NEW YORK — Can Dunder Mifflin keep the lights on if actor Steve Carell leaves "The Office" after next season?
Carell, who plays dunder-headed regional manager Michael Scott on NBC's popular workplace comedy, has been voicing plans to resign his starring role and clean out his desk a year from now.
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"When I first signed on, I had a contract for seven seasons, and this coming year is my seventh," he told E! News last month. "I just thought it was time for my character to go."
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Of course, if this were actually the first move in a game to wangle a sweet new deal, Carell wouldn't be the first actor to try it. (Paging Charlie Sheen!)
Appearing on NBC Wednesday to promote his new animated movie "Despicable Me," Carell teased TODAY's Meredith Vieira that he wasn't really leaving "The Office" but was using his much-discussed departure to gain an advantage at the contract bargaining table.
"No, it's completely a negotiating tactic," Carell joked.
Turning serious, Carell said he really is leaving, repeating that he wants to spend more time with his wife and children. Despite his character's importance to the show, Carrell said he hopes the writers let Michael Scott leave quietly.
"I'd like to see it done in sort of a subtle way. I don't want to have a big enormous sendoff," Carrell said. "I would like to see it a little subdued. That would be my choice."
Carell has juggled an active if uneven film career with his regular duties on "The Office" since its premiere. He recently starred with Tina Fey in the comedy feature "Date Night," and many of his comments on his TV future were voiced while publicizing his latest release, the animated comedy "Despicable Me."
Now maybe he's truly ready to concentrate on movies. And maybe he's got the box-office juice to pull it off.
Also, as he told Entertainment Weekly, "I just want to spend more time with my family." (In February, he told The Associated Press, "I would like for my kids to at least have some familiarity with who I am: 'It's the man from TV!"')
What will happen to show?
That may all be hunky-dory for Carell. But whither "The Office" and the viewers who love it?
Adapted from the original, British "mockumentary" series starring and co-created by Ricky Gervais, NBC's "The Office" was transplanted to U.S. soil in the city of Scranton, Pa., site of a regional office of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Carell's foolishly approval-seeking character, Michael Scott, was a suitably Yank variation on Gervais' Brit office boss, David Brent.
Then it was stocked with a supporting troupe of gifted cast members including Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, B.J. Novak and so many more.
It debuted in March 2005, receiving critical praise if initially lackluster ratings. But NBC stuck with the series, which blossomed as the centerpiece of a two-hour block of Thursday comedies that, at their best, recall the network's legendary "Must-See TV" days of yore.
Of those shows — which last season also included "Community," "Parks and Recreation" and the much-celebrated "30 Rock" — "The Office" was the biggest draw, claiming an average viewership of about 8.9 million, according to the Nielsen Co.
In the meantime, it has been a regular Emmy nominee for best comedy series, winning in 2006, the same year it was honored with a prestigious Peabody Award.
Would Carell's departure undermine "The Office" and, with it, NBC's Thursday comedy stronghold?
Carell says he doesn't think so.
"They've incorporated so many new characters and so many new, great story lines that I have no doubt it'll continue as strong if not stronger than ever," he told E!
He may not just be modest, but also be right. Although enjoying a boost in its audience to 9.3 million viewers during 2008-09, the just-ended season attracted nearly 700,000 viewers more than during the 2007-08 season. In short, "The Office" is demonstrating little if any of the audience drop-off that typically plagues an aging series.
The eventual departure of Michael Scott from the Dunder Mifflin fold, if it really happens, could offer all sorts of creature possibilities — and enhanced viewer interest — in the season ahead.
After that, potentially, "The Office" could draw even more effectively on its deep bench of supporting players to help fill the gap Carell would leave behind.
And what new leading man or woman might be signed in his absence for the 2011-12 season? Let the guessing game begin!
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