To get an idea of how James Spader will impact NBC’s The Office, here’s the simple, brilliant pitch behind the show’s eighth season premiere: Spader’s persuasive and mysterious character Robert California is appointed CEO of Dunder Mifflin and, during a visit to the Scranton branch, accidentally leaves behind a piece of paper. There’s a line down the middle of it, with the names of every Scranton staffer either on one side of the line or the other. Employees go into a frenzy trying to figure out: What does this mean?
The episode, titled “The List,” will showcase California’s inscrutable oddness and his impact on the rest of the team as they struggle to figure him out. The Emmy-winning Spader, it seems, is just as much in the dark as everybody else about his character, and that’s the way he likes it.
“He’s a sort of strange guy, and his enigmatic qualities are a good thing,” Spader says. “Everybody is trying to get to know who he is and what his juxtaposition is to the rest of the office. The characters are and the writers and cast members as well. And I’m hoping that’s going to be the fun of the season.”
The actor is expected to appear in 15 episodes this season – about double the amount of Kathy Bates, who played the CEO last season. “Robert California is there much more,” Spader says. “He doesn’t have an office, really. He catches a desk where he can. Already we’ve also gone out on locations … This is entirely different from [The Practice and its spin-off, Boston Legal]. That was a hour-long show that when I joined, it was a tiny office with four people. This is an office with 18 people and is a half-hour show. I’m really learning who this character is in snippets.”
To help aide Spader’s entry into the series, showrunner and co-star Paul Lieberstein and his team of writers have concocted several intriguing story ideas lined up for season eight in addition to “The List” [SPOILER ALERT]: California challenges the office manager to double sales. Dwight builds a productivity machine that becomes a sort of Doomsday device when it threatens to shut down the company if people make too many mistakes. The entire warehouse staff wins the Lotto and quits. And, of course, there’s Jim and Pam’s second baby.
“We’re not doing what we did last time; we’re not doing any weird rush to the hospital,” Lieberstein said. “We’re doing something fun with her hormones, [which] are in a state where she doesn’t know who to trust. After a scene of everybody being very polite to her, saying she’s more beautiful than ever, and ‘the old and the pregnant are the most beautiful,’ Dwight is the only one honest with her. She starts to think Dwight is the only one she can trust.”
And as for who’s playing the new manager now that Steve Carell and Will Ferrell have departed? That remains a mystery. The show isn’t bringing another actor in for the gig and all parties are staying mum on who will land the title – if anyone. “They didn’t just want to bring in a new Michael Scott. There’s not an attempt to fill those shoes,” Spader said. “That is something that I think they’re allowing a certain amount of flexibility on, not unlike the end of last season. The show is very balanced right now and they want to utilize the ensemble cast.”
Spader joined the show after his well-received guest spot in the show’s seventh season finale, which then turned into a semi-full-time offer. “I thought it would be great fun to do it for the hell of it,” Spader recalled. “I had a ball. All of a sudden [producers] called again. I probably should have seen it coming.”
“He killed it,” added Lieberstein. “He lit it up and brought out a really fun part of our other cast we hadn’t seen before. We watched the scene over and over again and really liked it and wanted to do more.”
The Office makes its return to NBC on Thursday, Sept. 22 at 9 p.m. Read more on The Office’s return in EW’s annual mega TV Fall Preview issue on stands Sept. 2 (or subscribe here).