Ian Thomas Malone

the office Archive



March 2015



Character Study: Robert California

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This is a new feature on the site where I talk about television characters that join shows after they’ve already premiered. These can be ones with starring roles or recurring characters just so long as they weren’t there from the beginning. To nominate a character, please use the comment section.

Many critics wanted The Office to end with Steve Carell’s departure in season seven. I was not among them. The supporting cast was talented enough to survive the loss of its lead. Furthermore, Michael Scott had run his course as a character and was holding back the rest of the ensemble. How many more seasons could be predominated by episodes revolving around Michael’s obliviousness or lack of social life?

James Spader was the one silver lining in the otherwise disastrous season seven finale. I liked the concept behind “Search Committee,” but it was too disjointed and failed to live up to the hype it received for its star studded line up of guests. Seeing Warren Buffet and Ray Romano was nice, but Spader’s Robert California was the only character who truly looked like he belonged at the helm of Dunder Mifflin Scranton (of the rest, only Will Arnett and Catherine Tate were courted by NBC. Arnett was unavailable due to obligations to Up All Night, which was cancelled soon afterwards. Tate didn’t test well with American audiences, though she would join the cast halfway through season eight).

Bringing Spader on board was a no brainer. His energy was completely different from Carrell and he well positioned to bring life back into The Office. Except for one problem.

He wasn’t made Regional Manager.

The Robert California that showed up in the season eight premiere “The List” was much different than the enigma we saw in “Search Committee.” He lacked the domineering nature that Spader appeared to be channeling from his earlier film Secretary. Part of this made sense. While California carried a few scenes with that act in “Search Committee,” he would need to tone it down a bit to get through a twenty four episode season.

Problem was, the toned down Robert didn’t really last. His eccentricities started to pop up, but they weren’t really mesmerizing at all and bore little resemblance to the character’s first appearance. Seeing Robert try to start an office orgy in “Pool Party” was just weird.

This is where the choice to make Robert CEO came to hurt the show. For all intents and purposes, Andy Bernard replaced Michael Scott. Robert California came aboard as an additional Creed Bratton, only with a spot in the opening credits. He wasn’t always involved in the action. Most of the time, he was just there, being creepy.

There were also times where he wasn’t even in the episode at all. California was absent from “Lotto” and then missed a five-episode stretch from “Jury Duty” to “Test the Store.” By the time he’d come back for good, it was the beginning of the end as his war with Andy started, which would ultimately lead to his departure.

It was never clear California what was supposed to do. The dominating man who left Gabe, Jim, and Toby speechless in his interview was gone. In his place was a drifter who wanted to fool around distracting the office.

Andy’s failures as manager exacerbated the problem. It’s not hard to see why NBC wanted Helms for the job as his success with The Hangover mirrored Carrell’s with The 40 Year Old Virgin, but his character was better suited for a supporting role. Andy was already a polarizing character, but this made him almost universally deplorable.

California on the other hand, could’ve maintained the office’s feng shui as manager. He didn’t necessarily have to be the lead that Carrell was, but the confusing nature of his presence often threw off the whole show. Later comments by Paul Lieberstein suggest that California’s arc was only supposed to last one season.

That just leaves one question. What was the arc? In terms of plot, nothing really happened until the season’s penultimate episode “Turf War,” when Robert started acting erratic and Sabre’s money problems became apparent. Andy rushed in with David Wallace and California slithered away. That’s sort of it.

Failed potential seems to accurately summarize Spader’s time on the show. Which is a shame. Boston Legal is one of my favorite shows of all time. Spader is getting rave reviews for The Blacklist and will be the villain in the upcoming Avengers movie. All this tells you is that it season eight didn’t have to be terrible.

It’s clear that Spader was only sort of committed to the role, which sunk it right from the get go. Season eight could’ve blown a few of the previous seasons out of the water. It didn’t, mostly because the talent involved simply decided not to.



