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

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April 27 2011 3:15 PM

Steve Carell's Achievement

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

Steve Carell in The Office. Click image to expand.
Steve Carell in The Office 

With his overlarge eyebrows and dark sockets, Steve Carell, the star of The Office, at his best is able to accurately convey the look of an embarrassed lemur. As Michael Scott, a monstrous middle manager at an outpost office of a doomed regional paper-supply company in Scranton, Pa., Carell deploys the look when Scott is at his most infantile, having been caught in lies large or small, embarrassments large or gigantic, or just in any one of the hundreds of situations the show has conjured up to leave him feeling vulnerable, abashed, or alone.

Having grown up without a father and as an adult essentially friendless, Scott as portrayed by Carell derives virtually all of his opaque identity from his job at the office, a platform from which he tries to act out his improbable dreams, which range from the pedestrian one of merely having a friend to more rococo concoctions, like being a standup comedian, an improvisationalist, or an emcee. Carell is leaving the show after seven seasons; his last episode with The Office is Thursday night. While the producers have said the show is going to continue, it's clear neither who will permanently replace Carell nor how they will manage to continue the show's corrosive satire with someone possessed of a different set of psychological maladies. It's worth taking a moment to acknowledge Carell's, and the show's, achievement.

At the beginning, it was hard to see how the thing could be around this long. For the first few episodes of the American version of The Office,the show was better than it needed to be, but still a subpar knockoff of a supremely realized British offering. The U.K. Office, created and executed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and starring Gervais, was a searing portrait of human degradation, all spewing from a superficially harmless but searchingly hateful troll of a dead-end middle manager, David Brent. American TV couldn't quite go there, and so, in the opening season of the U.S. version, you had a feeling that its adapters and Carrell were going through the motions as the show attempted to find its footing on these shores and in the much different environment of American broadcast television.

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While in the first episodes some ideas and themes were taken from Gervais' version, a major difference came in the dominating story arc. Gervais' boss was a no-nonsense professional who quickly zeroed in on Brent's utter unsuitability for his ostensible job. The story arc of the U.K. two-season series was in fact the company's fairly systematic attempts to rein him in and then efficiently cut him off. (The one exception to this process, a fleeting promotion for Brent at the end of Season 1, is a discordant note.)

In the United States, Scott had a boss like that too. She was a flinty ice queen named Jan Levinson, who, just as any other manager would, immediately recognized Michael's myriad deficiencies. But here, the show couldn't let her succeed—U.S. networks don't go for built-in dead ends. The producers entrusted with devising this edition of the show had to figure out an alternative narrative.

Whether what they came up with was because of the creators' black view of the workplace (and perhaps, as we shall see, of America) or whether they fell into it as a simple narrative solution for their problem isn't clear, but here's what they did.

The show temporarily salvaged Scott's inevitable firing by having his main rival suddenly leave the company for a job at Staples. This was a potent reminder of the small company's vulnerabilities in the age of the Big Box store, and gave Dunder Mifflin a little bit of David vs. Goliath-like sympathy. Also, while Scott has always been capable of unthinking (and sometimes thinking) cruelty, during the second season I think the edges of Scott's character were de-Brentified, softened.

The moment the U.S. version came into its own occurred a few episodes into the second season, as Levinson, without an alternative, was figuring out how to make do with Scott. The basic premise of the show, of course, is watching the Peter Principle in action. Scott had been a successful salesman, and was routinely promoted to managing a regional office, where his particular skills were of little use. But in this key episode, "The Client," Jan watches Scott idiosyncratically but effectively woo a big customer to the company during a long dinner at a chain restaurant—and then commits an act that will lead to her personal destruction.

Now it is one of The Office's conceptual coups that we are led to believe that the post-deal kiss that occurred between Levinson and Scott in the parking lot of a Scranton Chili's—an indelible image of bleak corporate sexuality—came from Levinson's having been emotionally vulnerable after a divorce, tipsy after an evening drinking, and the glimpse of Scott's hitherto unseen competence. The pair ends up spending a chaste night together in a hotel after Levinson unburdens herself to him about her breakup.

Over the next few episodes, this initial scenario plays out. Levinson, having made a minor but devastating slip-up, is made to suffer ongoing humiliations, as Scott's infantile emotionalism and almost involuntary indiscretion harries her in any number of ways, most of them public, as he compulsively spews inappropriate questions and comments and restlessly overanalyzes every word she communicates to him.