Perhaps proving that I am well on my way to stuffy ol' adulthood, I was more perplexed than pleased by the news of Will Ferrell's four-episode guest spot on The Office. Ferrell will appear during the story arc that sees off Michael Scott, adding some seemingly redundant hoopla to what was already going to be the highly publicized event of Steve Carell's exit from the show.
Ferrell will appear not only in Carell's final episode but in one more after that. It's hard to see this as anything other than a panic move. Stunt casting of this magnitude can't help but create the impression that the producers don't have much faith in the show's ability to hold an audience once Michael Scott isn't at its center. That may or may not be true, but it's absolutely the message they (or NBC) are sending. Unfortunately it's one I happen to agree with.
Since the beginning of the season, the writers have been trying to lay the groundwork for a post-Michael world. Storylines have focused on side characters who might plausibly inherit the branch manager's mantle, mostly with middling success. While one character will ultimately have to fill Michael Scott's professional role as head of the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin, it's increasingly apparent that none will be able to fill his narrative role as the center of the The Office's gravity.
The Office's M.O. has always been less pure ensemble than star-plus-ensemble, in the vein of Cheers: The cast is game, and four or five different characters are capable of handling an A-story in any given episode, but utlimately everything depends on the lodestone in the middle (Michael Scott/Sam Malone). Cheers, which arguably had more experience and more success building rich stories around its side characters, still knew it couldn't hold together once Ted Danson called it quits.
The challenge for The Office has been to transition into more of a pure ensemble mode, and halfway into the season it's failed to live up to the task. If the writers felt confident in the new direction of the show, they'd be eager to give it a chance to stand on its own feet after Michael's departure. Instead they're wasting no time grabbing for the crutch of a guest star.
It's still possible the writers will turn it around, and I hope that they do. The Dunder-Mifflinites still have enough untapped potential for funny, interesting stories and character development to sustain a creative reinvention post-Michael. But we haven't seen enough of it yet, and this latest move feels like the show giving up and scrapping for whatever ratings it can find as it gasps towards the finish line.
It doesn't bode well for season eight if the only way for The Office to stay compelling is to bring in a parade of wacky guests to half-heartedly fill a Carell-shaped hole week in and week out. Say hello to Scooby-Doo mode: Hey kids, this week the Dunder-Mifflin Gang is visited by Phyllis Diller and the Harlem Globetrotters!
Okay, actually, I would watch the hell out of that episode.
P.S. - See Myles McNutt for an terrific dissection of what the Ferrell spot means for the culmination of Michael's narrative.
P.S.S. - More good stuff from Linda Holmes here.