At the summer press tour, I talked with "The Office" showrunner Paul Lieberstein about the plan for Steve Carell's final season on the show and choosing his replacement. At that time, he knew very few concrete details, and could share even fewer. But when he tracked me down at NBC's party tonight, he had more information to offer. The party was too noisy and crowded for me to be able to pull together a coherent transcript, but here are the salient points, paraphrased (and if you want to know nothing about how the season plays out, don't click through):
• Carell will depart the show with four episodes left to go in the season.
• Amy Ryan's Holly will actually make her final appearance an episode or two before Carell. I asked if we should read anything into that, given that many of us are predicting - or hoping - that Michael and Holly walk off into the sunset together. Lieberstein smiled cryptically and asked, "Do you think that should happen?" I said I wouldn't have expected so at the start of the series, but yes, and all he would say is that maybe Michael has earned a better ending than he deserved at the start.
• Once Michael is gone, the real scramble to replace him begins, and those final four episodes will feature not only internal candidates jockeying for position, but a number of new actors brought in from outside.
• The list of significant candidates from the current cast that he and fellow producer Greg Daniels are considering is down to three: Darryl, Dwight and Andy. I asked about Mindy Kaling's Kelly, and he laughed and said she would probably find a way to insert herself into the running. I also asked about Jim, and Lieberstein agreed with me that Jim-as-manager has never served the character very well.
• Whoever gets the job of running the Scranton branch, be it a promoted regular or a newcomer, won't necessarily be the new star of the show. Everyone recognizes that it's an impossible task to ask any one actor to replace Carell, and the approach going forward will be more of an ensemble one. So where every episode in the past had to have a significant Michael story, things will now be more unpredictable, with perhaps Dwight and Kevin getting the two main plots one week, and Andy and Ryan the next.
• Dave Koechner's Todd Packer will ask to come off the road in an upcoming episode and take up his old desk. While I don't believe for sure that he's a contender, Lieberstein did list as a plausible candidate for the job back in the summer.
• Regardless of whether the new branch manager is a familiar face or someone new, the show will likely be adding two new regular castmembers for next season.
So analyze what you want, and we'll see how it plays out over the rest of the season.
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