Though he’s best-known to fans of “The Office” as ineffectual human resources rep Toby Flenderson, Paul Lieberstein‘s more important job is as the executive producer responsible for the series’ creative direction and day-to-day operations. This year, Lieberstein and “Office” developer Greg Daniels will be responsible for handling the show’s biggest challenge: writing out Steve Carell, and choosing someone to fill Michael Scott’s chair.
I talked to Lieberstein at NBC’s press tour party about how it will work story-wise, whether he’d prefer an internal or external successor and who the internal candidates are. We also looked back on this past season (Lieberstein was fonder of it than I was) and looked ahead to some other upcoming storylines, including a guest arc for Timothy Olyphant from “Justified.” Various mild season seven spoilers coming up after the jump…
Obvious question first: what, if anything, can you tell me about how you’re going to deal with the Michael issue this year?
Well, you’ve got your Michael issue and you’ve got your Steve issue. The Michael issue is nothing but positive. We’ve got a chance to take a character and bring him through his final year on the show, and exit him – a character like Michael Scott. It’s nothing but incredibly exciting. We don’t have to do some season reset, we don’t have to do fake jeopardy, we don’t have to come up with some cliffhanger that ends up leading us into the same show we did before it. Things change. To be on the show as it grows is great.
Yeah, it’s going to be hard to do a show without Steve. But if NBC came to me and said, “Develop a show for Ed Helms,” I’d be thrilled. I think he’s amazing, and obviously he’s a film star. And I’d feel the same way about Rainn Wilson. If they told me to do a romance about John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, I’d be thrilled. And we’ve got ’em all. We’ve got such a deep bench that we’re going to be all right.
Have you and Greg decided who it’s going to be?
No. We have a plan, and the plan allows for a number of possibilities to present themselves.
Both internal and external?
Yeah. We’re going to try to replace Michael Scott in a way that he would be replaced on the show, where they would search for someone new. And we will do it on air.
What’s Kathy Bates’ availability now that she’s doing the new show (“Harry’s Law”) for NBC?
She is making herself available when she can. It’s not great availability. It’s pretty grueling for the hour-long shows. So it’ll be rough.
So can I ask you, when you first realized this was going to be happening, regardless of where you’re going now, was your first inclination, “We need to promote from within” or “We need to bring someone in from the outside”?
I definitely felt promote from within. That was my first thing. Every once in a while, a name is floated in to us, and we have to consider it. We get some big names floated, agents call, and then we’re called. I don’t want to replace Steve Carell. I don’t think there is replacing Steve Carell. So the easiest way to do that is to keep what we have. But I also want to stay true to the company. I want to know what Dunder-Mifflin would do. I think they would take a good look at who’s there, who’s capable. They might try someone. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. They might bring in someone from the outside first, and maybe that will work and maybe it won’t. I think a lot of our answers on the show, when we’re confused about what to do, come from trying to protect the honesty of the show.
Looking back over last season, how do you feel it went?
Last season? I think we had a strong season. How did you feel?
I think there were parts of it where there were some story ideas where you didn’t follow through as much as you could. For instance, Jim and Michael switching jobs – that was half of an episode. I could have seen two or three out of that for instance.
Yeah. I see that. We could have mined that more.
It seemed like there were a couple of different big story ideas and you bounced from one to another. Was it a case of, “We’ve taken the bankruptcy story as far as we want to, and now we’re going to do this, and now we’re going to do this,” or did something else get in the way?
Bankruptcy got pretty depressing, and we also saw a leveling out of the depression, and we felt that we could level things out at Dunder-Mifflin as well. They were bought by a company that makes sense. It was a printer company that wanted their sales arm. It felt like a white knight came in and it was appropriate. Jim as the boss wasn’t quite as fun as Jim as the prankster. So we pulled back from that.
And how do you feel the company is different with Sabre in charge than with old Dunder-Mifflin corporate?
Well, what we have is – which I think is super-fun and I don’t think we’ve really mined yet – is this really weak supervisor in Gabe. He has no personal strength, even though he has the authority. And that dynamic, I find very funny. I think we’ve got to bring that out more. So I like that. And then, when we brought in Kathy Bates, we talked about a lower-level Ross Perot. That’s a fun character, and things can happen a little more emotionally. She can get a little bit angrier, whereas before everyone was corporate.
And you’ve moved Darryl upstairs. Was that a case of Craig being a little more available now, or you had a specific idea in mind?
We do. Craig’s one of the candidates for coming up and being manager.
I think that would be kind of fantastic, actually. That way, you don’t have to move anyone else out of a role they’ve been in for a long time. And yet you don’t have to bring in someone from the outside. And everybody likes Darryl.
