Over at Slate, Bill Wyman (not that Bill Wyman) examines of Steve Carrell’s achievement these past seven years playing Michael Scott on The Office with characteristic insight. He not only puts Scott in the context of post-Seinfeld nihilism and self-loathing – i.e. characters universally defined by their unchanging weakness and self-centeredness – he points out a telling distinction between the BBC and NBC versions of the show. Namely, that despite being lighter in tone, the American version actually maintains a more realistic view of human nature, that our failed lives are not merely the product of external circumstances (oppression from the higher-ups), but rather the product of something intrinsic to ourselves. And while I prefer the BBC version – he may not be doing Gervais’ worldview total justice – I’m generally in agreement with him about both the bad and the good being more evenly distributed on NBC, ht Jeff Dean:
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… 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.
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.
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…But the worldview of the British version of The Office was nonetheless somewhat sentimental.
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… 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.