Whatever the intentions, all the recent guest-star announcements emanating from “The Office” – first Will Ferrell, nowRicky Gervais and Will Arnett – only serve to highlight the void that will be left by Steve Carell's impending departure from show.
"The Office" returns Thursday after a month's hiatus, then we'll have just over a month before Michael Scott's final bumble out the door on April 28. His trip on the way out might be how we remember him – but future memories of life at Dunder Mifflin Sabre could rest in one of the guests.
There's probably zero chance Ferrell, who's set to star in a four-episode arc bridging Carell's departure, would sign up as the new boss. Ditto for Gervais, the co-creator and star of the original UK version of "The Office" who made a memorable cameo in January, laying the groundwork for a role in the May 19 season finale.
That leaves us with Arnett, who is poised, in terms of his career and his talent, to make a great bad boss.
But he’d have huge clown shoes to fill.
Carell carefully sculpted Michael Scott into a distinct, iconic character out of the mold of Gervais' David Brent. Both characters are childish, oblivious comedians in their own minds, with delusions of being father figures to their respective office pseudo-families.
Both make you cringe – but Brent, in his worst moments, prompts anger, while Scott often inspires the audience and his office mates to want to save him from himself.
The softer edge is partly a function of a show well into its seventh season. Brent’s painful-to-watch self-destruction, which came one verbal paper cut at a time, worked brilliantly over the series’ 12-episodes life, but would have been hard to take for the more than 10 times as many half hours Carell has given us. Although Michael Scott is more likeable than David Brent, Carell is no less a master of the comedy of the awkward than Gervais.
If he’s tapped for the role, Arnett’s challenge would be to distinguish himself as the new boss while filling a familiar seat in “The Office.” He's adept at playing the clueless man-child, most memorably as self-obsessed, trust-fund magician Gob Bluth on the late and lamented "Arrested Development." Arnett imbued the cartoonish buffoon with a pathetic quality that occasionally gave grounding to a show flying on a plane of heightened reality.
He’s stood out in recurring role as Jack Donaghy's ruthless corporate rival on "30 Rock," as a bizarre boss on David Cross’ ambitiously odd "The Increasingly Bad Decisions of Todd Margaret," and as another immature rich guy on the disappointing "Running Wilde."
But the actor – who is married to Amy Poehler, star of "Parks and Recreation," which follows "The Office" on Thursday nights – hasn’t found a long-term spot back on TV since the Bluth Family's adventures ended in 2006. Arnett could make "The Office" his own, as long as the quality of the writing keeps pace with the changes.
It's entirely possible, of course, that Arnett’s guest shot could be a red herring for those fishing for clues about Carell’s replacement. Others have been mentioned for the part, including Danny McBride of HBO’s underrated “Eastbound & Down,” who has proven he’s equally capable of offering entertaining bluster and deceiving nuance, both qualifications for the job.
But even if Arnett is around just for one episode, we’re looking forward to seeing him put his paper mark on “The Office.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.