Rating: ★★★☆☆

I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that while “Mrs. California” was of course not a return to form for The Office, it was a good example of how the series might define itself in this new Michael-less era. The series will never again be what it once was, even if Carell were still leading the cast, however, with him gone the show has been forced to reestablish itself and has thus far done so mostly unsuccessfully with “Doomsday” being the only other exception I can really think of besides this episode.

True to their word last episode, the show did not spend time attempting to distinguish Andy from Michael and although there were tiny moments where I felt Ed Helms was delivering lines the way he thought Michael would dealing with his former superiors, the show benefited from not forcing the transition down our throats. By having a situation in which the audience got to see Robert California in a new light and watch Andy react as he did allowed the episode to feel more natural than others have since the season started. Robert’s intense panic that his wife was arriving in just four seconds was unexpectedly funny and seeing his usual inhuman coolness with this oppositional undertone was truly refreshing. Though Andy’s desperate attempts to satisfy Robert’s mixed messages were predictable they were nonetheless entertaining, especially when Susan called out Andy for not saying goodbye to his gam-gam and Andy replied that they promised to never say goodbye to each other.

When Andy opened up the conflict to the rest of his staff we got some funny reactions from Kevin first when he responded that Susan was “simply wonderful” then when attempting to rebuff his initial response by telling her that if she had a question he’d save her some time by saying “I don’t know.” This was a much better use of Kevin than the outrageous caricature of himself he’s been lately. Ryan’s over-pronounced and exaggerated, “Umm… Bitch!” to Susan accidentally mispronouncing his name was one of the best uses of the character in a long time, as was his proposal for what sounded like an organization designed to crush the Make A Wish Foundation. I also found Oscar’s rudeness and Erin’s use of the tiny stapler as a means to ostracize Susan to be amusing. The real stand out here though was Jim’s line about letting the office crush her spirit in its own due time as it “knows what it’s doing.”

Speaking of, Jim seems to serve the comedy so much better when Pam isn’t around to galvanize his attention. Instead of faux-cutesy squabbling with his wife, we got to see Jim in one of the best cold opens of the season taking advantage of one of Dwight’s ridiculous innovations and while it was slightly derivative of when he popped Dwight’s exercise ball in an open from I believe season two, ultimately it was welcomed in no small part due to Jim’s acknowledgment of his old behavior with the lines, “Prank!” and his and Dwight’s exchange that they both knew what was about to happen,and that it had to happen. Beyond the open though, using Jim as a more supportive character is clearly where he belongs now as he and Pam have been happily together longer than they haven’t. Seeing Jim attempt to escape the awkward situation going on among Robert, Andy, and Susan was hilarious, especially when we got to see Creed on the roof flying a toy helicopter and when Andy exclaimed, “Damnit Tuna!” while physically struggling to wrangle Jim because it made the immediate cut to the scene in the conference room that much funnier by contrast. Just as good a use of the character was seeing him cope with the situation in the exact opposite way Andy did most of the episode. Instead of trying to appease both of Robert’s contradictory wishes, Jim offered honesty – that although he didn’t want to get involved, he did share that he genuinely loves working with his wife and wishes he could see her in that very moment. This didn’t feel saccharine and it achieved the desired result for both Jim and the audience. I know Andy also tried the honesty route but because his was factual and essentially a tattle and did not speak to a greater truth of mixing personal relationships with the professional environment, it backfired with Robert’s explosive, “You lying son of a bitch!”

Ultimately we never see the resolution to Susan and Robert’s conflict, instead taking Jim’s plea to be relieved of the situation as the ideal and Susan’s potential offer to begin an affair with Andy at the end of the episode as the train-wreck of reality that is her and Robert’s relationship. I don’t know if we’re suppose to expect any follow up to this or if it was merely meant to be another funny example of the trademark California miscommunication, but I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of Maura Tierney, a talented sitcom veteran (News Radio). We only got one talking-head from Susan and in it she revealed that her and Robert met while he was married to another woman lending credence to the possibility she may be back to pursue something with Andy. As we’re apparently still supposed to be rooting for him and Erin (or are we?) and Andy is supposed to be in a committed relationship with a woman (whom Andy was supposed to let call and visit but we’ve still not seen), I’m not sure if I’m eager to see Susan come back with that intention but we’ll see.

While not quite as sophisticated, “Mrs. California”’s subplot was also a good use of the characters that felt natural and progressive. I love when the show contrasts Dwight’s extreme entrepreneurial endeavors with his total lack of any sense for business flair – I’m of course referring to the painfully accurate Dwight Schrute’s Gym For Muscles. This story also included some good lines from the supporting cast including Phyllis’ rejection of Dwight’s gym because her and her husband Bob Vance (Vance Refrigeration) have a home gym (“It’s called the bedroom!”), as well as Kelly’s rejection when she stated she doesn’t need a gym because she has sneakers, “they’re like a gym for your feet”. I also loved Dwight’s explanation for how to run a successful business – by getting the black people to start going and then getting them to stop – not because Dwight is racist (he isn’t), but because it’s laughably tragic that this is a legitimate model for many business owners. And so Dwight focused on selling gym membership to Daryl whom the audience learns is trying to look good for the new warehouse employee, Val (whom Dwight later mistakes for Val Kilmer in perhaps the funniest closing scene of an episode all season). We learned a lot from the exchanges between Dwight and Daryl including that the Fonz from Happy Days stretched his pelvic bowl, and that NBA star LeBron James’ name is actually pronounced “LeJon Brames”. Seeing Dwight transform the former “scene from Saw V” as Daryl put it, complete with a tire hammer, tin-cutting, phone book tearing station, and something called a gravel bucket squat yolk, into an actual gym as a genuine attempt to run a successful business demonstrated the real determination and intelligence Dwight actually possesses as well as his deeply hidden tenderness as demonstrated by his commitment to get Daryl in shape for Val.

All in all “Mrs. California” did a solid job of getting the most out of its characters while advancing my understanding of them and made me laugh as well. Hopefully we’ll get to see the series perform as admirably throughout the rest of the season.

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This article was first posted on December 2, 2011