'The Office' and the final importance of Michael Scott

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.

Twitter: @kentucker

Comments (115 total) Add your comment
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  • The Bo

    I have an iPad 2.

    • General Man

      I thought it was underwhelming. What made The Office a standout show was that whenever it got too sentimental, it managed to fall back on comedy as to not get overly melodramatic. Sadly, it didn’t balance that.
      Also, it feels like the first 5-10 minutes were good (as were the last 3 minutes), but in the middle they got lost and didn’t seem to know where to go.
      As an Office fan, and as a huge fan of Michael Scott, I expected a better farewell. An episode to go along side their best episodes. And this was not one of them, unfortunately.

      • Jen

        I agree completely. The final minutes were great but I was hoping for a better send off. His character gave so much to the show and the storylines it’s going to be REALLY hard to watch it without him.

      • Jennifer TruthTeller

        GREAT article today, Mr. Tucker. I’m not often fond of your articles being there is often a desperate but ackward attempt to sound hip. (That should be left for the vapid youngsters who have joined the EW staff and brought their insipid Perez Hilton style along with them.)
        In this article, you stuck to your strengths – Concise organized presentation, nuance obversations, with plenty of historical context and wisdom.

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  • Hulk

    Huk’s fave was that one episode where he was better than David Brent…

    Oh wait that was none of them.

    Sorry, that reads super-mean. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s more of a case that Gervais’s Brent was just so brilliant and felt completely real (in a terrifying sort of way). Meanwhile Carrell’s Scott was definitely funny and I like his performance in the moment, but in the larger context it just oscillated nonsensically. The quiet, basic humility of both shows is sort of the foundation and soon enough (after season 3) it just turned in “everyone’s crazy adventures!” and drove me nuts. Michael was never real in a way that allowed his sociopathic behavior to make total sense. I knew what he could do but not who he was.

  • Gus

    What a love/hate character. I love Steve Carrell, but that character is sooo poorly written that it’s hard not to get hate him.

    The whole Scott’s Tots episode pretty much sums it up for me. He’s a horrible stupid jerk at his core who they occasionally allow to do something idiot savanty or sweet to keep him in the audience’s good graces.

    • John-Paul

      I’m not a TV critic and I try not to read too much into things, but here I go:
      Michael promised to pay those kids’ college tuition because (1) He figured (at that moment in time) that by then he’d become a big success and (2) He wanted to be the hero who pays a classroom of kids’ college tuition. But in the end, ten years later, he didn’t become as big a success like he wanted so he couldn’t be the hero. That’s not an example of someone being a jerk or of someone doing something idiot savanty or “sweet”. That’s an example of someone who dreams big and often tries too hard to get people to like him. That’s a character who has depth, relatability and a good heart. That’s Michael Scott.

      • Eric

        Agree completely.

      • sd

        Another agree. It’s the nuance of the show and his character that was interesting. In that same episode (Scott’s Tots), when he walked into the school, a student came up to him and said hello. He knew her name and asked if she was still playing whatever instrument she played 10 YEARS AGO! (I don’t even remember what she played.) That’s the genius–he was not clueless, nor was he a jerk. I just thought it was a moment (and very subtle) that summed him completely. And what made it funny, was that he thought he could appease them with computer cords (or whatever). Nothing wrong with a little comedy in there, too.

    • Rock Golf

      Michael Scott became the perfect example of the “Peter Principle” – a person who gets promoted to the level of his incompetence.

      Michael was an extraordinarily good sales person. Heck, even Dwight & Jim agreed on that. And they never agree on anything.

      But his eternal optimism, and to a lesser extent egotism, didn’t prove fruitful when he went from top salesman to branch manager, and yet Scranton continued to prosper even when better run branches of Dunder-Miflin failed.

      Why? Because, as we saw last night, Michael was still the contact for D-M’s most important clients.

      No one was more heartbroken than Michael when he couldn’t pay those kids’ way thru college.

      Gus, you’ve completely misread him.

    • Kevin

      He has a good heart, he is just extremely selfish and narcissistic. I have a friend like him and I often recognize myself in Jim/Pam in the way they respond to him in love/hate ways.

