Why Michael Scott had to change

I’ve been watching a lot of The Office (US) recently. I got Amazon Prime a little while back and to my happy surprise, all nine seasons of the show were included in the subscription. I had watched the 12-episode UK edition of the series some years ago, when I was perhaps a little too young to appreciate some of the more adult-oriented humour and sober moments of Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of general manager David Brent. Between seasons two and seven of the US edition of the show, Michael Scott – Brent’s wackier US counterpart played by Steve Carell – remains consistent in his traits and idiosyncrasies. However, in the show’s first season – its weakest but most salient to the evolution of the character – Michael began his journey as a distinctly unlikeable character. How such a rude and incompetent dolt rose to a position of power within the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, and kept his job as supervisor despite numerous foibles and disrespectful incidents is anyone’s guess.

The six-episode first season of The US Office – developed by Greg Daniels, a veteran writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons – attempted to recreate the look and feel of the UK original. Scranton branch manager Michael Scott embodied everything Brent did – a hilariously inconsiderate, pessimistic, borderline-incompetent individual, the comic palette of whom was founded primarily on black (or dark) humour, with a dash of the early makings of cringe comedy. The show received a mixed critical response upon its initial release in 2005 and, according to director Paul Feig, “If it weren’t for Kevin Reilly at NBC liking the show so much, it would have been cancelled.” The tanking ratings said it all: Michael Scott had to change.

Season one Michael is a caricature; he’s a sleazy salesman at a used car dealership. His superficialities – the gelled-back “balding” hairstyle, the tight collar to make him appear overweight, the loose-fitting shirt, the shiny scalp – all serve to make Scott appear a more wicked and nefarious character. Only when the writers acknowledged Michael’s unlikeability could they craft a character that actually played to the show’s strengths. By its second season, The US Office begins its departure away from the things that defined the UK original; we even see a subtle cinematic change in the brightening of the previously dull office lighting. The first change the producers made was that of how Michael presented himself. He returned with new hair, a new wardrobe, and a smile. This more handsome regeneration was likely a result of Carell’s lovable lead role in the previous year’s The 40YearOld Virgin, but it was also supposed to endear him to audiences again.

The opening season of the show was also extremely light on redemption for Michael. The closing moments of perhaps the show’s most infamous episode, ‘Diversity Day’, frankly leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. Michael makes a racist joke to customer service rep Kelly and she slaps him for it. Everyone knows Michael’s in the wrong and he’s left embarrassed in front of his colleagues. Paul Feig points to the ending of season two’s ‘Office Olympics’ as the “turning point” for the character. By the end of the episode, Michael’s in a very emotionally raw state as a result of mistakenly purchasing a condo with a 30-year mortgage. He and Dwight walk in on the First Dunder Mifflin Olympiad, organised by Jim, which comes to an abrupt end, but Michael’s colleagues agree to award him the gold medal for closing on his condo, an act that appears to reassure him in his decision. “That was the defining moment,” Feig notes, “Here’s the humanity in Michael Scott that might not have been there before.” The writers wanted audiences to leave their sofas with a smile.

A bigger glaring issue, the producers believed, had to be causing the show’s poor reception, however. One of the first season’s funniest gags was Michael drinking from a “World’s Best Boss” mug. We all knew Michael sucked at his job, and the writers knew that too. Michael needed to actually be the world’s best boss, and it’s my belief that the season two episode ‘The Client’ is a direct response to this criticism. Michael is still Michael, the same bumbling idiot from the first series – he interrupts his meeting to call Pam, he makes repeated comments about his boss’ divorce, and he derails conversation for seemingly hours – but ultimately, he closes the deal. This approach would continue in subsequent seasons of the show, such as when CFO David Wallace calls Michael in for managerial advice or Michael’s semi-successful leadership of a competing paper company. Michael’s ability to get results affords the show the leverage needed to warrant his more comic antics.

A writers’ room pact remedied the final, and perhaps the most significant flaw in Michael’s character. The show’s producers wanted it to go above and beyond the original’s two seasons, creating characters that the audience cared about, so we cried when they ultimately left the show – even Michael Scott. The way they did that was to have every character and every story be 10% nicer to Michael. He still loved and lost, got fired, rehired, even replaced, but his leadership and success meant that we were always on Michael’s side. The introduction of a love interest for Michael in the form of Holly Flax sealed the deal. Real love made us care for Michael and when it was ripped from him, we felt it too. Michael Scott became a character that, despite his shortcomings, we cared about.

So the question ultimately becomes why did the UK Office succeed in its original format while the US remake failed? Of course the question of whether the British edition of the show succeeded is a matter for debate, but it did spawn a number of specials and David Brent’s character is undeniably, for better or worse, ubiquitous in modern British pop culture – going so far as to star in his own spin-off movie. Although director Paul Feig mentions that “American audiences don’t like ‘mean’,” I think architect of The UK Office might have the whole answer. In an interview for Big Think about writing for British and American audiences, Gervais notes, “The big difference is, Americans are more optimistic; and that’s due to the fact that Americans are told they can become the next President of the United States, and they can. British people are told ‘it won’t happen to you’, and they carry that. They carry that with them.”