Steve Carrell and The Office: Bleak or No?
Steve Carrell's judicious and graceful exit from The Office after seven seasons has prompted nostalgic YouTube medleys, a RENT take-off, and at least one really baffling article by the very interesting Bill Wyman. (Witness this relatively recent home run, in which the writer who has the same name as the bassist of the Stones impersonates Mick Jagger reviewing Keith Richards's book. Heavy.) With no disrespect, and merely as an unlikely fan of the show, I wanted to offer a few paragraphs of alternative.
I've seen every episode of The Office multiple times thanks to the convergence of two major cultural developments of the past decade: 1) Netflix Streaming; and 2) quarter-life-onset insomnia. (Not joking. Once I'm in that can't work/can't sleep purgatory, I will watch this shit for hours.) Perhaps more pertinent, I've watched maybe two or three sitcoms since middle school. The Office is one of them. This is not to distinguish my brand of fanhood from yours—sure, I feel a particular connection with the show, but that's the rare thing about The Office: everyone does. I'm not going to say it's my generation's Cheers, or M.A.S.H., or [whatever my parents watched]. But it's something special.
Wyman himself obviously feels a connection of his own, or he wouldn't have written such a subjective and weird article. In it, he draws a number of distinctions between the British original and its American offspring, the most confusing of which is the idea that Ricky Gervais' Office was "sentimental," while Carrell's is "bleak." Now, no one's calling the U.K. version heartless or anything, but certainly Gervais was trafficking in some harsh realism, where in the U.S. we get something like a sophisticated, and uncomfortable, cartoon. Wyman himself notes that David Brent's peculiar social disorder gets him fired after two seasons' worth of unpleasantness; somehow, Michael Scott's racial missteps, near-vehicular-manslaughters, &c. never merit so much as a lawsuit. Clearly, we're dealing with a different mode here. Gervais' was expressionism; Carrell's is farce.
More to the point, Wyman identifies something hopeless and even "dark" in the principal characters' "dead-end futures." He writes:
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.
This observation not only forgets a sitcom commonplace, but misses what to me is (was?) the main appeal of the American version. In sitcoms—fine, let's say "U.S." sitcoms, though I watched a fair amount of British TV (back in middle school; see above) and this truth seems to hold overseas as well—isn't the arc always about foiled attempts to escape the current strictures of one's job/relationship(s)/personality defects/what have you? And isn't that where the best sitcoms get their blend of the comforting and the poignant? Did anyone ever expect Gilligan to stumble on a helicopter, or Gob Bluth to become a successful magician illusionist?
Further, I don't think any viewer actually wants Ryan to succeed in business, or Jim to leave Dunder-Mifflin for some kind of upper-management gig that will require him to get (yet) another haircut. And as for Dwight's seed...well, I can't imagine Angela's going to date that (possibly gay) State Senator forever. The show's confessional/documentary framework certainly heightens the delusions on the part of everyone involved (while sublimating those delusions into pretty virtuosic burlesque). Anyway, I'm not sure The Office offers a darker version of the sitcom formula; maybe it just offers one we're uniquely able to care about.
Wyman ends his piece on a vigorously political note that's bound to rile up non-liberal readers. I agree that Michael Scott, as we know him, is impossible without Bush. But it's jarring to end an article titled "Steve Carrell's Achievement" on such a divisive, and distracting, note. In fact, Carrell's influence can arguably be felt in ways quieter but more far-reaching than anything Wyman suggests—call it the Comedy of Middle Management. This isn't a wholly new creation. Jack Lemmon was tapping into a related impulse in the mid-'60s: he portrayed wry, honest boobs who worked hard and played by the rules but kept getting stepped on by the Fred MacMurrays and Walter Mathaus of the world. For the same reason, Will Ferrell's appearance on The Office was pretty much inevitable: Ferrell has created an indelible comic persona based almost exclusively on mediocre men and the Delusions They Carried. (Two questions: would his role in The Other Guys have been possible with Carrell? And: how many amateur sports has he not made a film about?) Surely the middle-American insurance salesmen who populate Cedar Rapids are cut from the same cloth as Michael Scott. Maybe we've all been sitting in ergonomic chairs for too long.