'The Office' without Steve Carell as Michael Scott won't be business as usual

By Jen Chaney and Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; C01

Michael Scott, the imaginary manager who is in charge of Dunder Mifflin Inc.'s Scranton, Pa., branch, is a boss so inept he once burned his foot on a George Foreman grill. His incompetence -- a never-ending HR nightmare of unwise words and actionable actions -- is now part of an epic American story of bad bosses.

For six seasons on NBC's hit "The Office," he has stood in, symbolically, for everyone's stupid manager/team leader/division head -- even in an economy where millions of people ceased having a boss at all. At least they still had Michael.

Now imagine a version of "The Office" without him.

Wow, that would be really hard. Michael Scott is what keeps me coming.

That's what she said! (It never gets old.)

And that's what some fans of "The Office" are saying in the wake of confirmation that Steve Carell -- the actor who brings Michael's tone-deaf social tendencies to life each week -- will, in fact, depart the NBC docu-comedy at the end of the upcoming season. After hinting as much during a BBC interview last month, Carell confirmed earlier this week that he plans to say farewell in 2011 at the end of the seventh season.

"I just think it's time," Carell told an E! reporter. "When I first signed on, I had a contract for seven seasons, and this coming year is my seventh. I just thought it was time for my character to go."

Reps at NBC are neither confirming nor denying: "We don't have a comment at this time," a network spokeswoman said Tuesday. But with the story winding its way around the Internet and thrusting ("That's what she said!") the term "Steve Carell" into the trending topicsphere, loyal "Office" watchers are trying to imagine the Scranton branch minus the doofus who keeps the dysfunctionality on its proper, productivity-altering course.

NBC executives have previously indicated that they plan to keep "The Office" alive even if Carell does leave. During a conference call with reporters in May, Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, said that the show "is a great ensemble and we are certainly preparing -- the producers of the show are preparing in the event that [Carell] chooses to move on."

* * *

Yes, the ensemble cast is strong. But Carell is, arguably, the pole that holds up the comedy tent. (That's what she . . . all right, stop.)

There are certainly ways to go from here, to drag it out a season or two AM (After Michael). Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) now has some management experience, and putting him in charge could pay off by sending Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), who spent years sycophantically aiding and abetting Michael, into a permanent state of conniption.

Zach Woods, the actor who plays Gabe Lewis, recently signed on as a series regular. Gabe is lackey to Kathy Bates's Southern-drawling CEO, whose Sabre Corp., which makes printers, subsumed Dunder Mifflin, which makes paper. Given the things Gabe has in common with Michael (profound social cluelessness, a desire to be liked that's pungent enough to be smelled from the Dunder Mifflin parking lot), it's possible he is being groomed as a successor.

Different ideas pop into your head. Some even wonder if it's possible to put Ricky Gervais, who originated the character's template in the British version of "The Office" (as David Brent), in Scranton. That would be weird. That also brings up the uncomfortably obvious problem of the difference between the original (and frankly superior) British version and the American version: Theirs lasted 13 episodes. Ours has lasted 115.

Ours has lasted because we hate work that much more. After a lackluster sixth season, which ended in May, even the most loyal viewers among us began asking if we have, like Michael Scott, stayed at Dunder Mifflin too long. We've clung to "The Office" mostly because we needed it. The Great Recession has been unkind, and "Dilbert" no longer offered the right kind of gallows humor that comes with a dead-end cubicle job. To relate to the kind of life we're living at work these days, "The Office" has to be worse, a more exaggerated circle of hell's PowerPoints and team-building initiatives and competitive edges. We grasp it like one of those carpal-tunnel squishy balls, seeking relief.

After you (if you) spend about five minutes mulling over of the plot possibilities -- what next for "The Office"? -- you start to realize a frightening possibility: You think more, and know more, about the people on "The Office" than you think or know about the people at your own office.

What's most interesting about "The Office's" reign as the American workplace metaphor of choice in the late 2000s is that it resonated with young people, who have never really worked.

How can dark office humor mean anything when Generation Y shows up straight out of college addicted to "The Office," already expecting the worst from their newfound places in real offices and already stereotyping their colleagues as Phyllises and Ryans and Stanleys and Kevins? Decades of HR corporate-speak and posters of "Hang in There" kittens have failed to bring us professional joy. Only the mocking of work makes it possible to work. Nobody likes being there.

Once at a restaurant, we heard the ring tone of a phone belonging to a young woman who couldn't be older than 22. It was the theme to "The Office." She was already lost to office despair.

Michael Scott made it seem not as bad as it is. After all, you could work at Dunder Mifflin. Surely, next May, there will be those awkward office goodbyes on "The Office" -- the long speech, the awful, Crisco-y sheet cake with the frosting typo ("Good Luck, Michelle!"), the drinks later, the uncomfy hugs. Secretly we all wish the person who is leaving would take us with them. Then on Monday it's like they never existed.

You'll want the show to end after there's no more Michael in the office, but the show won't end. The show about America and bad offices never ends.

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