February 2015



Parks and Recreation Surpassed The Office Through The Strength Of Its Supporting Cast

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I’m sure some of you regard the title of my article as blasphemy. There are plenty of reasons to think that. In terms of mainstream popularity, The Office wins. It’s hard to envision Parks and Recreation even existing without The Office. P&R was supposed to be a spinoff of The Office for much of its development. Greg Daniels, who co-created P&R, was the driving force in adapting The Office from its British counterpart. The two share much DNA, which makes comparisons inevitable.

Which isn’t entirely fair. Though both are workplace comedies, The Office was literally about an office, while P&R was afforded the opportunity to explore Pawnee in a way that The Office never really got to do with Scranton. Utilizing the whole city allowed P&R to greatly expand its cast of recurring characters and develop its culture in a way made impossible by focusing on one set. It seems unfair to compare the two on these grounds, as The Office could never really have its own pit or Lil Sebastian.

It wouldn’t be unfair to compare the two shows using Michael Scott and Leslie Knope, but I’m reluctant to do that on the grounds that Steve Carrell and Amy Poehler are both so talented that a stalemate is inevitable. Both leads were incredibly strong and shared some similarities. From a stylistic standpoint, Knope was afforded more room to grow since P&R wasn’t tethered to her shortcomings to the extent The Office was to Scott’s naivety and lack of friends.

Where can we compare them and see some differences? Simple. Parks and Recreation’s supporting cast isn’t just superior to The Office’s. It’s not even close. Now you might think this is unfair to say since The Office had double the regular cast members and that’s certainly something to consider, but The Office also had close to eighty more episodes. Not so unfair.

Parks and Recreation invested in all of its characters. The best example of this is Gary/Jerry/Larry/Terry/Garry Gergich, who matches up reasonably well with Office tertiary characters like Kevin Malone and Toby Flenderson. Jerry is often the butt of the joke, but the show takes extreme caution to make sure Jerry always has victories to call his own. Jerry is the only character with a consistent spouse for the duration of the show (though she doesn’t appear until season five). Gayle is attractive and doesn’t mock Jerry like the Parks department. It’s also hinted that he’s quite well endowed. Donna’s success with both her career and romantic life also go to show how dedicated P&R was to fully developing all of its characters.

The only tertiary character on The Office to get this kind of caring treatment is Phyllis Lapin-Vance. Victories for Kevin and Meredith were few and far between, while other characters like Stanley and Creed rarely factor into the plot at all. There’s rarely an episode of Parks and Recreation that doesn’t give all its characters something to do.

If you look at The Office’s main supporting cast compared to P&R’s, it’s once again not even close. Even if you took out Ron Swanson, quite possibly the greatest character in either series, it’s hard to say that Tom, April, Ann, Ben, Chris, and Andy, and don’t romp Jim, Pam, Dwight, Andy, …and Ryan!

You could take Leslie out of the equation and still have a great episode. The Office tried to do that with Scott’s departure and people hated seasons eight and nine (I actually didn’t, but more on that in another article). I’m not saying P&R could have survived without Leslie, but the show didn’t live or die solely by her shenanigans.

Which isn’t to say that The Office didn’t have a strong supporting cast. I think the Jim/Pam romance is a little overrated to say the least, but Dwight remains one of the best comedic TV characters of all time. Andy was annoying and terrible, which does drag things down a bit, but others like Oscar and Angela did grow to the point where they wouldn’t have been out of place in the opening credits.

I figured I’d mention Mark Brendanawicz now, just to say I did. He wasn’t awful, but P&R didn’t hit its stride until he left. Moving on.

The supporting cast of P&R are endearing because they were allowed to thrive without being constantly overshadowed by the lead character. Ron could have paternal relationships with April, Andy, and to a lesser extent, Tom and Ann. Ben could be flabbergasted by April and Andy’s immaturity. Chris could have a meltdown about his sessions with Dr. Richard Nygard with just about anyone and it would work.

Any combination of P&R characters could result in comedy gold. You might be quick to say the same about The Office and that’s true. The difference is that P&R did take advantage of those opportunities far more than The Office ever cared to (though it cared more about this once Carrell left).

Obviously these are two great shows, but P&R stands above The Office. It might not be far that P&R had a guy like Rob Lowe as one its more minor characters, but that doesn’t change the fact that P&R consistently rewarded its talent with material to work with.