    • Shawna

      Dear Gus,
      Just to help you out here, ‘savanty’ isn’t a word and it IS ‘hard to not get hate him’ since this is not an actual concept. As for referring to the character of Michael Scott, who is CLEARLY beloved by his co-workers and America (as the ratings seem to hint at), as a ‘horrible stupid jerk’, this is probably a biased opinion, as you yourself come off as one of the same between your comments and grammar alone. Kudos on your use of several ‘o’s at the end of ‘so’ to emphasize both your intellectual capacity and your enthusiasm. Bravo! I am sure the writers of the Office wouldn’t have thought to use that style of writing themselves, as they poorly crafted Michael Scott.

      Seriously, comments like yours are of course welcomed (as we have not yet found a way to abolish the right to free speech for the negative or those who fail to censor themselves before expressing themselves), but completely inaccurate. What you know of The Office sounds like it was picked up from watching an episode accidentally or because of your love for Carell and previews. Michael Scott was a loveable guy, Greg Daniels just spent the entire article talking about this, we are not meant to hate him. Well said, John-Paul.

      • Shawna

        *Daniels should read as ‘Tucker’.

      • Kate

        Hey Shawna, come on! Gus has a right to his opinion (and you can’t deny that Michael is a total narcissist; he’s beyond egocentric). Whether or not he’s “meant to be loved” is a matter of opinion. I have loved him at times; I have also hated him (and been so disturbed by him that I couldn’t figure out HOW to feel). I have definitely known people like Michael, and while they have their likable moments, they are not easy to be around. Opinions can’t be inaccurate . . . you just disagree.

      • Shawna

        I’m not saying he is not allowed to have an opinion, I’m saying that he is coming off as fairly one-sided, he is not simply stating just an opinion, rather exploring one facet of Michael and using that side of him to make a general statement. I think if we are really going to examine (or in his case, tear apart)the WRITERS for how they constructed Michael (the matter at-hand), then we need to see Michael from every possible angle before we judge this team of writers that have kept The Office successful for 7 seasons. I believe the writers deserve a bit more credit here. If Gus finds the character poorly constructed then I can only assume he has not been watching or shouldn’t be watching. This has nothing to do with Michael Scott as a character rather the strong criticism of Lieberstein, Kaling and Carell himself. It’s just not okay to call out the writers. If you like the show, watch. If you think it’s lacking, don’t. Easy peazy.

      • Maria

        Dave / Yeah I’m with you guys on this. B+ seems about right. I’m cool with the new Boss in that in many ways he’s as insecure and eager to lapese as Michael Scott but he has enough self-awareness to add a new dimension so it doesn’t feel like a bad photocopy of MS.I did like the scene where He outlined the strengths of his fellow workers. It was a bit sappy but I kind of liked it

    • Michael

      Another agree. That Scott’s Tots episode was painful and I did hate him for that. But it is classic Michael Scott, despite his desire to be loved and accepted, he has always had an abiding belief in himself. Of course he thought he would be rich, that he would become a star, that his next big idea is the next big idea. As awful as the episode was where we viewed his movie, there was one important lesson, having met Holly, he began to realize that none of that really matters — because he did something impossible, he found his soulmate. Nothing beat’s David Brent’s story arc, but ultimately, it was Michael who ended up where he needed to be without having to hit rock bottom to find what he was seeking. There’s something distinctly American about that.

  • Merrydan

    I loved it.

    • hayley

      I loved it too

  • Kerry

    I had to stop watching this season it bothered me so badly, so I guess that’s why it might have seemed relevant but I didn’t intend to hijack topic whatsoever. It was more that I read your article and looked at the course of his problematic arc with such clarity.

    Especially given the act that we met Amy Ryan’s character many seasons ago and after just four episodes in we knew they were each other’s endgame, but unlike the jim/pam relationship they had to stall it out several times and in the process had no idea how to get drama or our affections out of it.

    • Reni

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  • Juan

    Carrell did a great job with the material he was given, but that material was often terribly flawed. It’s always bugged me that Michael Scott would be so on-the-nose about what was ‘wrong’ with Die Hard 4 while he was basically wrong about movies every other time.

    • Brian

      But really, he IS wrong about Die Hard 4. Outside of briefly jumping onto/off of the plane, the only difference between the level of superhuman/cartoonish action in 4 and the rest of the series is the lack of blood (to get a lower rating). If they had poured on the blood in DH4, it probably wouldn’t have been criticized for the (perceived) lack of “realism.”

