New to the mix in season eight was James Spader’s Robert California, the inscrutable new CEO with a penchant for mind games and a similarly rickety character foundation. Spader unquestionably had a hell of time with the role, but the writers never found a way to integrate him successfully with the established characters or to even explain why a Florida-based CEO of a company based in a number of states would bother spending so much time at one suburban Pennsylvania branch. On the other hand, Robert California looks like an absolutely essential component compared to Catherine Tate’s Nelly, an abominable, dispiriting creation that has somehow continued into season nine.
As for the old gang, most of them became either totally insufferable or thoroughly boring in season eight. And there’s Pam and Jim (Jenna Fischer, John Krasinski), who somehow became both. Sure, the drama had long been out of their homebound relationship, but at least they were still likable. This was the season where Jim’s prankish charm and Pam’s girl-next-door appeal morphed into smug, childish, set-in-their-ways predictability. It seems as if the writing staff understood this, but their proposed solution resulted in the single worst narrative arc The Office has ever produced — a temp named Cathy (Lindsey Broad), brought in to replace Pam on maternity leave and maybe in Jim’s heart. This supposed shocking temptation was telegraphed for a number of excruciating episodes, culminating in an halfhearted attempted seduction and the least ceremonial dismissal of an Office character since that blonde assistant Will Ferrell hired in season seven never came back.
The de facto diamond in the rough of season eight is an occasionally inspired arc when half the office travels to Tallahassee for training, a development which gave Leslie David Baker’s Stanley his best showcase of the series, offered some competent split-location storytelling and returned some of the fun to the relationship between Jim and Rainn Wilson’s Dwight, a character that had been spinning its wheels long before this season.