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MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Fear and Hugging at Dunder-Mifflin

by Matthew Seitz
September 23, 2011 3:17 AM
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James Spader's debut sharpened "The Office's" dulled edge -- but does the show have the nerve to draw blood again?

By Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play Contributor

Last night James Spader took charge of the post-Steve Carell The Office with the same quiet confidence that his onscreen alter ego, Robert California, brought to his eerie job interview last spring. But what, if anything, can the series do with his invigorating energy?

In a piece about Spader's official hiring by NBC over the summer, I wrote:

The beautiful thing about that 'interview' scene in the finale was how it offered an electrifying alternative to the type of boss represented by Michael Scott, and almost everyone angling to replace him. California wasn't a fatuous twit like Michael. He was more like a decadent prince forced to live among the rabble. The office workers had to be on their toes, alert at every second and scrutinizing everything the man across from them was saying, because they could sense that he was brilliant and manipulative -- possibly so brilliant that they couldn't tell precisely how he was manipulating them.

In the show's season premiere, titled "The List," Spader's California was every inch the prince, dividing and conquering the employees of Dunder-Mifflin's Scranton branch by "accidentally" leaving his notebook at the reception desk, with a two-column list of employee names in plain view. I put scare quotes around "accidentally" because California is obviously a mind-effer extraordinaire -- a prospective branch manager who mysteriously replaced Jo (Harry's Law star Kathy Bates) as the company's CEO within days of starting work. ("He talked her out of her own job," John Krasinski's Jim Halpert said, "and I really don't know how someone does that.") California's list was quickly copied and distributed throughout the branch. It unnerved the workers, who didn't know if the presence of their names in one column or the other was a predictor of good fortune or doom; soon they were fighting like passengers on a crippled ocean liner trying to pile into the last remaining lifeboat. California compounded their fear by inviting all the people in one column out to lunch and proclaiming them "Winners," which of course made the other people on the list "Losers."

You can read the rest of the Matt's piece here at Salon.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and the founder of Press Play.

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