In this age—by which I mean a couple of months—of revolutions in which we live, there is one question that must be on the tongue of every freethinking citizen of a democracy: Is it possible for John Stamos to replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men? Halfway around the world, dictators are toppling like, well, dictators, and here in the States, eyes are trained on CBS as executives wrack their brains to find a suitably grimy pillar to stabilize Chuck Lorre’s monument to misogyny and homophobia. Looking back into our very recent history, we might also remember the sheer chaos that erupted last year when NBC, for $45 million, could not find a human being more charming than Jay Leno for us to spend our bedtime hours with. It may be an age of revolutions around the world, but American television is having some pretty serious succession issues.
And so, as we’re still smarting from Conangate and frantically scanning lists of dormant sitcom veterans to figure out how to unnaturally extend the run of a Sheenless sitcom, we should take heart that the producers of The Office are so quietly and skillfully getting rid of Steve Carell. The actor announced earlier last year that the seventh season on the tremendously successful, critically acclaimed sitcom would be his last. Shortly thereafter, the producers of The Office made the substantially more shocking announcement that, not only would Carell not wait until the end of the season to leave, but that the show would continue on without the character of Michael Scott, Carell’s delusional puppy dog of an office manager. Fans and critics received this news with curiosity, but not necessarily befuddlement. Over the course of seven seasons, The Office, which was initially developed as a vehicle for Carell’s particular brand of madcap tragicomedy, has increasingly become a vibrant ensemble sitcom. Carell’s departure is significant, but it’s by no means difficult to imagine the show without him.
NBC has already announced that, for a limited time, a character played by Will Ferrell will be brought in to take Michael Scott’s old job. It’s a brilliant bit of stunt casting: Ferrell’s cache will virtually guarantee a large audience for the season’s final post-Carell episodes. But no one could possibly be under the impression that Ferrell would abandon his thriving movie career to permanently anchor a Thursday-night sitcom. The Ferrell episodes will presumably help to transition audiences into an understanding of the show that is ultimately decentralized. NBC is not looking for a new star; it’s looking for a new manager for Dunder Mifflin. Ultimately, it seems, the show’s producers want to remind us of what we already know: that The Office is not a show about the follies and triumphs of Michael Scott. Rather, The Office is a show about an office.
It’s easy to forget, in all of this bustle, that when The Office premiered in 2005, Carell himself was something of a replacement. NBC developed the show as an American adaptation of Ricky Gervais’s great BBC series of the same name. Many viewers, myself included, were highly skeptical of Carell’s ability to fill Gervais’s high-heeled half-boots. The U.K. series was a work of art on par with The Sopranos, and Gervais’s David Brent, the virtuosically selfish, achingly sad, cathartically funny regional manager at the show’s core, is one of the most indelible anti-heroes of modern popular culture. Few imagined that Carell would be able to channel Brent’s blistering meanness and naked desperation into such a scandalously sympathetic character as well as Gervais, and, for the first season of the U.S. Office, we watched him try and fail spectacularly.
But in the show’s second season, as the writers began to diverge from the original plotlines conceived by Gervais and his partner, Stephen Merchant, Carell started to transform his own regional manager into a different kind of figure. Infusing the character with a clownish melancholy missing from the more hard-edged comic violence of Brent, Carell ingeniously crafted a regional manager that worked for American audiences. Abandoning some of the gleefully alienating pyrotechnics of the U.K. Office, Carell helped transform what could have been a cynical rip-off into a television show worth watching in its own right.
Key to this transition, however, was the strength of The Office’s supporting players. Anchored by the imaginative and compelling performances of actors like Rainn Wilson, Ed Helms, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, The Office quickly revealed itself to be a show with a very deep bench.
Now, nearing the end of another cycle in The Office’s history, we find the show’s writers and producers experimenting with these dynamics every week. Throughout the current season, The Office has had two primary goals: showing off the comic dynamism of the ensemble and simultaneously isolating Carell. Sometimes this experimentation has paid off, and sometimes it hasn’t. A particularly striking example of this mixed bag can be found in the recent episode, “The Search.” The episode begins with Krasinski’s Jim and Carell’s Michael out on a sales call, and Michael ends up stranded at a gas station without his wallet. The remainder of the episode focuses on three separate factions: the employees left at the office, the search team they dispatch to find Michael, and Michael himself.
Wandering the streets and strip malls of Scranton like a much less clever Odysseus, Carell serves a curious role in this episode. His scenes present a portrait of Michael as a lost boy, an adolescent runaway who can’t remember how to get home; this is in keeping with the existential crisis the writers have given Scott this year as an upgrade to the low-level depression we’ve seen in him for the past few seasons. Largely silent, Carell is filmed from a distance, occasionally disappearing behind trees and buildings; Michael is a character constantly threatening to vanish. The conceit is silly and improbable (a nagging problem of this season has been the occasional, credulity-straining absurdity of its plots), but it does something interesting in light of Carell’s imminent exit. This newly contemplative Michael, speaking wistfully to puppies in a pet store and unsuccessfully attempting to dine and dash at a Chinese restaurant, no longer belongs at Dunder Mifflin.
Back at the office park, though, things are considerably brighter. The rest of the episode is dedicated to an impromptu, New Yorker-style caption contest among the office’s remaining employees. These scenes are a genuinely joyous joke-off, showcasing not just Helms, Fischer, and the indispensible Craig Robinson’s comic brilliance, but the real chemistry between the actors and characters in Scranton. It reminds us of what was originally so wonderful about this show: the improvisational, surprising energy of a real community. Like Entourage and Friday Night Lights, The Office thrives on a series of relationships that never seem manufactured. And this vitality contrasts sharply with the fading wisp of Michael Scott.
In this episode, and in this season, The Office has increasingly become concerned with shoring up those employee relationships even as it places Michael Scott outside of them. But the really ingenious element of “The Search” is the way that, for even the space of a single episode, we don’t just imagine The Office without Carell, we kind of look forward to it. The capsule description for next week’s episode spills the beans that Michael will propose to his longtime lost-love Holly. This, presumably, will bring about the beginning of the end for Michael Scott in Scranton. No matter what happens next, though, the seventh season of The Office, with the help of its seasoned supporting cast, has made a convincing argument, not that Michael Scott can be replaced, but that he doesn’t need to be.