Thursday night, Steve Carell bids goodbye to Michael Scott and "The Office," in which character and series he has lived for seven seasons. Seven years is a long time -- statistically, the average American changes jobs almost twice that often -- and whether or not this is a wise move, it is a creatively understandable one.
There have now been about 10 times as many episodes of the American version of "The Office" as there ever were of its British original, whose creator and star Ricky Gervais will appear in Thursday's double-length episode, along with Jim Carrey, Ray Romano, Catherine Tate, James Spader, Will Arnett and Will Ferrell, who has spent the previous two episodes playing Michael's putative replacement. Indeed, if the series were to follow its main character out the door, I would not, even as a fan, protest -- I do sometimes think television shows should have term limits, like presidents, or at least that they should go not upon the order of their going, but go while the getting is good.
"The Office" has long since made the points its premise promised. But in its pointlessness, if you will, it has become something deeper; it is less naturalistic than when it began, but also more natural. To drag out a metaphor I've used before, which seems to me to describe a certain sort of modern comedy of community, it has become chamber music, a collection of voices and timbres to which the writers can turn as to an oboe, a cello, a trumpet, a piano, a kettle drum. If we are not particularly invested in the outcomes of the dramas, we can still follow their progress, the orchestration, with interest. And they have assembled quite a talented ensemble down there at "The Office," one I think stands a good chance of surviving its star's departure -- artistically, anyway. Indeed, I like it more than ever, though I say that more as a friendly citizen-viewer than as a picky professional critic. Also, the lines are funny. ("I love banter, but I hate witty banter" is the one currently playing in my head.)
Gervais specializes in characters who lead lives of noisy desperation, and his original series was less about the dynamics of office life than about what happens when a person hungry for attention, which he misidentifies as celebrity, which he mistakes for love, suddenly has cameras pointed at him. (The American "The Office" shared that focus briefly.) Michael Scott replicated some of the faults of his model, David Brent -- his imperfect self-perception, his mangled facts and phrases hopefully presented as sophistication, his horror of being ordinary -- but not his twitchiness, his constant scrambling to look good in whatever light is being thrown upon him. He is happier in his skin.
Michael is a boob, an unbelievable boob at times; but as the boob many of us fear ourselves to be -- a little too dim for our station, a little too loud for the room, a little too needy to get love, a little too self-obsessed to give it -- he has been our point of identification. As the show's "normal" characters, whose halting romance across the first few seasons gave "The Office" a relatable emotional center, Jim and Pam would have seemed to be made for that role; but they are played by the handsome and beautiful John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, and though those actors are marvelously adept at making average interesting, they are clearly cut from rarer cloth.
Carell is not like that. He is good-looking in an ordinary way, with a face that from certain angles recalls some small woodland creature. His Michael is a child in a grown-up's body, with a child's petulance but also a child's wonder -- the latter quality has kept him likable even as the former has made him painful to watch. His need to be right is tempered by his wanting to actually do right, and more often than not he has let himself be guided by the people whose superior he considers himself to be; there is a baseline of humility to his character that lets us root for him.
The more absurd and extreme aspects of that character have made it hard at times to credit his success as a businessman or lover, but -- whatever! -- we have come to the end of this road, and he is going out not on a rail but on his own two feet, to the girl of his dreams. Much of the business of this season has been to set him up for these final gifts, to make them feel proper and deserved. Like Pinocchio, he has been becoming real.
And so when the mostly assembled office sang to him in tribute last week, rewriting a song from "Rent," it was an improbable moment but a lovely one, and by the terms of our agreement with the series, necessary. "This is going to hurt like a [thing I can't write here]," Michael said afterward, and Carell seemed to be speaking both in and out of character. Seven years is a long time.