The Office is failing its characters
So the announcement has been made that James Spader will leave The Office after the current season. Exec Producer (and Toby) Paul Lieberstein said this: “James always wanted this to be a one year arc, and he now leaves us having created one of the most enigmatic and dynamic characters in television.”
On the one hand, this practice of making an announcement at the end of a season is kind of ridiculous to me. It's television. The assumption should always be, unless we're talking about the chances of a show called The Good Wife bringing back Julianna Margulies, that the end of a season is a reset button. You have the opportunity to shake things up, to cause problems for your characters. To make them - and us - worry all summer that the people they care about won't be able to recover from the trouble the season finale has brought.
So anyone who disappears from a show at the end of a season isn't being fired - they've just finished their story and outlived their usefulness.
In this case, I have to posit that there was never any usefulness to the character of Robert California. I'm not talking about James Spader in the role. I mean that originally, when the character first appeared onscreen, he seemed like a Machiavellian manipulator who was going to systematically exploit all of the characters' foibles. Tell us what Meredith was all about. Find out what exactly keeps Oscar from looking for a new job.
But he didn't do any of that…because the character didn't care. About Dunder Mifflin, about Sabre, even about his wife in that one episode. And that is the TV kiss of death. It's based on stakes. Based on some character you love having something he loves threatened, and having to work or scheme to get it back.
Robert California didn't care, so Andy didn't care about impressing him. Not really, not consistently. And Jim didn't care that Robert maybe didn't like him so....we don't worry for Jim. We don't worry for anyone, because they don't have goals or desires that they're having trouble meeting.
What made The Office work, back in the beginning, was how clear the main characters' wants were. Michael wanted to be loved, and liked. Pam wanted to escape her life. Jim wanted Pam. Dwight wanted Jim vanquished. And now, so many seasons later, three out of four of those goals have been realized and not replaced with any new desires, or characters with desires. (Maybe Erin wants Andy, but she’s out of the spotlight for weeks at a time. Andy's alleged goal, to resist Erin, is unclear and unexplained. He's not even sure if he likes her. It's weak). When Dwight is the most driven person on the show, we have a problem.
In short: Lest there was any doubt, James Spader isn't responsible for the poor showing (ratings and story wise) this season. He's not responsible for the fact that his character isn't returning. The show is failing the characters - not the other way around.