And so it begins — the warm-up to Michael Scott’s victory lap, which will extend over the next two, presumably very bittersweet episodes. As Vulture recently reported, Steve Carell’s exit has caused the cast and crew no end of anxiety. Everyone from Rainn Wilson to show-runner Paul Lieberstein (Toby) expressed varying degrees of doubt about the show’s chances of success in Michael’s wake, which is somewhat surprising given that this is very much an ensemble comedy. At various points over the years, different characters have proved crucial and beloved — this season, for instance, we couldn’t get enough of Darryl.
But Carell is a huge loss. A couple of weeks ago, this recapper suggested that Mindy Kaling would be more missed than Carell and it was a comment that should have been defended rather than tossed off. The thinking was that Kaling is a writer with a smaller role that has yet to be exhausted whereas Michael had run out of steam. Still, it was not the whole truth. In reality, the office revolves around Carell, and without Michael’s bighearted, boneheaded presence there to oversee and meddle and keep everyone close, things could very well feel unnatural.
So it was with apprehension that we sat down to watch last night’s episode, because it was the first of several intentional diversions: Will Ferrell, playing Michael’s replacement Deangelo Vickers, will soon be followed by guests James Spader, Will Arnett, Ricky Gervais, and Ray Romano — big names whose primary purpose is to distract viewers from Carell’s absence and remind them that neither the season nor the series are over after he departs.
We didn’t know what to expect from Ferrell, but images of Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby or some other lovable, American asshole doofing it up alongside Michael sprung to mind. But, of course, that’s what The Office expected us to expect and it’s not what we got. What we got was far better. Ferrell pretty much had us at “Everyone I know who skis is dead,” perhaps rivaling “Milk was a bad choice” on his delivery-meter. In the space of 22 minutes, he established this character: affable, inviting, but with just the sort of prickish streak that allows him to be the boss. And, naturally, there were the quirks, which include a love of the Southwest and a peanut allergy.
Everyone wanted to get on his good side, but the story swiftly took a dark turn, especially for Andy after being immediately pigeon-holed “the funny guy.” With nothing left to do but impress his new superior, Andy botched a few jokes before surrendering to his reputation with feats of physical comedy, eventually pouring hot coffee on his crotch. Both actors acquitted themselves well, Ferrell summoning more than a hint of leftover frat-boy sadism and Ed Helms looking every bit the terrified pledge. When he shot those agonizing glances at the camera, we could practically hear his stomach roiling.
Jim and Pam (“a.k.a. Jap”) took a different approach. Mistaking Deangelo’s disclosure of fatherhood as a sign that he was actually interested in children, they tried to capitalize on his goodwill by buttering him up with video of their cute baby. That scene was already so tense, with Erin sloppily shaving Michael to squeamish delight, but then when Deangelo straight-up shut Pam down — “You know what, enough about your baby” — we were so accustomed to Michael that we just waited for the beat and the break of laughter. Nope. He actually meant business.
Naturally, a power struggle ensued. Michael: “Deaneglo’s great, I love the guy. But I’m not sure he’s a good fit for the office. And also, I’m not sure if I love the guy.” He countered with PB&J sandwiches, one in a long line of fire-able offenses, and a rattled Deangelo swatted them away rather comically.
And then Dwight. Poor Dwight. He assumed Michael had put in a good word for him regarding the job and it isn’t until he met with Gabe that he learned otherwise. How strange, to actually feel for the guy. All this time, his self-appointed status as Michael’s second-in-command was good for a running joke and the punch line was always how little Michael really thought of him. Last night, though, with the cruelty of the joke laid bare, he had our sympathy. Dwight certainly can’t run the place or else it would be nonstop pratfalls involving looms and beets, but it’s a shame he didn’t even get a vote of confidence.
Finally, Deangelo, on the run from “the nut particles all in the air,” called a meeting, one that required the staff to file into the conference room and close the door on their old boss. Darryl, having gone full-cowboy, sauntered in wearing a Stetson. Dwight lingered just long enough to let Michael feel the force of his defection. And out popped Deangelo. Carell and Ferrell weren’t going to be able to resist some strange, physical acknowledgment of their real-life friendship forever. So, belatedly cashing in on the offer of a bro-hug, Michael took Deangelo from behind and their meaningful exchange — with the latter telling the former to make peace with his decision and “just enjoy it” — was pleasantly undercut by Deangelo’s awkward, reach-around of a back pat. It was cute without being Baby-Cece-cute. (Although she was damn cute in that ridiculous, crocheted tam o’shanter. But not to Deangelo: “That baby should be the star of a show called Babies I Don’t Care About.”)
The rumors suggesting Ferrell might join the show permanently seem more decidedly false now. For one thing, Ferrell denied it, but also Deangelo Vickers seems like a boss these people could actually have in real life: He’s distant and fickle and, from what we’ve seen, not interested in the kind of tomfoolery that runs the plotlines around here. For now, the focus is, as it should be, on Michael’s exit. Where the show goes from there — well, we don’t care just yet. Like Michael, one of our favorite things is fanfare for its own sake. He might have been working our last nerve a few episodes ago, but we anticipate getting emotional about his good-bye.