Michael Scott, a Character Worthy of The Sopranos

The Office (US) is a brilliant show.  The creators somehow managed to develop an entire office full of characters with truly unique styles of humour.  From the completely uninvolved, possibly homeless Creed to the sarcastic, always moody Stanley.  Their unique personalities become highlighted when they each respond to the same question from the documentator (to write about a character you have to think like that character) in unique and hilarious ways.  Yet despite the hilarity there is always a feeling that there is more going besides the laughs.  The fact that the show is filmed in the style of a mocumentary, and the absence of a laugh track are probably partly to blame for this.  But I think the main reason for this is that characters do things and it isn’t always apparent why.  Like the best of dramas, The Office challenges its viewers to discover why a certain character did a certain thing.  The fact that we are viewing the world through the eyes of a character in that world only serves to enhance this; the characters will try and hide things from the documentator and we aren’t privy to all of the information we would be privy to if our view was not that of a character in the show.  This is especially apparent in the characters’ interviews, where we have to remember that they are not talking to themselves but to a character in their world, as such they are not always completely truthful.  A very long preamble, not entirely necessary, to say that I think the creators did a very good job in the genesis of Michael Scott.  Through learning about his past, we come to understand why he acts the way he does in the show.

We discovered some things about his childhood in “The Birthday Party”, that his parents were divorced and that his mother remarried.  There is a reason that the creators went out of their way to tell us that about him, it explains almost all of his very odd and awkward behaviour.  Beneath the bad song parodies and female suits, Michael Scott is simply a very insecure person, and the creators attribute this to his parents’ divorce, when the most secure foundation in anyone’s life is shattered.  We really see how much his parents’ divorce haunts him in “The Deposition”, when Toby tries to comfort Michael by talking about his parents’ divorce.  Michael responds by looking at the camera very uncomfortably and pushing Toby’s tray on the floor.  Like anyone driven by insecurity Michael seeks security; security represented by relationships with others.  We learned in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” that what Michael wanted when he grew up was to “be married and have 100 kids so I can have 100 friends, and no one can say no to being my friend”, this pretty much sums up what drives him throughout the show.  A brief important point to mention from “The Birthday Party” is that Michael says that when his mother remarried it was up to him to fix it.  Unfortunately his idea of fixing it was yelling at them as he came down the aisle at their wedding.  This shows how he may have blamed himself for his parents’ divorce and sees himself as solely responsible for creating secure environments for himself, a fact which becomes apparent soon.

Fastforward to the present, Michael is the regional manager for Dunder Mifflin Scranton, unmarried and without very many close friends.  However he is head of an office, and seems to view this as his family (as he says in “The Deposition”), deriving some security from this.  Look at how upset he gets when members of that “family” are taken away, in “Branch Wars” or “Weight Loss” for example.  Yet being the boss puts him in a very uncomfortably salient position, and requires him to do some things that might offend people and create tension.  This is of course very painful for someone who wants a harmonious environment where everyone likes him.  Think back to when he almost fired Creed (I doubt Devon would have been as funny) or when he had to get rid of their health care plan.  And so he is forced to make stupid jokes which he thinks will break the tension, and ensure that everyone likes him, this is alluded to in “Survivor Man”.  As a side note, this sheds some light on why he hates Toby so much, since he stops Michael from doing many of the inappropriate things he feels compelled to do to ease his anxiety.

To highlight the fact that his oddities are a result of his position in the office we hear several times about him being a good salesman, who was promoted to a position his personality doesn’t compliment (Jan says something close to this in “The Deposition”).  As a salesman, outside of the spotlight of being the one in charge we can assume that his insecurities didn’t take over and he was able to be more of himself, instead a version of himself multiplied by fifty to alleviate his anxieties.  In “Money” we get to see how well Michael Scott got along with his fellow workers when he was just a regular employee.  When he talks about the Die Hard series, mentioning that in the first three Bruce Willis was just a regular guy, but in Die Hard 4 he is “jumping a motorcycle into a helicopter”, he is actually talking about himself.  We also get a glimpse of Michael as a normal guy in “The Client”, where he does an excellent job of pitching Dunder Mifflin to a client, reprising his salesman role.

Part of wanting to have a lot of friends and be popular seems to entail, in Michael’s mind, seen as one of the cool kids, who the other people in the office will then necessarily like.  Presumably part of the reason he makes his jokes is that he thinks people in the office are going to say “wow look at that guy in a fat suit, he’s so cool!”.  There are many times he does things that are very strange and even at times mean, just because he thinks that is the way cool people act.  For example his choice of ring tones, such classics as “My Humps”, he thinks that it’s a cool song.  We also see how he would like to be viewed through his interviews with the camera, constantly spinning things and reinterpreting them to maintain an image as a cool, hip guy.  Whether he actually sees himself in this way is doubtful, but we get a glimpse into his mind, his was of rationalizing things to himself.

This effort to be one of the cool guys also explains the way he interacts with Jim, Ryan and Pam, who he sees as the cool kids of the office.  He is desperate to be friends with them, from his efforts with Ryan in “The Fire”, to writing a goodbye poem to Pam in “Weight Loss”, to even calling Jim his best friend in “The Convention”.  He of course wants to be close to everyone in the office, but being close to these “cool” people reinforces the view of himself that he tries to hold.  What is even more interesting is his relationship with Dwight, who he puts down in front of others to maintain his image of himself, but is very close to when they are alone.

So the flow of ideas goes like this, Michael Scott wants security, he gets this by having a secure environment, this comes about by having the people around him like him, this means being funny, making sure no one hates him (reducing tension) and doing anything to make himself looks cool.  Unfortunately, ironically, interestingly (there are many possible words to use here) it is his efforts to have friends that often precludes that from happening.  All of these tendencies are amplified to the extreme because of his position in the office, resulting in the lovable goof we see every Thursday night.   It is a real shining achievement of the show that things like giving a bird a funeral, filming oneself in the Pennsylvania wilderness or buying an iPod to impress Ryan (when there was a $20 limit) make perfect sense within his character as a whole.

Also, I didn’t really know where to fit this in, but his desire for a secure family environment also affects his relationships with women.  We see numerous times that he jumps into relationships head first, becoming too heavily committed too quickly, doing things like photo shopping himself into a family picture of Carol’s in place of her husband (“Diwali”).  It also explains why he considered ignoring what Jan did to him, and being a father to her baby.

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