Why Will Ferrell on The Office Worries Me Immensely
January 26th, 2011
In my reviews of The Office’s seventh season at The A.V. Club, my focus has inevitably fallen on Michael Scott’s imminent departure. Note that I did not say Steve Carell’s imminent departure: while I understand that the actor is the one leaving the show, my interest lies in the conclusion offered the character rather than in the loss of Carell’s presence. While I very much appreciate Steve Carell, and think that he should have already won an Emmy for his work on the show, I think that the real questions relating to his exit have to do with his character. That is where my investment lies, and that is where I’ve felt the entire season has channeled its focus in order to offer final moments for Michael to interact with his various co-workers and his potential love interests.
Inevitably, however, Carell’s exit moves from the realm of the narrative into the realm of the press, as news leaked that he would be exiting ahead of the season finale (thus creating a transition period towards the end of the season) during the TCA Press Tour. To some degree, I would have rather not known this information, but I’ve sort of accepted that Michael’s final episode will feature an enormous buildup, an extensive ad campaign, and probably even a “Best of Michael Scott” clip show leading into the episode in question (which will probably be an hour long itself). Steve Carell’s exit from the series is going to be a media event far removed from the narrative, and so there was always going to be some level of distraction away from Michael Scott’s character amidst that circus.
However, news that Will Ferrell will be appearing in a four-episode guest stint in order to help send off Carell is enormously disheartening, stripping away any sense that this exit actually belongs to Michael Scott. While I enjoy Anchorman well enough, and find Ferrell to be a fine actor when divorced from his most juvenile characteristics, this pairing threatens any sense of long-term characterization simply to chase after a larger audience, prioritizing the actor over the character and the hype over the show.
And, at least to me, that seems like a huge mistake.
In the initial Deadline report, two things stand out for me. The first is that, apparently, this was Ferrell’s idea: he approached the producers in order to potentially play a role in bidding Carell a fond farewell, and they apparently jumped at the idea. The second is that Paul Lieberstein, currently running the series, offers a purely joke-driven explanation for the decision without actually addressing how precisely this is going to be integrated into the series at large. I’m hoping that someone has the opportunity to speak to him in more detail about this ahead of time, because I very much dislike the notion – even if somewhat fictional – that this decision was motivated based on “Wow, wouldn’t working with Will Ferrell be awesome?” and not any sense of creative impulse.
I think there needs to be a good reason for The Office to bring in someone like Will Ferrell, and I think that reason needs to be story-driven. The gimmicky Jack Black/Jessica Alba appearances in the Super Bowl episode were nothing but a distraction: even worked into the story as they were, their presence was purely transparent in a way that the show shouldn’t be. Part of the show’s appeal is the sense that the the delicate balance of reality in the Office can break at any moment, that characters like Michael and Dwight are unpredictable in what is otherwise a fairly predictable setting. However, when you introduce a guest star, the reality is broken instantly, and the extent of that break increases depending on the extent of the guest’s stardom. Someone like Amy Ryan arrived with limited baggage for basically fans of The Wire and people who saw Gone Baby Gone, but that’s fairly easy to remake based on characterization; by comparison, someone like Will Ferrell has enough baggage that no amount of characterization could separate our pre-existing associations from the character he plays.
Perhaps I was naive to think that Michael’s exit would make the show more introspective, but I really felt that his exit needed to be grounded in a sense of character: the show has been dancing around Holly and Michael’s relationship, offering character beats with characters like Ryan and Toby who he has been paired with in the past, and developing new relationships with characters like Erin so as to give his exit more meaning. I’ve liked a lot of this character work, and feel as though the show has been getting a subtle sense of momentum as the season goes on which has not felt as much a distraction as I might have expected.
And yet, I feel as though this will shatter all of that. I cannot imagine a larger distraction than reconciling Will Ferrell’s presence with the character being created. Even though it sounds like the character, a sort of caricature of Michael Scott, might be designed to cause us to reflect on how far Michael has come, the idea that Ferrell need be the person to play that role screams of a cheap marketing stunt or, more idealistically if not necessarily less problematically, an inside Hollywood gesture which has little to do with the narrative itself. The decision only makes sense if you remove it from the context of the show itself, and instead look at notions of casting, advertising, and promotion which NBC hopes will bring the show (and its entire Thursday lineup) an extra boost.
Now, some might argue that Will Ferrell and Steve Carell are very funny, and that The Office is a comedy, and thus complaining about this casting seems counterproductive. However, while I accept that I tend to view the show through a more dramatic lens than most viewers, I feel entirely comfortable claiming that this is a case where the show needs to be seen through that lens. Michael’s exit can be funny without Will Ferrell, but I am not sure if it can be as dramatically resonant for Michael as a character if Ferrell is present. Perhaps more details would reveal that Ferrell’s character will be closer to Stranger than Fiction than Anchorman, or perhaps we’ll learn that he’s actually just a figment of Michael’s imagination ala Fight Club, and there might be some way for the series to make this work. However, I can’t keep from being incredibly disappointed that the show would risk undermining its own characters for the sake of casting a movie star, and can’t help but wonder whether it seems wise to have everything but the narrative motivating casting decisions at such a key moment in the series’ life.
I am, however, reserving judgment. This is simply my gut response to this news, news which will come to fruition in the months ahead and will certainly result in some intriguing conversation. I would love if this turns out to be a proper sendoff, and if the show somehow reaches new comic heights in the process I will be willing to give them credit for proving me wrong. That being said, though, I am simply having trouble imagining a world where Will Ferrell on The Office is anything but a colossal mistake which threatens to undermine a moment which would be best served without such distractions.
- As some pointed out on Twitter, there is a distinct possibility that this could boost ratings for Parks and Recreation, and so this means there will be something of a silver lining even if the actual episodes of The Office are terrible.
- I’m really hoping that someone gets a chance to speak to Lieberstein – I’m also hoping, of course, that it’s an actual critic and not someone who will just fawn over the decision without asking how they feel this fits into the series’ reality.
- Curious to know what others are thinking about this – my Twitter feed seemed largely in agreement with my take, but my Twitter feed is somewhat of an echo chamber when it comes to this show.