The Office, Steve Carell, and Viewer Fatigue

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News broke earlier in the week that Steve Carell is considering leaving The Office when his current contract is up at the end of next season, presumably to make more movies.  The reactions were swift, numerous, and oddly full of surprise.  Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch blog called the possible departure “notionally earth-shaking.”  I don’t really understand this.  The Office had only aired six episodes when The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out in 2005; I’m surprised they’ve managed to hold on to Carell as long as they have.  Whether or not he should leave, career-wise, is a different argument, but I’ve been anticipating his departure since season two and feel lucky to have gotten six seasons with a seventh to look forward to.  But this does raise a few questions.

If he leaves, will the show go on without him?

Short answer: without a doubt.

Alan Sepinwall has a great post about the situation, in which he points out that The Office, relatively modest hit that it is, is one of the few things NBC has going for it at the moment.  We all love the rest of the Thursday night NBC lineup, but those shows just don’t consistently pull ratings, and would be doing even worse if they didn’t surround The Office.  Take a look at NBC’s primetime schedule; it is pretty bleak.  They will milk The Office until it absolutely can’t go on.

Should the show go on without him?

The consensus seems to be that they should give it a shot, although a lot of people seem to be rooting for this show to die (more on this later).

It seems pretty obvious that I’m not the only one who has expected Carell’s departure.  When the show began, the secondary cast was made up almost entirely of extras and writers pretending to be actors.  Granted, the show has been really lucky with how well this casting has worked out for them; Creed, for instance, wasn’t even supposed to have a speaking part, and he consistently provides a solid laugh or two per episode.

But the producers have made an effort to bring in talented new cast members to flesh the show out and take some of the weight off of Carell’s back.  Bringing Ed Helms in as Andy Bernard is a great example of this, as are the more recent additions of Ellie Kemper as Erin the receptionist and Zach Woods as Gabe Lewis the Sabre representative.  In general, the show has evolved from being basically a glorified vehicle for Carell into a really strong ensemble comedy.  In my “Best TV of the Decade” list I mentioned the secondary cast members as something I really liked about the American version that wasn’t fully explored in the British version.

Not only do I think that the show should go on without him, I think it might even be better.  I’m a fan of Steve Carell, and at times I’ve loved the character of Michael Scott (I, for one, was a big fan of the whole “Michael Scott Paper Company” subplot), but on the whole I think Michael has started to be a drag on the show.  I’m going to quote Alan Sepinwall again here, because he really hits the nail on the head:

Michael has always been the character the writers have had the most trouble getting a handle on. Some weeks, he’s the 8-year-old who never grew up. Some, he’s got Asperger’s. Some, he’s just a normal guy who isn’t as funny as he thinks he is.

The inconsistency, and the writers’ tendency to fall into the trap of highlighting Michael’s worst qualities (writers on The Simpsons fall prey to the same thing with Homer), can make me really dread Michael-centric episodes sometimes.

Michael Scott, to work as a character, needs an occasional moment of redemption.  In the season 2 episode “The Client” Michael and Jan are meeting with a client (played by Tim Meadows).  The whole time the viewer is worried that Michael is going screw things up, but in the end it’s him, not Jan, that saves the day and closes the deal.  The viewer gets to see the best side of Michael, and something clicks for the character.  You need one of these moments for every, say, ten moments of absolutely absurd stupidity, or it stops being believable that Michael Scott could function in society, let alone hold down a management position.

The writers seem to have forgotten this math lately.  They struggle to write for him, but they’re nailing all the other characters.  So let’s wish him the best and cut him loose.  Any number of current cast members could take his place (Dwight and Jim are the obvious candidates, and the most recent episode seemed to even temporarily float Darryl as a possibility).  Or bring in someone new.  Whatever.  There is still a ton of show with which to work.  Will Leitch of New York Magazine seems to agree, but not everyone does.  Which brings us to the final question of the day:

Does the show need to end?

Man, has the tide turned against this show during the last two seasons.  Some people seemed actively disappointed when the writers managed to pull off the difficult-to-do-well Jim and Pam wedding episode.  People talk about giving up on it, as if the show is some drug addict child of theirs that once had promise but is now stuck in a hopeless downward spiral.

I think that every article, column and blog entry I read about the Steve Carell news mentioned that the show was worse now than it used to be.  James Poniewozik in Time seems particularly convinced that The Office has issues.  He believes the show is suffering because it isn’t taking enough risks, but to me the show is at its worst when it goes off the rails and takes too many risks, plot-wise.    He also says maybe it’s time that the show set an end date, another idea that makes no sense to me.  It’s not a serialized drama like Lost; it’s hard for me to see how a sitcom benefits from knowing when it’s going off the air.  I agree that the British version of the show benefitted from its short run, but the British version was a completely different beast, and wasn’t a traditional sitcom like the American version.

So, to all of the people that insist that the show’s best days are behind it, I say, really?  Why?

Honestly, what has dramatically changed for the worse since whatever arbitrary period is chosen to represent the golden age of The Office?  There’s been a rough patch here and there, but I think that the show has been remarkably consistent.  The improvements that have been made (such as bringing in the new cast members and developing the secondary storylines) have more than made up for the show’s issues (the aforementioned Michael problem, and the fact that Jim and Pam’s storylines oftentimes fall a bit flat).

The only explanation that I can see for the dissatisfaction with the show, really, is that people are just sick of it.  One hundred and twenty three episodes is a long time to spend watching people work at a paper company, no matter how good the jokes.  I certainly understand that.

TV is better with The Office than it would be without it.  The show is still better than almost any other comedy on television.  Some fans have become disillusioned, though, and that could become a serious issue, especially if the idea that it’s not as good as it used to be becomes the conventional wisdom.  The departure of Steve Carell could be the perfect opportunity to start fresh and try to revitalize things.  The PopWatch blog offers an intriguing suggestion for a way to revamp the show:

Does The Office even really need a central overarching plotline anymore? I feel like if there’s any show that could sustain a “22 Short Films About Springfield”-style structure every week, it’s The Office.

This is a reference to a classic episode of The Simpsons that had no main plotline and was composed entirely of a series of short bits involving a lot of the lesser-known characters on the show.  Could The Office work in that format?  I would watch it.  I’ve said before that my favorite part of the show every week is the sketch before the credits that isn’t related to the rest of the episode.  Would they ever try it?  Almost certainly not.  One thing to keep in mind, though: the writing supervisor for that famous episode of The Simpsons was Greg Daniels, creator and executive producer of The Office.

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One thought on “The Office, Steve Carell, and Viewer Fatigue

  1. Why are the shows best days behind it? Quite simply, its just not as funny. The naturally-flowing jokes of the first three seasons just don’t happen very often any more. Most jokes are very awkward and very forced( especially most of Dwight’s monologues).
    I still enjoy the Office and agree that its still head and shoulders above most other shows on TV right now, but I think that when Carrell goes, the show should bow out gracefully.

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