The eternal relevance of Michael Scott from 'The Office'

Steve Carell's now-legendary character is emblematic of a generation that manufactures voices to drown out the silence in their heads

March 06, 2020 09:27 pm | Updated March 07, 2020 01:49 pm IST

Funny bone: A still from The Office

Funny bone: A still from The Office

In my teens, the medical sitcom Scrubs had convinced me that the easiest way to make friends was by becoming a young doctor. In my head I was J.D. (Zach Braff), a cool narrator-protagonist who turned hospitals into a hoot. In my early twenties, How I Met Your Mother felt like a natural extension. Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), the Manhattan-based architect who constructed his emotional core from a series of hopeful heartbreaks, was my spirit animal. But then came my late twenties. And with it, the social media boom – and the crippling epiphany that public validation is a heady drug.

Curating an image

Everyone who grew up wanting to emulate a Ted, Raymond, Frasier, Phoebe or Rachel now had the power to be those characters for a live audience. I could choose an identity, curate my image and edit out the vacuum to broadcast a life at odds with my awkwardly introversive personality. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I then took to The Office, a workspace mockumentary centered on a boss who is essentially the human manifestation – and bittersweet critique – of today’s digital culture. In many ways, Steve Carell plays Michael Scott as a social media tragic: A person so obsessed with putting on a show for strangers that his performative personality ends up revealing his inherent loneliness and tone-deaf ignorance. Our undying affection for the so-sad-he’s-good regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company’s Scranton Branch stems from the uncomfortable truth that Michael Scott became our spirit animal while we were busy making other plans.

Michael was a good salesman because he viewed every client as a potential friend whom he sold his image to. Most of us project an inflated version of ourselves online, but the second we sign out – the second Michael reaches home after work – there’s a void that no camera is advanced enough to examine. The bedroom looks empty, the dinner cold and the stillness, punctuated by the clinking of cutlery. All we can do is think of the hits our casual-yet-elaborately-composed Insta stories might garner the next day, or the tasteless prank that might provoke Toby without pissing him off. And then wait, till the sun rises so that the lens can make us feel seen again.

Michael Scott is emblematic of a generation that manufactures voices to drown out the silence in their heads. But he is so spectacularly bad at it that almost every self-loathing adult – beneath a cult-like reverence for Carell’s role – subconsciously views Michael Scott’s counterfeited extroversion as a cautionary tale. He is the worst-case scenario for the modern introvert. For instance, I routinely panic before entering a room full of people. I rehearse my greetings and expressions. Then I imagine what Michael would do. He’d burst in, accidentally offend everyone and overcompensate for his desolate weekends by being the centre of attention – and the butt of all jokes without even knowing it. So I do the opposite: I abstain from eye contact, stand in a corner and whip out my cellphone to declare how allergic I am to human beings. In doing so, it escapes me that I become the Michael Scott of my own little universe: the centre of attention without even knowing it. Only, my camera captures me avoiding the gaze of other cameras.

Staying real

The most memorable scenes of The Office unfurl when Michael Scott stops trying to make them memorable. Take the episode where none of Pam’s colleagues attend her art exhibition, but Michael barges in before closing time. He rushed to get there, even sincerely appreciating her amateur work, moving Pam to tears with his unassuming gesture. Or Michael’s last day, where Pam rushes to the airport to give him a final hug before he boards the plane. Their goodbye is private; neither know that the cameras are still rolling. Or even the time Michael testifies against his own volatile girlfriend, Jan, in her lawsuit deposition against Dunder Mifflin. These are rare moments in which Michael Scott isn’t performing – because none of them happen in the office. They happen when he unwittingly affects, and becomes a part of, others’ timelines. He doesn’t recognize his own virtues because validation for Michael – he of the friendless childhood and broken family – is something that has to be actively earned rather than passively evoked.

Recently, after a Twitter spat, I left the house to get some fresh air. An hour later, I received a phone call from an old friend. Stuck in traffic, he spotted me playing with stray dogs down the road. It made him smile and make that elusive phone call. But we didn’t meet after that. He went back home. I went back online. Blissfully unaware that other plans are what happen to us while we’re busy making a spectacle out of life. Deep inside, it’s a slippery feeling. But in the words of Michael Scott: That’s what she said .

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