Home > Pop Culture, TV > The Office waves the white flag by bringing in Will Ferrell

The Office waves the white flag by bringing in Will Ferrell

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.

Categories: Pop Culture, TV
  1. January 27, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Interesting take. Glad you're venturing into TV here.The thing about The Office to me, and I know this runs counter to much of the TV aficionado crowd, it's still one of the funniest shows on TV. I totally agree that it's not as funny as it used to be, but at it's peak it was probably the funniest show on TV. Or at least top 3. So the fact that it's dropped off from that lofty perch doesn't necessarily mean the end is near. And the ratings support that (as it still outdraws Community, 30 Rock, and probably pretty much everything else on NBC). Just because something has it's best days behind it doesn't mean it can't be an enjoyable 30 minutes of television (and a highly rated program).So I don't really see this as stunt casting or a move made out of desperation. If it was, wouldn't they try to save Ferrell for next season when they would actually start to feel the effects of Carell's absence, both in a plot sense and a ratings sense? Do I think the show is going to suffer without Michael Scott next season? Probably, yeah. Do I think having Darryl as the new manager (my guess) could work out pretty well and still deliver a few good laughs a week? Absolutely. If it can hover around this level of hilarity for a couple more seasons, I'll keep looking to it to make me laugh as much or more than any other show on TV not named Community or Parks and Recreation.

  2. January 27, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    It's still enjoyable, but not nearly as much as it used to be. I don't know if it'd crack my top ten funniest shows on TV right now, honestly. Which is fine; The Office has always been strongest when it draws its humor from its characters, so if it were telling memorable stories with those characters I could forgive the lack of belly laughs. But since sometime in season six forward, it seems to let threads drop and characters remain static. Has Andy & Erin's odd courtship been all but forgotten? What happened to Ryan's Machiavellian designs against Jim, or for that matter anything about Ryan apart from being a straight man for Kelly? The nods to deepening Dwight as a character, and in his relationships with his coworkers, have petered out since the end of season five.The fact that all those veins for humor and storytelling remain gives me a twinkle of hope, but the fact that they've been so under-utilized tempers that hope. Maybe Michael's departure will free up some creative energies in those directions. The caliber of the cast & writing crew makes that a very real possibility. But four episodes in which they have to concoct zany hijinks for Will Ferrell is four episodes in which they're not laying that groundwork.As for the timing, I don't think there's any reason to wait; part of the draw of bringing in Ferrell is to conjure Anchorman-reunion associations. He's not the first "name" guest star they've brought in with flimsy narrative justification (e.g., Kathy Bates). If they need to grab some headlines next season there'll be plenty more names to choose from; if you're going to bring on Ferrell you have to do it while Carell's around.And maybe that's the reason – maybe it's something they'd been wanting to do for a while, and this is their last opportunity. I don't actually think the show's ratings will suffer to the point that NBC cancels it, because like you said, it's frigging NBC and what the hell else do they have? I just worry that the show will run dry creatively and yet have to stagger along precisely BECAUSE NBC doesn't dare cancel one of their few adequate performers.

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