The very first scene of “Mrs. California” (outside of the cold open) suggests the potential for a very smart episode of The Office.
I wouldn’t say it had the potential to be a great episode of television, necessarily, but the idea of Robert California promising his wife a job at Dunder Mifflin while simultaneously warning Andy to under no circumstances give her a job plays into the dynamic that has developed between the new CEO and the new regional manager. We’ve been waiting for an episode that tells us more about Robert California as a character (and not simply as a narrative device to be deployed as the writers see fit), and the situation challenges Andy’s earnest and honest personality in a way that seemed as though it might take advantage of what makes him unique as a regional manager. For a show that has often felt labored in its storytelling, the sudden panic on Robert’s face as he warns Andy of Susan’s arrival was really quite encouraging.
“Mrs. California” struggles to live up to that moment, however, because the writers don’t seem to have enough trust in telling simple stories, or letting talented performers (like James Spader and guest star Maura Tierney) run with a storyline on their own. The scenes those two characters share with Andy are predictable, perhaps, but they’re also the most fun that Spader has been allowed to have since his full-time tenure on the show began at the start of the season. We aren’t quite back to the borderline sociopath who interviewed for the job, but the mind games were more dynamic here than they have been in previous episodes.
They also felt like they were more clearly contributing to a relationship between characters, as Andy’s efforts to impress Robert become problematized by the fact that he completely loses track of what he’s supposed to do in order to impress him in this situation. Mixed messaging was never Michael’s strong point either, but he usually panicked and escalated the situation. By comparison, Andy capitulates at the first sign of conflict, which results in some enjoyable scenes where Andy finally thinks that he knows what he is supposed to do, only for Robert to viciously challenge his statement. As much as I still think the potential for both Andy as Regional Manager and Robert as CEO is not quite being met, this was a good comic situation for the two characters to be involved in.
When we consider the episode as a whole, though, this situation becomes less effective. While isolated comic moments worked well, the broader storyline struggled to find its footing. It seemed built for the scenes of Andy in his office and the conference room with the two characters, effectively the third wheel to their marital conflict, but there was very little to hold the episode together between those scenes. As much as I enjoyed Erin believing that a tiny stapler is suitable punishment to force someone to want to quit, that sequence failed to land because Susan California was little but a cipher. It was an excuse to feature the supporting cast of the show when it could have been an opportunity to introduce this new character (who could theoretically recur, especially given where her arc in the episode ends), and to see the show waste Maura Tierney was a disappointment. Even if Tierney is playing the role of the straight woman, that doesn’t mean she should be playing that role with no sense of specificity, and there was just nothing in the script to offer any sort of character. She got a single talking head that vaguely outlined her past (which, if I’m reading it correctly, involves her having an affair with Robert while he was her boss and breaking up his previous marriage), but none of that was allowed to be explored in subsequent scenes, and leaving it as subtext robbed the episode of a sense of purpose (which, even in a simpler comic storyline, remains an important factor).
It also didn’t help that the episode felt the need to sweep Jim up in the conflict, a situation that spiraled out of control quite quickly. I laughed out loud at Jim’s roll out of the way when he realized he was about to be caught up in the situation, but the subsequent low-speed chase (as Jim tries to drive away, leaves his car in the middle of the parking lot when the gate is closed, and then climbs onto the roof before climbing back into the building) was just silly. There was something elegant about Jim’s dodge, and Erin’s subsequent description of that dodge, especially as it was filmed from within the conference room. Once you turn it into a spectacle, you lose the subtlety of the initial joke and only gain Creed on the roof flying helicopters (which, not that I want to look the Creed horse in the mouth, wasn’t worth the increased zaniness). It didn’t help, of course, that Jim’s involvement turned into a weepy tribute to his love for Pam (who spends the episode on maternity leave): As much as I haven’t turned against them to the degree that some of you have, it still felt like forced sentimentality that distracted from the more effective, simple comic elements of the storyline.
The B-Story, meanwhile, was a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it returns us to the “Dwight the Building Manager” storylines that I was sort of hoping we were done with, especially as they relate to his schemes to make money. As much as I might value continuity in most circumstances, that development is something I wouldn’t mind the show dropping, as it feels notably artificial every time it’s used to justify a story like Dwight starting a gym. It narrows the character into someone who plots against his fellow employees for no reason but profit, accepting his decline into caricature and building entire narratives around it as though we're begging for more.
On the other hand, I like that we’re sticking with Darryl’s conquest of Val, as it’s a development that connects nicely to the character’s seasonal arc (which we can trace back to his turnaround in “Lotto”). The problem, of course, is that that particular context was mostly buried in the end credits, which means anyone who didn’t buffer their recordings missed it, and it wasn’t deemed important enough to be a part of the episode proper. I’m also somewhat reticent to celebrate the series once again narrowly defining character development as inter-office romance, which is beyond stale at this point.
What frustrates me about episodes like “Mrs. California” is that they shouldn’t feel stale. Here’s an episode built around the arrival of an entirely new character played by a talented actress with sitcom pedigree (NBC's NewsRadio, which is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be watched and which Donna Bowman has so ably covered for TV Club Classic), and an episode that offers a larger showcase for James Spader’s Robert California, and yet all of the energy suggested by the setup dissipated by the time we reached the conclusion. If we were supposed to be invested in Susan when she takes Andy’s politeness as a sign they should begin an affair, seeing this as a shocking development with future implications, then “Mrs. California” did not do enough to earn that.
And if we were just supposed to view it as a clever capper to a lightweight sitcom episode, that’s simply not a satisfying resolution to this storyline (or a satisfying use of this cast, these characters, and this situation).
- As much as her character was a wasted opportunity, I quite liked a number of Tierney’s line readings here. I’d be open to seeing more of the character, provided the writers actually give her a character.
- Although it ran a bit long, I liked the cold open as a short little sketch of office life. In fact, I’d kind of like it if the show’s episodes took on that sort of simple storytelling on a larger scale, but that seems unlikely at this point.
- There were a lot of nice lines around the edges tonight, like Ryan’s “Dream for a Wish Foundation” speech Susan’s arrival interrupts or Toby’s “I’m always ready for adventure” line about his passport. I don’t think the writers have forgotten how to write funny jokes; it just seems like they can’t break a story anymore, and it’s impacting the rhythm of the series as a whole.
- As much as I dislike the show repeating ideas from the Michael Scott years (to the point where, irrationally, even Erin’s evocation of The Devil Wears Prada bugged me a little bit), Darryl continuing his misinformation campaign with Dwight (“It’s LeJon Brames”) made me chuckle.
- I was a bit weirded out by the racial politics at work in Dwight’s logic of using Darryl as a role model for the rest of the office, but that might just be because I watched Trapped In The Closet last night.
- I wonder what it takes to impress Val Kilmer these days.