An “Office” Without Steve Carell

With Steve Carell reportedly mulling leaving after next season, it might be time to say goodbye to all our friends at Dunder Mifflin

The original British version of "The Office," starring Ricky Gervais, lasted all of 12 half-hour episodes, with an hour-long special that provided a coda to the series.

The show ranks among the best seven hours of comedy aired anywhere, and was time enough to ingrain Gervais' grating and clueless office manager David Brent into the pantheon of great TV characters.

Now Steve Carell, who plays Brent's American counterpart, Michael Scott, in the U.S. version of the program on NBC, reportedly is mulling leaving when his contract is up after next season, the show's seventh.

"I think that will probably be my last year," Carell told BBC radio.

There's a certain amount of sadness prompted by news that one of TV's most consistently smart and funny shows – or at least one of the medium’s enduring characters – could be winding down a successful run by this time next year.

But unlike bumbling Michael Scott, who turns mismanagement of Dunder Mifflin into a comedy of errors, Carell would be making an intelligent decision to pursue a burgeoning movie career while the show is still strong.

It's a tribute to Carell – and some great writers – that Michael Scott has proven durable for more than 100 episodes. Carell has imbued his often dense and sometimes infuriating character with a smidgen of decency and likeability that keeps us watching. When we cringe at Scott's latest buffoonery, we feel at least a tad of sympathy for him as we wince along with his victim.

Case in point: the recent episode in which he morphs into the obnoxious, beret-wearing "Date Michael" after a friend of Jim and Pam's takes a liking to his usual, goofy unguarded self. He blows a chance at love by humiliating the woman and himself, in a segment that was difficult to watch and even harder to forget.

Scott’s on-the-spot transformation from amiable dope to crude jerk came during a season in which the show itself is in transition.

Jim and Pam's wedding, a potential shark-jumping moment, has given way to a baby and a mixed bag of domestic jokes and plots. Ellie Kemper's flaky receptionist Erin is showing hints of deep-seeded neurosis, taking her beyond the quirky gal who won tightly wound salesman Andy Bernard’s heart. Kathy Bates provided a hurricane blast of fresh air as the blustery new owner of the paper firm – a reflection of workplaces all over the country buffeted by corporate instability.

But amid all the changes at “The Office,” the (crazy) glue of the show remains Carell’s Scott.

There could be a temptation to keep the program going without Carell, but it wouldn’t be “The Office” without him. There could be spinoffs (“Welcome to Schrute Farm,” perhaps?). But it’s worth noting that for every “Rhoda” and “Lou Grant,” there are far more failures, like “Joey” and “After MASH.”

Speaking of “Rhoda” and “Lou Grant,” let’s revisit the ending of the greatest office sitcom of them all: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Moore called it a day after the seventh season, bowing out while the show was creatively vibrant. And when the brilliant ensemble cast walked out of the doors of the WJM-TV newsroom for the last time, they left together – literally, in a shuffling group hug.

Whether or not Michael Scott leaves Dunder Mifflin by himself, his exit would signal it’s likely time to close the doors of “The Office” for good.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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