Two weeks ago NBC’s hit show ‘The Office’ bid farewell to Michael Scott, who in the last seven years went from being the worst boss in the world to the best (a misty-eyed declaration from Jim which seemed perfectly appropriate when he said it, but I have to wonder if Season One Jim, who was forced to watch as Michael put Dwight in charge of health care and lied to everyone about downsizing, would have agreed).
Leaving now was probably a very tough decision for Steve Carell. Michael Scott is everything to that show—if it’s a sports team he’s probably Michael Jordan, Steve Yzerman, and Bill Russell: simultaneously the best player, the captain, and the most crucial cog in the machine. It’s hard to remember now, but Carell was not yet a star when the show premiered in 2005 (he was best known for being a Daily Show correspondent). NBC hadn’t even picked up the show, which is a remake of a British sitcom starring Ricky Gervais, for its regular programming: it aired The Office as a midseason replacement for six episodes in May. Many of the early critics actually panned it, claiming the dry misanthropy of the British version had been lost in the Hollywood translation, and viewers seemed rather apathetic: one episode, ‘Hot Girl’ (which happened to star an also-not-yet-famous Amy Adams) garnered a CW Network-like 2.2 million viewers.
That summer, Carell starred in the hit movie 40-Year Old Virgin, and in the ensuing season, The Office began to diffuse through our Generation X/Y consciousness in newfangled ways: it was the first show to become popular as an ITunes download, and very quickly became one of the first shows to become available for free online streaming. I’m going to take a guess and say it’s probably one of the two or three most DVR-ed shows ever. Steve Carell became a star almost overnight.
His movie career has been spotty: best as a supporting player with a distinguishable gag or personality trait (the tongue-tied newscaster in Bruce Almighty; the weather forecaster with an IQ of 48 in Virgin; the suicidal uncle in Little Miss Sunshine), but giving the impression he’s trying too hard as a lead (Get Smart, Dan in Real Life). Carell is still hilarious on The Office, which has been enjoying a resurgence of late, and he gives the impression that he still enjoys making the show. But he’s been in a somewhat awkward position for a few years—traditionally television has been a refuge for faded movie stars (like Charlie Sheen) not a home for stars in their prime. Although the quality of scripted television is now so good that you could argue that the better material might be in TV, the stigma remains. Jon Hamm and James Gandolfini have never done anything nearly as good on the big screen as they have in Mad Men or The Sopranos, and there’s a good chance they never will, but they keep trying. ‘Movie star…T.V. star’. The first one just sounds better.
Can The Office hope to be as good without him? The odds are against it, but I will never count out the makers of this show, which if it ended today would go down as one of the best sitcoms in the history of television. What should encourage us is that they have adapted successfully in the past—a truly rare quality in a sitcom. Sitcoms traditionally rely heavily—almost exclusively—on developing a predictable pattern which they duplicate with success, until audiences get tired of it. Thus the tension of long-running unconsummated romances (Sam and Diane in Cheers, Rachel and Ross in Friends) get played out in longer, more complicated, more implausible ways, making the audience realize that they are waiting for them to get on with it in much the same way as Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. The only reprieve would come when ratings declined and the producers became desperate for a jolt
The writers of The Office pretended to play that game for a while with Pam and Jim, but unexpectedly knocked over all the barriers and put the two of them together at the end of Season Three. Some additional fake barriers—Jim briefly was concerned that Pam might cheat on him in Art School—were played with, before being discarded entirely. Who were we kidding? They were made for each other.
Ending the sexual tension between leads has usually been the sign of a show’s death-knell: it disrupts the crucial pattern audiences come to expect. Even when a popular show does it (I think Rachel and Ross got together in Season One or Two), it never lasts—those two were breaking up and getting back together constantly for seven years. Friends remained popular throughout, but romantically it exhausted itself—partners brought in from outside the circle seemed terribly uninteresting, and the cycle of relationships within the group began to feel slightly incestuous. But The Office was just fine.
The general atmosphere of the show has also undergone periodic refinement. They were trying to mimic the feel of the British version in the first season: Michael was a petulant boor; Jim and Dwight hated each other. Very quickly Carell found sympathy for the character, and really within a season and a half Michael became the most lovable character on television. The workplace feuding between Jim and Dwight, which was a sign of existential despair amidst corporate drudgery in the British version, has become cartoonish—Elmer and Bugs Bunny chasing each other in endless circles. In every transition, every instance where a risk was taken or external factors like a writer’s strike threatened to, and in fact did, disrupt the continuity, the Office crew has responded admirably. They are enormously resourceful people.
A price has been paid, though. There was one point during the show’s history—probably somewhere in between Seasons Two and Four—when it truly seemed anything was possible. They had convinced us we were witnessing, at some level, the problems of real people. This opens up a vein of laughter entirely different from most sitcoms, which are performances. We think we see truth in the humor. That was the great strength of the British version, and for a while there the American version managed to balance that truth (illusory or not) with the general requirements of a show they wanted people to tune into every week for many, many years (British sitcoms run in series, usually for only fifteen or twenty episodes total). Over time it lost most of that feel of reality, which was probably inevitable. The Office feels like a family now. We cozy up with them on a weekly basis like we did with the Cosby’s.
Of all the show’s characters, Michael Scott stayed the closest to being real—which, considering his antics, might sound like a strange thing to say. But he was. He had the emotional needs of a child, and the outrageous expectation that those needs would be continuously met to his satisfaction (although is it that outrageous?) But we all have the emotional needs of a child, when it comes down to it. We’re just better at pretending it doesn’t hurt when it does. Michael never learned to fake it; never wanted to learn. When Jim told him he was the best boss he’d ever had, he was implicitly admitting that Michael may have always been right, even when he was so very, very wrong so very, very many times.
Who will replace Michael Scott is still up in the air. But geeze, I’d hate to be that guy.