The latest bit of news out of the NBC critics’ tour is that Steve Carell’s character won’t actually be leaving The Office in the season finale, as we expected. Instead, he’ll be leaving earlier. Greg Daniels told Michael Ausiello that they’ll have Michael leave early, and then the season finale will reveal who gets Michael’s job.
I don’t want to analyze an announcement like that too closely, not yet — we never know what’s actually going to happen as the season goes on. But I did like the fact that the description of the planned story arc sounds so much like a description of a reality competition show:
On hand to select Michael’s successor will be Kathy Bates, reprising her role of Jo Bennett, the country-fried CEO of Dunder-Mifflin’s parent company, Sabre. (Bates already has completed filming the first season of NBC’s Harry’s Law, which debuts January 17.) “We’re going to play out the whole [replacement] process in a realistic way,” says Daniels. “And it’s always great to have Kathy here.”
The outcome of the interview process will feed the season finale, which is tentatively set to run an hour. The extra time may very well be needed to showcase not just the reveal of the new boss but the various employees’ reactions to whomever he or she is. “They’re all different people with strong personalities,” Daniels notes, “so they each have a lot invested in who’s their new boss.”
Both versions of The Office have their share of reality television influence, of course, but I feel like the U.S. version has more reality TV elements, and that that’s one of the things that gave it its own style, separate from that of the original. The original was made when the Survivor type of competition show was still fairly new; the remake came around when reality shows seemed to be taking all the slots away from scripted shows — and when scripted TV seemed stagnant and predictable compared to the most compelling reality shows.
The U.S. version played up some of the things that suggested a kinship with reality shows, like the talking-head interviews that give us a sense of connection with the individual characters (more prominent on the U.S. version), the ensemble feel, and the idea of shifting allegiances and alliances within the setting. It wasn’t the first U.S. comedy to try and achieve some of the energy of early ’00s reality TV; a lot of shows from that era displayed that influence. Arrested Development has a lot of that, and Larry Wilmore has said that when he created The Bernie Mac Show, he was influenced by the style of The Osbournes. But The Office was the most successful at fusing the two worlds, so it seems appropriate that the Carell era may end with a storyline that could make a first-rate season of a reality show.
Update: Joe Adalian has more, from current showrunner Paul Lieberstein and other writers, about the plan for the rest of the season, including confirmation that Michael will be leaving before the season is out. It seems to be a way, in theory, of trying to get viewers used to the new format soon, instead of waiting until September and trying to make it work then. If it works, we could get some of the feelings of resentment out of our system by May and be willing to accept the new boss by the time the show returns for the eighth season. And if it doesn’t work, well, it doesn’t work.