After a month-long break, The Office returns tonight with the first of Steve Carell's final three episodes (plus Will Ferrell's debut), followed by four more half-hours boasting an array of other guest stars, including Will Arnett, Ray Romano, and Ricky Gervais. But will any of these big names end up coming back next season as the new permanent head of Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch? The producers have been mysterious about their future plans, so Vulture called series showrunner Paul Lieberstein (who also plays Michael Scott's low-key HR nemesis, Toby) to talk about the thinking behind the hush-hush transition and the potential hazards of stunt casting, and we also got him to drop some hints about the season's last seven episodes.
So why all the secrecy about announcing who will replace Steve, and when?
It's story ... When someone leaves an office, often there's a series of successors until you settle on one. If we were to just [announce], "Hey, here's the person we just made a giant deal with [to take over as the lead]," it would make what happens in between a lot less enjoyable.
So you know who's going to be the new Michael Scott.
I just don't want to say. There's a reinvention of The Office we have worked on and planned very carefully, and for a long time. The precise casting has not been finalized. But we know who our stars are: They're already in the cast.
Is at least a little of this about publicity for the show — getting people talking about it after so many seasons?
We initially, a year ago, had a plan of very quietly exiting Michael Scott. And then after he announced, it became very clear that nobody was going to allow us to quietly exit Michael Scott and Steve Carell. It was a big story people wanted to talk about. At that point, we decided to play out on air what happens in an office when someone leaves, the growing pains and adjustments that come with management changes. It's something a lot of people have experienced, and we search all the time for the relatable office stories. So it felt like we had a good, relatable story line that was worthy of an arc.
Some major names guest star on the show in the next few weeks: Will Ferrell, James Spader, Will Arnett, Ray Romano. Did you worry about the show becoming too much like Will & Grace, with stunt casting galore?
Usually my feeling has always been, "No giant guests for single episodes." That's the rule I've been going by. I feel like you can't lose the fact that they're a giant celeb in a single episode. But over multiple episodes, a character emerges you can start to believe. The thing about many celebrities — not all — is that they're fantastic actors. If we've created a really juicy role, it just feels like a fantastic actor should be playing the part. If it's a long enough part, we consider anyone. If it's a single episode, we don't usually let a single actor on. Because that' s just stunting.
Now, in the finale, we do have some very big stars for that single episode. But we're asking people to believe these people are in consideration for a spot that can't go to an unknown [actor] — or that it's very unlikely it would go to someone without Steve's experience. It seems a lot easier to believe James Spader is truly a candidate for the manager position because he's someone who could easily get that job in the fall. In the real world. It's a lot to ask in someone to completely suspend their knowledge of how television works. With Spader or Will Arnett or Ray Romano or Catherine Tate, it's easier to believe this is someone who could be in contention.
But that's not to say any of those people will actually be the manager.
No, I am saying that. I'm not guaranteeing it. But there's a real possibility.
So who do these people play?
Will Arnett plays an ex-Navy meteorologist who recently broke into the paper world. Catherine Tate — we don't reveal much about her backstory. She appears to be a person struggling for a vision of how to manage. Yet she's bizarrely confident. And Ray Romano, he's not too far away from the Ray that we've come to love.
What are the big themes of the remaining episodes this season?
The next three are really about Michael's exit, and Deangelo [Will Ferrell's character] coming in to replace him. And then we get to the next level of shows, which is really about the struggles of an office under a new manager [and] managers who don't work out. It's about life in the office with an uncertain management. Dwight, to no one's surprise, will be going after the job with everything he has. And it's probably not surprising that Darryl will be as well. Throughout the year, he's shown great ambition and desire for more. And Andy is going to throw his hat into the ring. He's got the résumé. He just doesn't have anything else.
What about Kelly and Ryan?
She's going to make a little run at it. It's not received with great respect. Ryan's had the job above it once. But it's not even clear he works at the office. I don't know if he stayed under a temp agreement or how things worked out.
Where's Toby right now? And how will he and Michael say good-bye?
Toby's been on jury duty. He'll make his return on April 28. Michael struggles to leave on a positive note with people. It's been a struggle with Toby.
Toby's not interested in Michael's position, is he?
Watch and see. Now you know why I'm not saying anything! [Laughs]
Have you talked to Steve about possibly returning for guest appearances in the future? Assuming Michael doesn't die in the finale.
We haven't had that discussion. I hope it's a possibility. I would love for that to happen.
As the years have gone on, some of your Scrantonites have started looking a little more Hollywood. Sort of the way Loretta Swit gave up pretending it was the fifties during the last years of M*A*S*H and became a lot more glamorous.
Well, our cast is growing up. Unlike some other shows where time is frozen, we do grow through their lives. I don't mind that they have morphing looks or different hairstyles. John [Krasinski] does look like a movie star now. That can't be a bad thing. But [Jim is] also a much different guy now: He cares more about people, about the world. And he's a father, too. In terms of introducing new characters, every time we do that, we have to grab onto our Scranton roots, unless the story line says otherwise.
What sorts of smaller story lines should we expect in addition to all the big drama ahead in the coming weeks?
Andy and Erin and Gabe continue to work through their low-level triangle. There's movement. There's some juggling. If I were to tell you, then you'd know all of it. We'll do some more with Angela and her gay senator boyfriend.
Is it tough when some critics and commenters make the case that there should be no Office once Carell exits?
It's a little frustrating to hear people say they'd like the show to end with Steve. But I just view it as people who are huge fans of Steve. And he deserves those fans. I imagine there's a section of our audience that are Steve fans, and who may leave with him. But maybe we have some Ed Helms fans who'd enjoy seeing more of Ed. And that goes for the rest of the cast as well. We don't want to stop. It's as simple as that. There's more to do. The excitement right now — it feels like Season 2 again. In the writers room, in talking to the actors — it just feels like there's an open horizon for us to explore. I feel really creatively excited about reinventing the show.
Did Steve take home anything from the set?
I don't know. But he can have something if he wants it.