- - Sunday, April 3, 2011

NBC soon will be tasked with doing the impossible: replacing one of TV’s funniest lead characters on one of TV’s funniest comedies.

No single television comedy has ever tried to replace an anchor as heavy and as significant to the program’s success as Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on NBC’s “The Office.”

Well, until the Charlie Sheen debacle happened at “Two and a Half Men,” that is. But does that really count?

“Two and a Half Men” is wildly successful and generates crazy amounts of money but couldn’t be staler or more unfunny. In the future, “Men” will be remembered as a successful series in terms of ratings and profitability, but right now, the show is just one of those generic comedies.

Any slouchy comic actor with any sort of name recognition could replace Mr. Sheen’s character on “Two and a Half Men” and the show would continue to operate in the same Sitcom 101 style it always has.

“The Office,” in contrast, is truly funny and sweet and has a sense of heart that most sitcoms with canned laughter lack. “The Office” also paved the way for the single-camera, mocumentary-style format that influenced the likes of “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family.”

“The Office” ticks to a much more complicated set of gears than “Two and a Half Men.”Michael Scott serves as the spine of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton office. He’s been the gag man, the straight man, the buffoon and the hero. “The Office‘s” writers and producers were able to strike a chord with Michael smack dab in the middle of compassion and contempt.

With regard to Mr. Sheen’s former role, any comedic actor can hit a mark and deliver “stupid and unfunny jokes,” as Mr. Sheen so infamously described them.

The Scott role is weighty and multidimensional. Mr. Carell winningly plays the role like the ad-libbing comedic genius he is, better than any other lead funnyman in TV history.

As it is in sports, replacing a legendary coach is extremely difficult, and nobody wants to be the guy who directly follows an icon. It’s much better to replace the person who replaced the icon. Unfortunately, in television, you only get one shot.

Remember “News Radio”? After the death of Phil Hartman, the show continued with Jon Lovitz. Perhaps I should say it tried to continue with Mr. Lovitz. The experiment failed; the show didn’t last.

“Cheers” lost Shelley Long, but many say it improved with the addition of Kirstie Alley. In a way, “Cheers” was lucky to lose Miss Long when it did, when the show was bogged down with a boring Sam-and-Diane love story. This is not too different from the (eventually) boring Jim-and-Pam relationship on “The Office.”

With the absence of the love yarn, “Cheers” grew from a Ted Danson-driven vehicle to a wonderfully intricate ensemble piece.

Two current NBC comedies, “Community” and “Parks and Recreation,” experienced much the same growing pains. They have evolved from being the “Joel McHale” and “Amy Poehler” shows into two of the sharpest, smartest TV comedies.

From the beginning, “The Office” has had a powerhouse supporting cast. During the first few episodes, Mr. Carell’s Michael suffered through some tonal issues. It was at first unclear to the audience whether we were meant to despise him or empathize with and root for him. Once the character’s flaws and endearments were tweaked, the show soared as a funny, biting outfit of cubicle comedy goodness.

A few of the supporting office mates have been rumored as possible replacements in Michael’s job as Scranton branch manager. Rainn Wilson (Dwight), Craig Robinson (Darryl) and Ed Helms (Andy) all have been mentioned as possible in-house promotions.

Among the outsiders brought up in Internet speculation are Thomas Lennon ( “Reno 911”), Upright Citizens Brigade vet Matt Walsh, Danny McBride ( “Eastbound & Down”) and Rhys Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”).

In a stroke of genius guest-casting, Will Ferrell will begin a four-episode guest arc on April 14 as corporate-sent stopgap boss DeAngelo Vickers. Mr. Ferrell remarked to the press that he would be the full-time replacement for Mr. Carell, but his comment, which set fans ablaze with glee, turned out to be just a cruel joke. So, with Mr. Ferrell out as the next boss, who’s left?

Will Arnett and Ricky Gervais, creator of the original BBC version of “The Office,” both will appear in guest roles in the show’s April 28 season finale. Mr. Gervais previously denied having any interest in doing a full-time job on a network comedy. He’s collecting far too much money from the several international versions of his brainchild; why would he ever want to work again?

Don’t get your hopes up about Mr. Arnett, either. He just signed on to co-star in another NBC sitcom with Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph. “Saturday Night Live” boss Lorne Michaels will serve as the executive producer for that project.

“The Office” has the luxury of being regarded as one of TV’s top comedies, and much like the Yankees or the Lakers, the show probably could snag whomever it wants to fill the Michael Scott role.

“Two and a Half Men,” on the other hand, offers a role in Charlie that probably will draw a big paycheck (not as large as Mr. Sheen‘s) but doesn’t require major comedy chops.

In a perfect world, “The Office” would close its doors with the exit of its star player, Mr. Carell. But because NBC has re-upped the comedy for an additional two seasons, the network has its work cut out for it to find the perfect replacement; it’s going to be hard.

(That’s what she said.)



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