Steve Carell leaving TheOffice: He made the show bleaker, funnier, and more sadly American.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 27 2011 3:15 PM

Steve Carell's Achievement

He made TheOffice bleaker, funnier, and more sadly American.

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But then, a few episodes later, the show made the move that took it out of Gervais territory and into its own. In an episode called "Valentine's Day," Levinson voluntarily rekindles the physical contact, and we begin, slowly, to see the real Levinson emerge—not the competent manager in a vulnerable position, or even the one having her way with a subordinate the way a male superior might, but as a person who is damaged the same way Scott is.

In the following season, the pair finally begins a formal relationship, and we get to see the facets of Levinson's own personality disorders—debilitating insecurity, self-destructiveness, kinky sexuality, financial profligacy, and, once her adamantine demeanor is shattered, a sprawling and blowsy narcissism that in certain megalomaniacal ways rivals Michael's own. Their public appearances as a couple—notably at a party at the CFO's house and a dinner they host themselves, particularly—are glimpses of the abyss.

I think the show was trying to tell us that the failures of business aren't necessarily bureaucracy or the pursuit of profits, but the result essentially of ever deepening psychological problems in upper management. The company can't right itself because each successive level of management is as damaged as the one beneath it. So central is this analysis that the main criticism you can make of the show is that they have gone to this well too often. David Wallace, the company's once seemingly competent CFO, is ultimately revealed not to have a clue of how to reverse its sales declines. After, among other things, hiring a temp worker and part-time business student to replace Levinson, he ends up slightly unhinged, unshaven and in a bathrobe, after he loses his job. Holly Flax, an HR representative, seems competent and pleasant, until we find that she's as dumb as Scott is—a mental soul mate. And just a few episodes ago, as Will Ferrell began a series of guest appearances, Scott's replacement—a chance for the company to right itself—is immediately revealed to be similarly infantile.

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Now, Ricky Gervais has a dark worldview, but it basically involves the fact that the good are often at the mercy of the bad. The signature image of the series was one of Brent's victims, most notably the unfortunate receptionist, bearing his barbarities with a stoic resignation. (One of these involved her sitting on a couch munching on a sandwich. Brent comes to stand next to her, his waist at her head level, and describing his fears of testicular cancer while fiddling with his hands inside his trouser pockets.) But the worldview of the British version of The Office was nonetheless somewhat sentimental.

We're all trained to accept that nothing can top the artistry of a BBC series. But one of the upsides of the explosion of televised fare over the past 30 years is that the American broadcast networks slowly got out of their hidebound ways and began throwing things at the wall to figure out methods of survival. Many, many of these attempts involved vulgarity, but a few didn't. The utter nihilism of Seinfeld, of course, was a groundbreaker, and you have to give NBC credit for continuing to experiment with good writing and difficult perspectives on society.

The Office isn't the network's only great show. Leaving aside the obvious virtuosity of 30 Rock, Community, another of NBC's Thursday shows, is the most groundbreaking sitcom on the air right now. The entire current season of this show, which follows an ostensible band of underachievers at an unabashedly second-tier community college, has been largely based on the increasing unlikability of the show's nominal star, Joel McHale. And the framing conceits have become extremely baroque. A few weeks ago, an episode was built around not just an homage to Pulp Fiction, but an homage to Pulp Fiction that turns out actually to have been an homage to My Dinner With Andre. And last week the show may have concocted the most complex single sitcom episode ever filmed. In a meditation on memory, personal identity, fantasy, and (I'm sure) many things I'm not understanding, it consisted almost entirely of brief, sometimes fleeting flashback scenes (most of them ornately art directed) of events that never actually happened in the series.

But I digress. The point is that, while Gervais is seen as acerbic, he turned out to be a softie. The American Office, a key part of the golden age of television we're now living in, is visualized from a darker perspective. The characters' personal damage determines their dead-end futures, because they don't have it in them to make it. Ryan will never succeed in business. Pam is not an artist. Jim is not ruthless enough to succeed as a salesman. Dwight's family line will no doubt expire with him and his cousin Mose. And Michael will never have an adult relationship, because he's not yet an adult.

In this way he is the quintessential American. When The Office came to America, it had a particularly dismal resonance, given that the leader of the free world was Michael Scott writ large. George Bush was damaged, too. A drunk with a DUI under his belt, he was too dumb to game out the consequences of his actions but smart enough to realize that, since he was nominally in charge, the people around him had to do what he said.

This week, as Carrell leaves the role he has filled so indelibly for the past seven years, we are still coping with the effects of our own Michael Scott's reign. A government run suspiciously like Dunder Mifflin produced similar results. And right now, we're all so many Jims and Pams (and, no doubt, Dwights), all at the mercy of supremely damaged people but prevented by our own deficiencies from being able to stop them. It's a hard thing to take in.

That's what she said.

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