifflin had a few great lines, his squash game with Jim felt contrived and hokey, failing to draw out the better parts of his character.
These episodes are always tough to review, because if you didn’t have these problems, you probably thought it was great. However, I can’t help the fact that I spent the entire second half of the episode wondering how Andy hadn’t stepped up and threatened to fire Dwight when it was clear that the doomsday device would go off. Where was the Andy who stepped up to get Darryl back on track in “Lotto,” the Andy who could accurately read a situation and understand his employees’ needs? While the episode tried to suggest that Andy was under great pressure to cut down on mistakes, which justifies allowing Dwight to enact his plan in the first place, by the end of the episode I was flabbergasted that Andy was just acting like he had no authority in the situation. The only reason Andy wouldn’t threaten to fire Dwight is so that the writers could tie off the narrative with a moment of Dwight showing he does have a heart, and identifying how Pam’s “pobody’s nerfect” line and the digging of a horse grave warmed it, and it bothers me when characters are motivated solely by what is most convenient for the narrative instead of what they would logically do in that situation.
Similarly, it’s quite possible that I’m the only person who finds Gabe to be a character without any real sense of purpose, whose weirdness has been weaponized to the point of caricature this season. Last season, we were given the sense that Gabe’s breakdown was the result of his breakup with Erin, leading to the point where he was essentially fired and sent back to Florida. Here, though, how are we supposed to read his sudden desire to date Val? Like I suggested above, the Darryl side of this was really quite subtle, and there was something really sad about him quietly nursing a crush and then learning indirectly that it would never come to be. I like Darryl and like the idea of him getting more substantial storylines, but did this tossed-off B-story need to be so dominated by Gabe’s unhinged routine? Gabe is not the only character to fall into caricature (see: Kevin) as the series goes on, but I have to admit I have less tolerance for it when I still don’t entirely understand what the character does anymore: He identified himself as “Corporate” tonight, but what does that mean? If I found the character funny, it’s possible I would feel differently, but nothing about it connected with me here. Gabe has transcended awkward and moved onto obnoxious, which is unfortunate, given how I’ve previously enjoyed Zach Woods in the role.
As the episode came to its conclusion, meanwhile, it seemed like it was trying too hard to feel eventful. The episode created some ludicrously high stakes in Dwight’s "Doomsday Device," to the point that there was never really any concern that the message would actually go through (since it would, of course, mean the end of the series). As a result, the success of the storyline hinges on the success of the comedy surrounding the characters’ panic, which I ultimately felt was a mixed bag. There were some really fun lines in Dwight’s scenes, but my issues with Andy’s inaction remained, and I think the scenes would have been better if Pam and Andy had gone without Kevin and Erin (so that their individual characterizations might have been better drawn out). Meanwhile, while I appreciate pushing Jim outside of his usual space and getting some physical comedy out of John Krasinski, the electricity of Robert California never manifested on the squash court the way it does within the office, which felt like a missed opportunity for a more dynamic and less sitcommy sequence.
I do not consider “Doomsday” to be a terrible episode by any means, and I could list quite a number of lines that made me laugh quite a bit. Stanley, in particular, had a banner evening, with a cold open-saving rendition of “Closing Time” (which, up until that point, was just silly) and a welcome callback to “And shove it up your butt!” I also appreciated that Dwight’s initial plan was actually intended to improve efficiency, and that his “doomsday device” was a real attempt at incentivizing efficiency and not a secret plan to get everyone fired (even if he eventually landed on that point). However, the various pieces never fell into place, and the resolution didn’t feel as though it was earned by the episode that came before it. It just felt like it was trying to do too much too quickly, never quite narrowing in on character in the midst of manufacturing chaos.
And, while I am still hopeful about the role that Robert California will play, I certainly never felt that it was warm, relaxing, or mysterious based on his presence.
- Just to be entirely clear, since a blog post going around this week suggested otherwise, these reviews reflect only my own opinion. I do not judge others for enjoying the series more than I do, nor do I vilify those who would dare offer an alternate opinion: The very point of these reviews is to enable discussion, and I am deeply concerned by the notion that I have ever even implicitly suggested otherwise. If you thought this was an A, grade it with an A (that’s what the lovely “Community Grade” feature is for) and please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
- Over the summer, I had my first experience of a bar actually closing for the night by playing “Closing Time.” It was horrifying.
- Regarding the cold open, however, I do sort of like the idea that this has been happening for 105 days without us having seen it. In fact, I think I’d be interested in more storylines about how Andy’s trying to put his stamp on the job to break up these broader stories driven by "events" (lottery winnings, garden parties, Halloween parties, doomsday devices, etc.).
- I’m normally totally on board with Robert California’s words of wisdom and appreciate the Iron Chef geekery at the heart of his commentary, but it’s totally possible to have a favorite Iron Chef regardless of special ingredient, right?
- Erin and Kevin continue to be on opposite trajectories: Erin is getting more consistently drawn as someone who is smart but quick to fall to social pressures (very much enjoyed her joining Kelly in yelling, just with random screaming instead of something specific), and Kevin thinks man trees have penises and that’s how we make paper, which makes me so terribly sad for the state of that character.
- A very strong one-liner episode for Dwight: Torn between “Like all of my dreams, I’m guessing it was about my fear of immigrants” and “What does it look like I’m doing? Digging a grave for a horse.” I also quite enjoyed his failed attempt at opening the portfolio—simple, but effective.