December 2014



Ranking The Office Christmas Episodes

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While Christmas episodes are common for many TV shows, there aren’t too many that have them as seasonal mainstays. Perhaps it’s especially appropriate considering the original UK series ended with a Christmas Special. Christmas at Dunder Mifflin represented a time for humor, plenty of feels, and an excuse to congregate under the mistletoe, while usually drunk off of vodka or beet wine.

This list ranks the seven Christmas episodes. Note seasons one and four did not have Christmas themed episodes, as one was only six episodes and four was during the Writer’s Strike. As with all of these sorts of lists, the rankings are somewhat subjective. I encourage you to debate my findings in the comment section if you disagree.

  1. “Christmas Wishes” (Season 8)

Surprise, surprise! “Christmas Wishes” was actually a high point in an otherwise terrible season, but it pales in comparison to most of the other Christmas episodes. The Jim/Dwight plotline deserves credit for putting a new spin on a tired gag, but ultimately the Erin/Andy mess drags the episode down.

It’s easy to forget how much of the show’s later seasons were tied up in the Andy/Erin romance, which was never as interesting as the show wanted it to be (it’s also featured prominently in “Secret Santa” and “Dwight Christmas,” despite the latter’s lack of Andy). This is an entertaining episode, but it’s easy to see why it’s at the bottom of the list.

  1. “Moroccan Christmas” (Season 5)

“Moroccan Christmas” is another Christmas episode that doesn’t get much of its laughs from its A plot. Michael’s attempted intervention for Meredith wasn’t as funny as it could’ve been and probably should have been relegated to a different episode. Phyllis seems somewhat uncharacteristically mean in this episode, though as “Secret Santa” also shows that this tended to happen in isolated cases.

Dwight’s unicorn toy plotline provides the laughs from a storyline perspective. This episode is fueled by superb Kevin and Creed lines and also from Michael’s attempt to invent new mixed drinks such as the orange vod-jus-ka. Depending on how you feel about Andy, his embarrassing moments are also quite entertaining.

  1. “Classy Christmas” (Season 7)

Being hour-long episodes, “Classy Christmas” and “A Benihana Christmas” are somewhat difficult to place as it’s harder to compare them to the regular length episodes. “Classy Christmas” is light on laughs as it focuses primarily on the return of Holly. As her return signaled the beginning of the end for Michael, this is certainly understandable.

It’s effective in its mission to tug at the heartstrings. The Jim/Dwight dynamic is hilarious while the Daryl subplot falls flat. Ultimately there’s enough here to like, but not as much to love. Besides Jim freaking out in the parking lot as he anticipates a mass snowballing from Dwight of course.

  1. “Secret Santa” (Season 6)

This might be the best episode of the Michael and Jim as co-manager era, depending on how you feel about the morality of “Scott’s Tots.” Michael’s reaction to Phyllis as Jesus is Michael at his best. Angela supporting the presence of Jesus at the party was also a great subtle gag.

The episode also does a great job of showcasing some of Dwight’s subtleties. He’s not sparring with Jim or acting especially crazy, but he’s entertaining nonetheless. Phyllis threatening to bring Bob Vance into the equation was also hysterical. The big news of the sale of Dunder Mifflin was a nice touch and didn’t take away from the jokes at all.

  1. “A Benihana Christmas” (Season 3) 

The other Christmas episode to feature Michael feeling sad about a woman is also the other double length episode. This episode is also the first to really showcase Andy’s true character to someone other than Jim and Karen (which isn’t always a good thing). Jim and Pam pull off one of the most memorable Dwight pranks, which was surprising since Jim was dating Karen at the time.

The Jim/Pam tension along with Michael’s somber tone had a lot of potential to derail the laughs. But they’re pretty consistent through the extended episode. The highlight is without a doubt when Michael marks his date with a sharpie to tell her apart from her friend.

  1. “Dwight Christmas” (Season 9)20t49ix

This is the pick I’m going to get the most slack for without a doubt. While the show took a dive after Michael left, season 9 had quite a few standout episodes. But with the exception of the finale, none were as memorable as “Dwight Christmas.”