  • Kimberly

    I absolutely loathed Michael Scott and I was constantly surprised that that sociopathic, childish, petty, useless douchebag never got the crap beat out of him. I never rooted for him. I never felt bad for him. I never sympathized nor empathized with him. I hated every goddamn second he was on screen and I stopped watching after the first season. Good riddance to one of the worst characters in the history of television.

    • Riley

      Kimberly, I hated the first season. But from the very beginning of season two the show found the right balance for Michael Scott and the entire cast. Give it a chance.

      I loved the way they wrapped up Michael Scott’s story. Sure, this season has been very weak. But the last five or so episodes have rebounded. Steve Carell/Michael Scott will be dearly missed.

      • Argentina

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    • pooks

      Boy Kimberly you sound like loads of fun to watch TV with. Michael Scott is one of the greatest characters. When he’s an idiot you laugh & think oh that sounds like something so-and-so would do. When he’s sincere he’s endearing. And who didn’t smile when he finally got together with Holly? The proposal was one of the best ever. He’s relatable because who doesn’t want to be seen as cooler than they really are? I think he played the character with heart & grace. He’s not supposed to be someone who changes the world but he did a magnificent job of bringing more laughter to it. I hope one day you are fortunate enough to appreciate the magic that is Michael Scott & the rest of The Office cast.

    • Brock

      Somebody’s PMSing….

    • Dave

      So you watched 6 episodes of the show that aired back in 2005. Yeah, no one cares about your opinion then, Kimberly.

      • Jordan

        Well said dude :)

      • Cameron J

        Ironically I’ve seen 5 or 6 episodes through the years and I think the complete opposite, but technically if that makes my opinion any more valid that speaks volumes, eh?

    • gerald

      . I’ve watched most of the show’s run and enjoyed much of it, but otherwise I couldn’t agree more. Michael Scott was a despicable fictional human being. He treats his friends like dirt but sucks up to those who clearly don’t like him. We’re somehow supposed to feel bad for him because it’s just so dang hard to be him, but as far as I’m concerned if your misery fails to teach you the slightest shred of humility or empathy you forfeit any claim to have people feel sorry for you. It’s not even like Carrell isn’t a great actor; the flaw was inexplicably making the whole office (and encouraging the audience to) like the petty tyrant he played.

    • Jordan

      I love how you read an article about him even though you hate him? Why would you waste your time reading an article and commenting on it if you can’t stand him? I mean come on.

      I loved the episode and I will miss Michael Scott :( He was a great character and was a lot of fun to watch :)

    • Brian Wallace

      I agree with Kimberly. I actually really liked the first two or three seasons of The Office. After that it turned into a cartoon. However, I never liked the Michael Scott character or warmed to him. Carrel never got me to believe he was an idiot with a heart of gold. He just was portrayed as a mean, bitter man who would do nice things only by accident. The creators and producers of this show have failed.


    • G

      You know it’s just a tv show, right?

  • bbq

    I have never been a steady viewer of The Office (American version). However, the best part for me was the Michael Scott character because – and I swear I am not exaggerating – he was SO MUCH like my boss in my first professional job (except that my real-life boss was universally loathed by employees, co-workers AND his own supervisors). Those days are long over so that now I can laugh at the ridiculous, narcissistic and, yes, extremely clueless things that the Scott character said. The way he said things was also right on.

  • Alan Smith

    Michael was never clueless. He confesses to bringing everyone together by making them ‘hate the lunch lady’ — letting the air out of everyone’s tires. More recently when gifting Oscar a doll…

  • Cartman

    I’ve loved Carell’s Michael Scott character since the first episode of the American “The Office”. Really great stuff and I think Michael Scott will live on for decades in one form or another. That’s what she said, heh.

    It was a crying shame that the final episode with Michael had to include that assclown Will Ferrell trying to steal the show and put his stupid mark on it. Boo to the producer, the director, and the writers who made that happen.. shame on you for taking the low road.

