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.

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.

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.

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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