This episode serves as both a tribute to past Christmas episodes and a reminder as to why these were so cherished in the first place. Dwight’s “traditional” family Christmas was hilarious and the Jim/Pam moments were their highpoint in an otherwise shaky season for the couple. Daryl also shines as he drunkenly broods over Jim’s apparent neglect with regards to the Philadelphia sports job.

  1. “Christmas Party” (Season 2)

This one doesn’t need much explaining. Yankee swap is classic Michael as is his overspending on a gift coupled with his disdain for Phyllis’ homemade oven mitt. Creed’s old man coat rivals Kevin’s foot bath (a gift for himself) for best gift of the episode.

“Christmas Party” also features some of the best Jim/Pam moments and played a big part in their eventual courtship. This episode is more than just the best Christmas episode, it’s one of the best of the whole series. The only thing that could have made it better is if Dwight kept the teapot to use nasally in future episode.

So there are the rankings. Disagree with my order? Comment below. Since it’s the Holiday season, I figure I can get away with pointing out that my book, Five College Dialogues, makes a great gift. Cheers!



June 2014



Netflix’ Derek Continues to Be TV’s Oddest Offering

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The first season of Netflix’ Derek was a peculiar one. Largely marketed as a comedy, the new offering from Ricky Gervais largely steered away from the material commonly found in all of his other series. Derek’s tone was much darker than anyone could’ve expected from the co-creator of The Office, Extras, An Idiot Abroad, and Life’s Too Short. While the results were mixed, a strong season finale had me excited about the prospect of another season.

The biggest problem with Derek is that it doesn’t appear to have much of an idea of what it wants to be. Season one had a few funny moments, but this was a drama that also wanted to explore the meaning of life. The fact that Gervais was channeling existentialism while portraying a seemingly mentally handicapped character oddly reminiscent of Father Dougal from Father Ted made matters complicated. Season two does a good job of fleshing out Derek’s character to a point where he finally makes some sense, but it doesn’t do a great job of following up on his growth from the season one finale.

Season two doesn’t really go anywhere. The six episodes are largely dedicated to exploring the main cast with minimal involvement from the actual residents of the old age home. Karl Pilkington, who plays the handyman/bus driver Dougie, departs after the first episode and the show suffers without his wit, but the rest of the cast steps up in his absence. The acting is elevated drastically in season two and the strong performances provide perhaps the best reason to watch the show.

There’s too much of the same in season two. This season dedicates more time to character than plot, but the destination is exactly the same. Each character is a flawed mess trying to make it through the hard road called life, but we knew that already. Life season one, there’s an episode that stands above the rest, but the majority of the season is largely forgettable. Familiar themes repeat themselves and the characters are mostly restricted to one notable event a season. With a collective run time of a little more than two hours, that’s not exactly surprising. Derek has more of an ensemble cast than any of Gervais’ other shows, which leads to an elevated feeling of inconclusiveness when the season abruptly ends. Though it’s hard to call brevity a deterrent, as I don’t think I could put up with a full season of the show.

It’s hard to imagine where Derek will fit in when it comes time to evaluate Gervais’ career as a whole. As of now, it makes more sense to compare it to Stephen Merchant’s first solo effort, Hello Ladies, which was a far more disappointing effort that received the boot from HBO after eight episodes. Derek represents a transitional series for Gervais, where he steps away from the pitiable narcissists roles in favor of more developed, if not equally flawed, characters.

Does that make it worth watching? Yes and no. If you’re a fan of Gervais’ other work or British television, then the simple answer is yes. Derek is the kind of show that needs its viewers to drop all preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t know and in small doses, that’s okay. But it’s a show with quality acting and enough tearjerker moments to merit its brief run time.

Season two struggles to deliver on the good will garnered from the season one finale. There’s a few new things to say, but the season as a whole feels like it didn’t need to happen. There’s been no news on the future of Derek, but it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be at least a wrap up special. Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Derek is a drama that people want to think is a comedy that’s also largely a meandering mess with a few heartfelt flashes of brilliance. That’s hardly a glowing recommendation, but I think it’s certainly worth watching. Ricky Gervais used Derek to grow as a performer and I had fun watching him work