  • JillZ

    I couldn’t stand the Michael Scott character when The Office first started. He was too over the top and just ridiculous to even remotely believe that someone like that could be a boss in an office. I didn’t start watching until it went into syndication, and I think it helped to see the shows – and the Michael Scott character evolution – happen back to back instead of over time. I think when we got to see glimpses of his painful and awkward childhood is when I really felt for him and understood his need to be liked and have the office staff be his family. They were paid to be there, and therefore a somewhat captive audience for him, which was the only real security he had.

  • damian

    I thought it was a great episode but I also thought that in keeping with the theme that he was cutting his time short, the show should have only been 30 min. The sub plots werent very necessary except that I now believe either Deangelo or Gabe is really the Scranton Strangler both with their unusal behavior. Steve Carrell was great, Michael Scott, almost always was great. I think it was a nice, understated send off which from everything I heard was what everyone on the show wanted.
    I have to say one last thing. No one can ever write an article about the American version of the Office without multiple people going on and on about how stupid it is and that only the original is brilliant. Feeling smug and superior because you like the British Office is so 7 seasons ago. With 30 rock, its so 5 seasons ago and with Mad Men it never happened. Honestly, if you’re using a television show to measure how much more intelligent you are, then I think you miss the entire point of intellect to begin with.

    • Not Moby

      Gabe as Scranton Strangler!?! Love it!

    • katrob07

      Damian- Love the idea of Gabe as the Scranton Strangler and this comment as a whole. I feel like any show once it has passed the 3rd season there is automatically a crowd of “tv hipsters” who say that a show is no longer funny regardless of whether or not anything has actually changed to the dynamic of the show.

      Not Moby – Love the name/reference.

      • Stanley H

        You’re dead on with the hipster comment. A seven year series has ebbs & flows in quality – last season wasn’t great, but this season was one of their best.

      • tg

        Honestly, I watched all the seasons again recently and the first three seasons are, to me, the funniest. Also, I find Dwight, Kelly and Ryan to be the funniest characters along with Darryl and Andy. Michael Scott is difficult to take on a good day, even though the show pivots around him. His thoughtlessness has had me cringing more than laughing. I won’t miss him, though I don’t feel as strongly as others.

    • Karate Pants

      Totally hoping Gabe is the Scranton Strangler, had the same feeling last night after his creepy aggressive encounter with Erin! How about Gabe gets caught strangling Deangelo?

    • hayley

      well said!

  • pooks

    Hi 5 to Damian!

  • nightlyhoot

    Thank you for this wonderful review of a character I am going to miss IMMENSELY. You hit the nail on the head. I believe Carell is the best actor in America today and am looking forward to seeing him branch out and let everybody know it.

  • MikeyNYC

    I watched the first ten minutes of the first episode of this rather pathetic sitcom and I’m proud to say I never watched another episode. I don’t know why they bother remaking hilarious English sitcoms, since the remakes are always inferior to the originals.

    • JackB

      MikeyNTYC: Really? You watched 10 minutes of the first episode and labeled it pathetic? Like reading the first page of a book and calling it bad. Not saying you’re wrong about The Office. Just questioning how your opinion has any validity with such limited exposure?

    • whatevs

      Do what you want, but why would you be proud? Who cares?

    • Alimentum

      I read the first ten letters of the first sentence of this rather pathetic comment and I’m proud to say I never read another word.

    • Paula

      Boy did you miss out then! You can’t compare the two versions. They are entirely different and you missed out on one of the best american sit com’s ever!!! I hate it when people won’t give something a chance. I call it the REM syndrome. Back in college people would say they only liked “their old stuff” and won’t give their new stuff a chance. Ultimately, they missed out. Idiots.

    • Rex

      Here’s a thought – don’t comment on articles about a series you viewed less that 1% of. Loser.

    • Chris

      Dude – you don’t know what you’re missing. I tell this to everyone – you’ve got to watch a few episodes before you understand it. The first time I watched it I was like, “I don’t get it, why is everyone talking about this show?” Now it’s probably my all-time favorite. You have to learn all the characters to understand why things are funny. Some of the humor is so subtle, and it gives the show such a high replay value. After a few years of watching the show, I went back to watch the 1st 2 seasons again, and I was laughing at stuff I never even noticed before. The writing is that on-point (at least in the beginning).

    • G

      What a shocker. Damian predicted someone would do this a few comments up.

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