The Office offers someone we can always laugh at: Michael (Steve Carell), arguably the most sympathetic asshole on television, ever.
It's tempting to think The Office has sold out. In the wake of all the acclaim and ratings, the show seemed to exchange its bitter social commentary and bleak banality for plot-driven cliffhangers and quirky catchphrases ("That's what she said"). But don't be fooled. The folks behind Dunder Mifflin are just like any hardworking corporate mentschen: they started out idealistic dreamers and ended up compromising pragmatists. Need proof? Compare the series' saggy first season with the triumphant third and you'll see a show that's deftly maneuvered through the primetime ranks, learning when to experiment and when to pander, even how to do both at the same time. Welcome to corporate America.
On the 17 May season finale "The Job", Michael Scott (Steve Carell), Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), and Karen Fillipelli (Rashida Jones) were all vying for the same executive position. While this made for some great tension, it didn't exactly ring true for Jim's motivation. He's supposed to be the guy who winks at the camera, cuing us to all the insufferable absurdity surrounding him. But, having been transferred with a promotion to the Stamford branch at the start of the season, then promoted again, he never once balked (remember how the BBC original's Tim [Martin Freeman] so graciously suggested Garreth [Mackenzie Crook] be given a promotion Tim declined?) Jim's "going corporate" changed both how we look at him and at "corporate." How to explain his willingness to sell his soul to live in a condo in Manhattan, except that it's good, old-fashioned American workplace inertia? Jim's complicity speaks to how easily we become cogs in the very wheels we despise, often without even realizing.
With such subtle character development, on paper the third season of NBC's The Office doesn't look like riveting television. Highlights included a product recall, an industry convention, even a day of safety training. But this year at Dunder Mifflin was the most satisfying thus far, with engaging character arcs and outstanding comic acting throughout. I sometimes wake up at night worried that The Office might meet the fate of Arrested Development, another show that was too good to last. The sad truth that other series have learned the hard way? It doesn't matter how smart you are if you're cancelled. And it appears the folks at The Office were taking notes, because they've gone from struggling underdog to primetime juggernaut in a single season.
There's good reason that The Office came out on top in the mainstream: it has finesse. While both shows feature documentary-style camerawork, solid ensemble casts, and nuanced storytelling, where the equally outstanding Arrested Development ultimately alienated anyone who didn't get the joke, The Office offers a more inclusive spectrum of humor. While puritanical Angela (Angela Kinsey) raises her eyebrow at her coworkers' behavior, Jim (John Krasinski) mugs broadly, exasperated with the nearly cartoonish Dwight (Rainn Wilson). The Office offers every viewer at least one character to laugh at and another to laugh with. Call it equal opportunity humor.
It also offers someone we can always laugh at: Michael (Steve Carell), arguably the most sympathetic asshole on television, ever. Thankfully, Carell's performance has matured into something less like a pantomime of Ricky Gervais' David, more his own particular lonely, self-absorbed chauvinist. Michael's complications start with the writing: he's routinely the clueless bigot, or worse, the uber-PC overcompensating bigot. Take his apologetic backpedaling when he accidentally outed a gay employee (Oscar Nunez) to the rest of his staff, insisting that it was all about embracing "gay pride," not "gay shame." Michael even attempted to console Oscar: "Did you know that 'gay' used to mean 'happy'? When I was growing up, it meant 'lame.' And now it means a man who makes love to other men." His combination of ignorance and arrogance is almost disarming. When he said, "Maybe we could go out for a beer sometime, and you could tell me... how you do that to another dude," Oscar was so caught off guard that he responded with an only slightly ruffled, "That sounds like a great, wonderful idea. Let's do that."
Michael's ability to baffle makes him a delightful foil. His icy girlfriend and boss Jan (Melora Hardin) was ostensibly a gorgeous, shrewd corporate powerhouse and completely out of Michael's league. But this season, she was stealing kisses with him in elevators and soliciting quickies at swanky company dinners, slowly revealing she had "issues" of her own. More and more, she admired and was attracted to Michael's lack of self-awareness, if only because her own was so crippling. Jan even admitted that, according to her shrink, she was better off indulging this kind of self-destruction than others (smoking, drinking, promiscuity), and so she rode her relationship with Michael to its inappropriate end: she cleaned out her desk and resolved to become his housewife in stretch pants. "This could work," she told him. It wasn't clear whether Michael realized he'd been made a patsy to Jan's rampant insecurities, but the relationship avoided every foreseeable cliché.
Also attempting to break free from conventional gender roles this season, Pam (Jenna Fischer) called off her wedding to Roy (David Denman) and moved into her own apartment, allowing her the freedom to pursue to her passion: art. Though she took some risks, such as her exhibit at a community art show, she remained blind to her own limits (see: her watercolor painting of a stapler). When Pam summoned the courage to walk across hot coals while no one was looking during Scranton's Beach Day, her emotional outpouring to her coworkers and Jim especially felt even stranger, and proved a little embarrassing for everyone.
Still held hostage by her emotions, Pam isn't nearly as progressive as she'd like to think. Furthermore, her candor, which had been built up to all season through her talking head footage, seemed a performance, a way to deliver to her presumed audience’s expectations (that she and Jim get together). But the bobbing camera (and the faux documentary crew behind it) mocked her pining for him behind her back, and showed awkward moments between her and Jim through the slats of mini-blinds. Yet just as often, the crew seemed to want to spur on the messy love triangle, asking leading questions of all three -- if only to elicit a reality-show-style cat fight between Karen and Pam.
And so, despite its peppy piano stomp of a theme song, The Office can also be deliciously mean. When frumpy Phyllis (Phyllis Smith) late in the season married refrigeration mogul Bob Vance (Robert R. Shafer), she brazenly stole Pam's wedding arrangements, down to the catering selections, without so much as an acknowledgement -- and so, more or less forced Pam to experience her own cancelled wedding, flower for flower. It was a catty and conniving thing for Phyllis to do, and pitch-perfect.
Such details, always kept at subplot level, do the real work in The Office. From creepy Creed (Creed Bratton) to the much-maligned HR Toby (Paul Lieberstein), the peripheral characters reveal the gripping sadness of office life with a wryness that is unparalleled. Now, if only Dwight’s bombast remains in check, The Office might just end up being the best show on television that hasn't sold out yet.