Steve Carell confirmed reports this week that next season of The Office will be his last as Michael Scott, the bumbling, approval-hungry boss of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Michael has threatened to leave the company several times before (and was briefly replaced, in a bit of inspired casting, by Idris Elba, who was never as scary as a drug kingpin on The Wire as he was as the unflappable regional vice president who actually expected the employees of Dunder Mifflin to work for their paychecks). But it makes sense that Carell is ready to move on. In the past few seasons, many critics griped that the show had sacrificed its edge to predictable plotlines about weddings and babies—hardly the high-stakes, nail-biting paper-business cliffhangers that made us tune in for the first five seasons.
Speculation is that there will be no show without Carell, but let’s not padlock the employee parking lot so soon. Fans have always been divided about whether the show succeeds because of or in spite of Carell’s take on the self-deluded boss, which deviates greatly from Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in the original British series. Whether you love Carell’s softer, ultimately well-intentioned people pleaser or prefer Gervais’s black-souled Brent, you’ll agree that much of the brilliance of the American version, at least, has to do with the way it painfully nails the tedium, inanity, and insipidity of modern office culture. (A wide target, to be sure, but harder to bull’s-eye than it would seem. For proof, consider those cringingly unfunny ads for office-supply stores and insurance Web sites that attempt to self-referentially mimic The Office’s humor.)
So let’s assume Dunder Mifflin will survive without Michael Scott. Who should move into his windup-toy-strewn lair? While the rest of the world debates which comic actor might replace Carell, we’re going to consider it from a real-world viewpoint. In this economy, it would make sense for Dunder Mifflin to promote from within. So who’s the lucky boss-to-be? Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is out because of the potential liability to corporate. Michael may have been incompetent, but he wasn’t dangerous—and the same can’t be said of Dwight, a sexual-harassment/wrongful-termination/discrimination lawsuit and/or criminal trial waiting to happen. Andy (Ed Helms) is too unpredictable to be trusted with what passes for authority under Michael’s watch. Jim (John Krasinski) has proved himself allergic to ambition, even more so now that he and Pam (Jenna Fischer) have a baby. Pam is just too nice. Creed, Meredith, Kevin, and Phyllis are all too old; Ryan (B. J. Novak) is too young, and probably ruined his chances with that whole being-led-out-of-the-office-in-handcuffs thing. Toby is too Toby. Erin has the spirit but not the killer instinct, while Angela has the drive, but would occasion a full-staff walkout were she to take the helm.
Which leaves Kelly (Mindy Kaling). Wily, duplicitous, competitive, a natural-born schmoozer who’s always looking out for No. 1 (remember when she pretended to be pregnant, lied about being raped to avoid getting in trouble, and wore white to Phyllis’s wedding because it’s a “really good color” on her?), Kelly knows the business inside and out, has dirt on all the other employees, and is manipulative enough to keep everyone guessing about her true intentions. Plus, her past relationship with Darrell gives her an in with the warehouse crew, an advantage even Michael didn’t enjoy. The other staff consistently underestimate her, which gives her plenty of scores to settle once she takes the reins, and pure spite will fuel her unstoppable ascent to the top, just like all the most successful bosses.