Steve Carell's impending departure from "The Office" generally has been played down by the show's producers – an approach reinforced by the recent news that his last appearance will come four episodes before the season finale.
The dearth of fanfare belies the spirit of Carell's character, Michael Scott, who finds any excuse to insert self-centered, manufactured drama into the dysfunctional workplace that gives him his identity and the endless attention he craves.
Amid this decided lack of hoopla we're excited about what's being billed as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo Thursday by Ricky Gervais, who co-created the original UK version of "The Office" and starred as David Brent, another boss unhindered by any sense of self-awareness.
It's an "Office" meeting worth looking forward to: a subtle encounter between two characters who are anything but.
The cameo offers both actors a chance to take a bow for jobs well done for playing paper company bosses linked by an often cringe-inducing cluelessness – even as they fashioned distinct, unforgettable characters for their times.
Gervais' Brent is a comedian in his mind, spewing what he thinks is harmless – but in reality offensive – nonsense at employees too downtrodden to do much more than muster laughs at his lame jokes. Scott is similarly convinced he’s entertaining, but his bizarre sense of humor is more often broad than cruel, intentionally or otherwise.
Those descriptions might make Gervais’ Brent sound worse than he was, or Carell’s Scott more benign than he is. Part of the divide rests not only in the actors’ unique approaches to a similar character, but in the differing realities of television on each side of the Atlantic.
Gervais’ “Office,” by design, ran for 12 episodes, proving alternately hard to watch and impossible not to. Given the limited run, Gervais and writing partner Stephen Merchant had the luxury of giving us characters whose strange appeal largely rested in their all-too-realistic unattractiveness.
The Jim and Pam, counterparts, Tim and Dawn, were sweet enough, but also came to realize they were well matched losers-in-love – unlike the too-often cutesy and too-cool-for-school American versions. Dwight’s equivalent, the bitter, would-be office henchman Gareth, came across as a nasty, bumbling caricature of the mercenary he fancied himself to be, devoid of Dwight’s quirky, cartoonish bearing.
The blessing and curse of a hit network show (for seven seasons and counting, in this case) is that the audience, on some level, needs to like the characters – a tough balancing act for a show like “The Office,” which thrives on viewers’ discomfort.
While Gervais’ version ultimately may be remembered by critics as the stronger, more daring effort, Carell’s Michael Scott is, in some respects, a more complex character than David Brent. The actor has managed to imbue the pathetic Scott with a certain likability despite – or perhaps because of – his buffoonery-driven tendency to self-destruct.
We feel his pain when he’s rejected by Holly, his soulmate in silliness – even if we cringe when he acts out in inappropriate ways (the trashing of the “Toy Story” doll Holly got from her boyfriend earlier this season provided one such moment). David Brent hurt others, without realizing or caring, while Michael more often hurts himself, leading some of his coworkers – and the audience – to want to protect him.
Michael Scott occasionally learns a lesson, as evidenced in last week's show in which he finally gives Holly some space to breathe. His is still a child in many ways, but one who at least experiences growing pains.
David Brent will push until he's over the edge and has dragged everyone into the abyss with him (the classic “Quiz Night” episode is one among many examples).
Gervais and Carell are masters of the comedy of the awkward, though to Gervais it's more of a game of chicken in which he refuses to blink.
He demonstrated as much at the Golden Globes, where he was slammed (unfairly) for skewering the Hollywood elite. It seems he was the only one in the ballroom to remember the show’s purpose was to entertain the folks watching at home.
Which is what he and Carell succeeded in doing in their respective versions of “The Office,” in ways that defied sitcom convention. A glance of David Brent and Michael Scott on the same small screen seems a fitting tribute to two characters who made us laugh and squirm as they wove office misery into unlikely classic comedy.
Update: Check out Gervais' cameo here:
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.