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Scanning a lot of the pieces that have been written leading up to this week’s final Michael Scott episode of The Office, I kept seeing the same word applied to Steve Carell’s character: clueless. Michael is widely perceived as being clueless about how a normal boss should behave; about how ordinary human interactions (conducting a romance; socializing with employees) should proceed.
I disagree slightly: I think the greatness of what Carell did with the character handed to him by Ricky Gervais was to make him a vulnerable, insecure, highly suggestible man who takes his cues from pop culture and the people around him, but who fundamentally believes (and this is what made him the deserved center of the show) he’s doing the right thing even when those around him think he’s wrong, or that he’s behaving badly. That’s the near-opposite of clueless, and a big reason why Michael Scott is an all-time-great TV character.
Coming into The Office, Carell was known primarily as a Daily Show correspondent whose segments often hinged on him humorously misunderstanding the assignments he was given by Jon Stewart and getting testy when called on it by the host. Those of us who loved the British Office didn’t see how such a perfect chunk of television — a mere 14 episodes plus a Christmas special — was going to become an American sitcom hoping to amass (as all American sitcoms hope, whether it’s admitted or not) enough episodes to go into syndication and make everyone except you and me immensely wealthy.
In other words, from the start, Carell had to reinterpret Michael Scott as someone who could survive over the long haul; he couldn’t be as petty or self-destructive as Gervais’ creation had been — Gervais’ boss was a short-fuse time-bomb, whereas Carell had to go more stealth.
Looking over the history of American sitcoms, there are few precedents for the kind of smart but obtuse, aggressive but sentimental, trying-to-be-hip but succeeding at being lovable employer that Carell’s Scott became. Early sitcoms were family-centered; bosses tended to be minor-role, either pompous but fond (Bewitched‘s Larry Tate, say) or pompous and largely unseen (The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s Alan Brady). Lou Grant was no fool in The Mary Tyler Moore Show; neither was Sam Malone in Cheers (except, in both cases, in matters of love). Indeed, most sitcoms have centered around employees, not bosses, because it’s been commonly thought that most Americans can’t relate to management as well as they can to people who work for management. The boss who comes closest in sensibility to Michael Scott may be McLean Stevenson’s amiable doofus Lt. Col. Henry Blake in M*A*S*H, although Col. Blake was never as energetically pro-active as Michael.
So in retrospect, what Carell and The Office‘s American producers led by Greg Daniels did was slow, steady, and remarkable: They trained us to look at Michael skeptically, mostly, at first, from two points of view — that of the omniscient-camera crew that is filming the Scranton office, and that of Jim Halpert, who was positioned early on as the guy we were meant to identify with, the only one in the office who consistently thought Michael had a screw loose but wanted to stick around to watch what happened. And then once we accepted Michael as the lead eccentric in an office full of eccentrics, the series set about making him more fully rounded, filling us in on his pop culture obsessions, from a deep love and understanding of Die Hard to a deep love and misunderstanding of pop music — particularly, hilariously, hiphop.
Over the years, some of what Michael Scott became and did stretched even sitcom-credulity. One quick example: I always had some difficulty really believing that Michael would be found appealing by a woman as smart and together as Jan (I don’t think The Office fully believed it, either, which is why they had her go rather batty later on).
But ultimately, The Office earned the affection it wanted us to feel for Michael, and then went on to do what would have been unthinkable with the Ricky Gervais Office: We could, at times, at crucial moments, identify with Michael. The few times when Michael would get choked up in an episode — most recently when his staff serenaded him during last week’s episode — I admit I got a little choked up, too, and felt glad that I had.
I thought the departure of Michael on Thursday night was handled with intricate care. It was almost as though the nearly disconnected scenes featuring Will Ferrell were designed to be buffoonish to provide a contrasting context for Michael’s subtler laughs — in the end, it was the character that mattered. And when Michael Scott took off his microphone wire, uttered his final “That’s what she said” with airy freedom, it was also a moment when Steve Carell was freeing his character to do and think whatever he wanted, because he was no longer the boss.
But clueless? No way.