The first episode of the new season of The Office begins like every other season premiere, where we get caught up on what everyone did last summer. Except this time, we get to see some of the officemates planking. Fun. The overused and trying-too-hard Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) is established as branch manager because The Hangover Part II did incredible business; Dwight (Rainn Wilson, star of Super, one of the year’s best movies) takes out his aggression from not getting the job in various ways; the newly re-pregnant Pam (played by the actually pregnant Jenna Fischer) is sitcom-level-emotional, crying at commercials; Angela (Angela Martin) is also pregnant and married to the supposedly homosexual state senator from Heroes; and Stanley (Leslie David Baker) has turned “and shove it up your butt!” into a catchphrase. It’s not what you’d expect from the character, but neither was his ultimate dream being taking a rocket ship to the moon. And then there’s Robert California (an ever-reliable James Spader), the only guest star from the season finale’s comedy star cavalcade who made any impression.
During the summer, California, the first choice for branch manager, spends less than five minutes in the office before going to Florida and convincing Sabre CEO Jo Bennett (Kathy Bates, not featured) to make him CEO of the entire company. We don’t know how he does it, but with a character like California, mystery generally serves him well. He comes across as introspective and offbeat, so him loudly declaring his intentions would defeat his character. Nevertheless, despite the company being based out of Florida, he does half his work out of the Scranton, Pennsylvania, conference room because…this is an area where mystery does not work in his, or the show’s, favor.
The main plot revolves around a list California created that separates the names from the office into two groups. After everyone ponders what the segregation could mean, the new boss invites one of the groups (consisting of Jim, Toby, Oscar, Phyllis, Darryl, Angela, and Kevin) out for lunch where he reveals that he considers the second group losers. After a brief bit where the cool kids lords it over the uncool kids, Andy goes into California’s conference room to tell him how he hurt everyone’s feelings.
California, challenged, goes to the crowd and explains his stance- logically, coldly, and honestly. He even tells the losers to prove him wrong. Considering how much crap the staff gets away with on a daily basis, even on this “day” where they devoted themselves more to figuring out the list than to actually working, it’s a wonder that California doesn’t consider them all failures. However, despite him being right, he hurt people’s feelings, and that makes him wrong. When he returns to his office, you expect a laugh track to go “ooooooo….” But instead of taking this lesson to heart, Andy (one of the losers) returns to Robert where he goes down the list of the losers explaining why they are all super awesome. The laugh track “awwwwws.” Scene out.
The “family togetherness” of The Office played a major factor behind its ruin last year. The show might have lost a lot of credibility by that point, but everyone going to a co-worker’s (Andy’s, of course) play, attending the Christening of Jim and Pam’s baby, watching Glee together, and filming their boss’s pet film project took it way too far. However, one could understand it back then without really accepting it; the staff was losing its captain. But this year it’s come back in full force. The realistic pettiness and bickering between Angela and Pam is replaced by the type of goofy pregnancy rivalry where you know their kids will grow up great friends. When Andy praises his crew, he handles the task like a 1980s sitcom dad, with the same aplomb as Full House‘s Danny Tanner telling daughter DJ why she is pretty and shouldn’t become anorexic.
The most important thing worth pondering from this episode is how Robert California will fit into the show. If tonight is any indication, he won’t. California is too serious, too real, and too dark for a show thoroughly entrenched in sitcom-tomfoolery. The character could work elsewhere, maybe the first seasons of the show, maybe some place on pay cable, but he’s simultaneously too weird and too grounded to mesh with everyone else at Dunder Mifflin (an affiliate of Sabre).
• Kevin (Brian Baumgartner) was also invited to D’Angelo Vickers’ (Will Ferrell) round table. What makes him so cool?
• I still cannot determine if Creed (Creed Bratton) and Hipster Douche Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) are terribly underused or used the perfect amount to avoid burnout.
• If California considers Andy a loser, why did he name him branch manager? EDIT: Because I forgot a scene.
• Why bring on David Brent (Ricky Gervais) TWICE if he is not going to mention the cameras following everyone around ONCE? He wasn’t in this episode, but that has just bugged me since last season.