After a generally good season finale, I think the prospects for The Office without Steve Carell are brighter than they initially seemed. There’s a lot that could still go wrong without him, and we already saw a textbook example of what could go wrong: this was Will Ferrell’s character, who was awful and didn’t fit with the rest of the cast. But the finale showed that there is new – or at least not completely worn-out – stuff the show can do if it basically forgets Michael Scott existed and goes on as an ensemble comedy about a crazy workplace.
A lot of what the show can do now is simply give more time to the stuff that was in the background before. The biggest difference between the U.S. Office and the original, apart from (and also related to) the number of episodes, is that everyone in the office is a strong character, and everyone gets his or her own stories. The season finale gave much of its running time over to these second-tier characters and their stories, and it felt a bit like a comedic soap opera: a collection of short scenes devoted to ongoing personal problems, rather than one or two big stories that dominate the whole episode. It was as if all the B and C stories took over an entire hour. And it worked.
What the episode did not really have was an anchor or a centre – the closest thing was Jim, as he slowly realizes he’s not in control of the situation, but as pointed out within the show itself, he’s still mostly being Jim, the deadpan sarcastic guy. I don’t know how much of an anchor the show needs at this point, but the producers (or the network) might feel it needs one, even if it’s not the new boss. But it’s hard to know who that new anchor might be.
Most of the supporting characters on The Office can’t just step into the lead role because a lead tends to be the person we know the most about, and most of the smaller characters are defined, in a strange way, by how much we don’t know about them. The original show gave us a few characters with inner lives, people whose feelings we can study in depth and understand in depth: David, Tim, maybe Dawn. The U.S. version accordingly made Michael, Jim and Pam the characters whose emotions are examined in depth – and maybe Dwight too, even though he’s a cartoon character. Michael was the person we were with the most, and like David, we saw his own personal pain as well as the pain he caused to others. Jim/Tim is the guy we can identify with because he seems a bit like us, and who can also be annoying because of his lack of ambition and stalker-like tendencies. Michael was the lead character, as his UK counterpart was, while the romance provided an element of charm that attracted viewers to the show, letting us know that it wasn’t just abrasive, awkward comedy. These are the characters we see from the inside, the ones whose lives we really study under a microscope.
The supporting players are more developed than the workers on the original series, but what they still have in common with their UK counterparts is that they are seen from the outside, the way we in real life see our actual co-workers. They repeatedly display a few quirks or tics, and when we find out a tidbit about their personal lives, or a trait that we hadn’t previously expected, it’s a surprise. All the U.S. Office supporting players are constantly adding traits that fit in with what we previously knew about them, but are sort of new to us. The season finale’s big thing was showing us just how incompetent or overconfident Darryl was – a blow to our (and the other characters’) expectations about him. (Like a lot about both versions of The Office, this kind of moment has a lot of connections to the world of reality TV, where our ideas of who is competent or incompetent are often shattered.) But they’re not really supposed to have inner lives the way Michael/David did – we don’t follow them around as much, and we don’t see their conflicting motivations as clearly.
What is funny about most of the supporting characters is that there’s this sense we have that if we knew more about them, if this were their show instead of Michael’s and sometimes Jim/Pam’s, this would be a completely different show. Creed is a character built primarily out of that joke – there is some really crazy stuff going on with this guy, but we only see it from around the corner. But that means it probably can’t tip over into telling big, episode-long Oscar or Kevin or Angela stories. There are lots of Angela side stories, B-stories, stories about her romances with various characters, but a full half-hour Angela story would reveal so much about her life that it might spoil the joke.
It might be worth it anyway, if the writers want to keep the show going without Carell (and after Jim/Pam is pretty much played out), to play with the style and tone of the show by giving more and bigger stories over to these characters – show us more about who they really are, instead of dropping bits of information on the side. The result would be some episodes that are out of whack with what we think of as the approach of the show, but that might be necessary after 150 episodes.