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The post-Carell future of ‘The Office’

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Nothing’s over until it’s over, and it’s never too late for me to be gullible, but Steve Carell sure doesn’t seem to have a hidden agenda in telling E! that he plans to leave “The Office” after the coming season.

“I just think it’s time,” Steve told our Kristina Guerrero. “I want to fulfill my contract. When I first signed on I had a contract for seven seasons, and this coming year is my seventh. I just thought it was time for my character to go.” …

“It doesn’t certainly mean the end of the show. I think it’s just a dynamic change to the show, which could be a good thing, actually. Add some new life and some new energy … I see it as a positive in general for the show.”

From Carell’s perspective, this isn’t exactly a Shelley Long or David Caruso. Carell has already established a movie career, plus it’s not as if he has ruled out a return to television in a different series. Beyond that, a certain amount of fatigue with his role on “The Office” is understandable, especially after last season’s inconsistent campaign. And let’s put it this way: If Carell hasn’t built up a financial nest-egg by this point, he’s got bigger problems than what he’ll do after he stops being Michael Scott.

As for “The Office,” Carell’s departure is a wild card. An exit storyline could help revive the series, which suffered through its worst season creatively this past year, and a new cast member for ensuing seasons could further invigorate it. But the Carell news doesn’t eliminate the bigger question for the series: What of the writer/producer fatigue?

In other words, what happens in front of the camera, even with Carell, is not as important as what happens behind it. “The Office” needs to breathe direction into all its characters; it needs a commitment to story arcs rather than the kind of waffling that went on in 2010-11. (To be clear, I still enjoy “The Office,” even if it’s not the transcendent comedy it has been.)

NBC has other considerations besides creative ones to address — “The Office” doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile to the network after Carell’s proposed exit — but not even the Peacock wants to see the sitcom limp through its final days. It’s sort of a reverse Catch-22: The better the comeback for “The Office” this year with Carell, the more encouraging it will be to carry on without him.

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