A couple of months back, Steve Carell briefly blew up the Internet when he told a BBC Radio reporter that he would leave “The Office” after his contract ended next season. Then everyone calmed down once we realized we’d have a year to wait, and that NBC would have a year to back several dump trucks full of money up to the Carell/Walls home to keep him.
But over the weekend, at the red carpet premiere of his new animated movie “Depiscable Me,” Carell insisted that it’s not about the money, that seven years is a long time to play any character, and that he wants to spend more time with his family. And while in Hollywood the default answer is always “It’s about the money,” Carell is one of the few actors in the business whom I might even slightly believe when he insists otherwise.
If he’s leaving, he’s not going to take “The Office” with him. It’s NBC’s only half-hour comedy that’s an actual success on its own, and it’s functioned as a life-support system for “30 Rock” for the last four years. During upfront week, NBC president Angela Bromstad suggested the show would continue with or without him.
Those of you who were unhappy with the creative direction of this season, and who therefore assume Carell’s departure gives NBC a natural excuse to end the show, are just wasting your time. That’s not the way the TV business works, except in rare cases like “Lost” (and there, ABC at least had other continuing hits like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives” to allow them to give Darlton an end date).
So if we figure that Carell’s really leaving, and that the show will go on without him, what does that mean for the creative future of the series? I have some thoughts, after the jump…
When the initial BBC interview went viral back in April, I suggested that “The Office” might actually be better off without Carell at this point. He’s a great comedian, and he made that show into a hit, but Michael Scott had become such a schizophrenic, all-things-to-all-writers character that he was getting in the way of the comedy at least as much as he was enabling it. The writers created many different flavors of Michael, and while everyone has their favorite, and some people might even like multiple flavors, it’s hard to imagine that everyone loved them all.
Beyond that, there’s the sense of ennui that crippled the sixth season. Much of last season was spent introducing, and then almost immediately abandoning, promising story ideas: Michael becoming part of the corporate culture at Dunder Mifflin, or Michael and Jim swapping jobs, or the sales staff becoming tyrants under the new Sabre corporate culture. Removing Michael would not only shake up the character dynamics, but I imagine it would force the writers out of their recent complacency and force them to follow ideas through to their logical conclusions.
But while I see advantages to a hypothetical ideal replacement, I’m really struggling to figure out who that might be.
I doubt the show would choose Michael’s replacement from within. Not only would it undoubtedly cause strife among the current cast if, say, John Krasinski got promoted above one-time equal Rainn Wilson, but it would deprive NBC of the opportunity to promote the show with a new face at the center of it. Also, we’ve seen enough of Jim-as-boss to know it’s not that funny as a long-term thing, and Dwight is already so far out there that giving him absolute power within the branch might make him (and the show) unwatchable. Andy becoming the new branch manager would at least allow the show to continue as it is, since Andy is just as socially tin-eared as Michael, albeit in subtly different ways.
I hope they don’t go that route, either with Andy (with all due respect to Ed Helms) or with an outside person. Someone in a “Party Down” post last week, for instance, suggested that it would be simple to slide Ken Marino into that job without having to change much. I love Marino and agree that he can do many of the things Carell does (and has done them as Ron on “Party Down”), but again we’d run into the problem of the same-old, same-old on a series that badly needs a shakeup. It needs a character who can make Jim and Pam comedically relevant again, who can pull Dwight in from the edge of insanity, who can give the series the sense of direction it hasn’t had since the Michael Scott Paper Company went out of business, etc.
Who is that person? Well, I’d like it to be someone not like Michael, but at the same time we saw briefly with Charles Minor (who was useful as a plot device but not a great engine for comedy) that bringing in his exact opposite won’t automatically work. The show, as conceived by Gervais and Merchant and then adapted by Daniels, Carell and company, is about people stuck working in a job they hate for a boss they can’t stand. If you put someone competent in charge – be it Jim or a new character – I don’t know that there’s enough juice there, or that it’s still “The Office.” So you have to find someone who’s aggravating and/or weird, but in a way that doesn’t just duplicate Michael so the replacement is constantly being compared to Carell. And that’s not easy.
(For an example, look at Megan Mullally on “Party Down” this year. They replaced Jane Lynch with another very funny actress, made her ignorant and strange but in a different fashion from Lynch’s character, and she only occasionally clicked.)
I’m not sure what kind of character it should be, or what actor or actress. Mainly I’ve spent a lot of time pondering pre-existing characters. Would it make any sense at all to bring in Amy Ryan full-time if she didn’t have Carell to play off of? Probably not. Would transferring Karen back from Utica to take things over be interesting enough, or did her comic usefulness to the show end when both she and Pam had babies?
(Speaking of actors from “Parks and Recreation,” Fienberg suggested that Daniels and Mik Schur loan Nick Offerman to their sister show for a four-episode arc in which Ron Effing Swanson briefly goes into the private sector, is hired to clean up Dunder-Mifflin from Michael’s usual messes, and then moves back to Pawnee. That would certainly be fun – I can picture Dwight having a man-crush on Ron that would make his previous Michael idolatry seem like complete ambivalence (and I could also see Ryan, and Kelly, and the account department all digging the guy) – but of course what sitcom on television would not be improved by the temporary addition of Ron Effing Swanson? What part of life would not be improved, for that matter?)
Do I think “The Office” should continue on without Carell? Probably not. But unless NBC has such a massive ratings turnaround this year that it can afford to part with “The Office” – and probably not even then – that ship has sailed. Given that, who do you want to see sitting behind Michael’s old desk? Someone old? Someone new? What kind of person?