Everybody loves Darryl, he’s hysterical. Yeah. Everybody just wants more of him.
So we’re going to find out relatively early that Michael is leaving?
No. People in the real world know, but it doesn’t feel real to me that you know you’re going to leave a job in a year – at least a job like that. Maybe a senator knows he’s going to leave in a year. Again, we’ll try to respect the world.
In the finale, there’s talk of Michael getting back with Holly, and there have been reports about Amy Ryan. What’s her availability for this year?
We got her back for an arc. And then I expect it will play into Michael leaving.
That seems like the only nice ending Michael could get. But since we’re not going to get into that for a while, what are some of the stories from this year you can tell me about?
In our premiere, we deal with nepotism. Michael hires his nephew. He’s not the most conscientious worker. We deal with the office dynamic about that. Timothy Olyphant’s going to come, and he’s going to play this salesman who is just kind of a threat to Dunder-Mifflin. He’s fantastic. He ends up beating out Michael, Dwight and Jim together, and selling at higher prices. So they do a little bit of a sting: they set up a fake company to try to figure out how he sells so well. Michael is going to come in with a cold sore one day, and he’s going to learn that that’s a form of herpes, and he’s going to feel that he has to contact every woman he’s ever been with and let them know that he has herpes.
Speaking of salesmen, it occurs to me: is Dave Koechner at all in play? Could Todd Packer come in from the field and be put in charge of the branch?
Absolutely. He’s a name that the network has brought up. He’s not being talked about the most.
Ultimately, who decides this? Is it you and Greg or is it the network?
The network has been very supportive. We’ve presented a case for what we wanted to do, and they said okay, and then we changed our minds. And then we presented another case, and they said okay. As long as we let ’em know what we’re doing and bring them into the fold, they’ve been very supportive.
You said before that Jim as a boss was not as much fun as Jim as the prankster. In general, how did you feel Jim and Pam, now that they’re a well-established couple, were working within the framework of the show this past year?
We will not write them as a TV couple that has TV fights and TV tribulations. So we’re left with digging out some real stuff for them to play, and sometimes it’s a struggle. The little stories that a husband and wife don’t always have a beginning, middle and end like someone chasing someone. But we still find little colors. I’m married. There are some other writers who are married, and we dig into our own relationships. “Everybody Loves Raymond” found great stories for a married couple that wasn’t about cheating, and we can too.
Speaking of cheating, Michael got into an affair and made someone else the cuckold, and there was Scott’s Tots – there were a few episodes where Michael’s behavior was about as far as you could take it. Not that you’ll have to worry about it much longer, but what do you see as the line past which you as the guardian of the show will not take Michael Scott?
(he laughs) I’ll take him anywhere where I can get him to feel he’s doing the right thing. I think with Scott’s Tots, when he promised them college, he believed he could give them college. He just couldn’t get out of it. And he was wrong with that affair with Donna. He stayed a little too long, but he came around. I don’t know, I’m always looking for new places to take him.
Alright, you want a line I won’t cross? Here’s a line I won’t cross: Michael hits Toby in the parking lot accidentally with his car, and Toby’s very hurt, and he gets a tire iron out of his car, and he walks towards him with it raised to finish him off, and then as he approaches, he sees the camera and he drops the tire iron behind his back. We talked about this for a while; we won’t cross that line. He will not consider murder.
Well, if you’re still looking for places to take him, and some people have suggested…
Well, I think we’ve found some really cool places to take him this year. “Some people have suggested” what?
Well, people have suggested that when Steve leaves, the show should end, since he’s the star of the show. Do you feel that maybe bringing in someone new, or promoting someone to a new level of responsibility maybe gives the show a second life this late in its run?
I do. I agree with that. I won’t say it’s the best thing that can happen to the show, with Steve Carell leaving. You’re insane. You’re an insane person if you say that. But I do feel like a whole new level of story pitching opens up.
Former “The Office” writer – and sometime guest star as Mose Schrute – and current “Parks and Recreation” showrunner Mike Schur interrupts to mock his old friend Lieberstein.
Tell me about Mose returning. I hear Mose comes back.
Mose does come back this year!
Schur insists, “Give him the big news.”
The big news is that Mose is a candidate for replacing Michael Scott.
Schur, enjoying the joke, asks, “Just a candidate?”
I would say the leading candidate. Dwight’s put in charge of picking a successor, and he picks his cousin Mose because he’s not a threat. So Mose is in charge. First thing Mose does is to fire Dwight. He’s like, “I’m tired of working on your farm for so long.”
Schur: “The whole thing is a long con. Mose is super-smart, and like a brilliant criminal mastermind. So putting him in charge leads to big trouble.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com