"When I was originally asked to audition [for 'The Office'], I had no idea how beloved the BBC version was. And had I known that, I would have been scared out of my mind, because [Ricky Gervais] ... created this archetype character, and there was no way I or anybody else was going to do it as well or better than he did. So I was just going in to try to do something that was funny and slightly different than his take on it." - Steve Carell, July 24, 2005
I am feeling very sentimental about the departure of Carell's Michael Scott from "The Office" tonight. Some of that stems from Carell being so likable-- and giving one of the great acceptance speeches at the Television Critics Association awards in 2006 -- reading from a scathing review of his work in an earlier series.
But it's also because of the honor being aid Michael. The tribute from the staff in last week's episode was a delight, and the promos for tonight's telecast have found me choking up a bit. I do not think I would feel as sentimental if this was the end of Gervais's character, David Brent, hilarious as he was. And that difference in emotion goes a long way toward explaining why we say goodbye to Carell with not only admiration but affection.
David Brent was a jerk. Insensitive, crass, a terrible boss, a personal disaster -- throwing away his job severance on one of the most dreadful and funny music videos of all time. His TV appeal, of course, was that he was the nightmare boss many people had had and others feared they would someday get, and that he was absolutely clueless about his own idiocy. When David left the scene, you could not help feeling that everyone was better off without him; it was left to other characters on "The Office" to provide a positive emotional connection to viewers.
Of course, all this was marvelously done, and one of the virtues of the British "Office" was how unwilling it was to make Brent warmer, kinder, more palatable. Some people just are not like that. And, in the beginning at least, Michael Scott was rather like David Brent; he was insensitive, he was absolutely not self-aware, he was a terrible boss, and we would see often enough that he made disastrous personal decisions, especially when it came to money.
But Carell, writer-producer Greg Daniels and others knew that, especially if they expected a long run on American television, they had to at least explain Michael Scott. How does someone so foolish become a branch manager? In Michael's case, it was that he had been -- and continued to be -- a terrific salesman; he had moved up because he had done something well, even if that something never translated into management skills.
And how did he survive in his job? Certainly working for people who proved more incompent than Michael was a plus. More significant, though, was his branch's consistent success; as crazed and distracting as Michael might be, he ran a shop where Jim could be Jim, and Dwight could be Dwight, and sales were made, and -- like Michael -- it did matter if you were smart or pleasant as long as you got the job done. Andy, probably the nicest guy in Scott's Dunder Mifflin crew, is also one of the worst salesmen. (Andy is also the closest to Michael in terms of basic character, but he's lacking that extra something that drives Michael.) The hideous Dwight is one of the best.
"The Office" also tried to explain why Michael so often acted like an idiot. On the British series, it was simple enough: David Brent was an idiot. Brent assumed that people liked him for the way he was. With Michael, there was a bit of uncertainty built into that assumption; Michael was emotionally needy, acting out desperately to win people over, and so grateful when someone appeared to be kind to him, that he chose bad friends and, with Jan, an even worse partner. That also meant that other characters could be only so mean to him, because too much would be like kicking a dog when he's trying to lick your hand. (And, again, this kind of need is a big part of Andy, who like Michael has struggled in his personal connections. Angela? Really?)
But bad feelings go only so far, and Carell's next-to-last season on the show seemed to be full of sour sentiments, not only with Michael but with other characters. This season, known in advance to be Carell's last, has given the show a chance for happy endings. Michael and Holly finally got together, for one. Even more, Holly's presence has changed Michael; he is finally able to see people -- notably bad people -- for what they are, because he now understands what a good, real relationship is. He is more open to genuine feeling, and so has received it in moments like the staff's song to him a week ago.
In short, Michael Scott was capable of redemption in a way that David Brent never was. Sure, it makes Michael less tart, more cuddly. That did not mean he was without flaws. Michael, whatever his future, will be capable of foolish acts -- although Holly will be there to keep him from being too foolish. Still, he is also not only capable of love, but of being loved.
At that July 2005 press conference, a reporter said -- as a compliment -- that Carell was "really good at playing a jerk."
"So far I have accepted every acting job I've ever been offered," Carell said. "But I hope someday to actually play a part that's less of a jerk."
He was already getting that wish.