Michael Scott: From caricature to character

Very soon, Steve Carrell will leave The Office, and the good folks at Dunder Mifflin won’t have Michael Scott to push around anymore. When that happens, television won’t just be losing one of its greatest characters. It will also lose one of the few who started off as a caricature and made the difficult transition to a character. That’s a sad thing became it will mean losing one of the few characters who we can laugh at and care about at the same time. It seems fitting then to take some time and look at how the writers on The Office pulled off that feat and to ask what writers might learn from it.

First, a matter of definitions: characters are the principle actors. They appear to be “real” people. They have “real” problems to solve. Caricatures are exaggerations. They look real, but usually they exist mostly to be the butt of the joke.

Sitcoms are full of caricatures, and eventually, those caricatures hurt the show. Even the best sitcoms suffer when they use too many caricatures. For example, 30 Rock, one of the better shows out there, has trouble with the number of caricatures on the show. Very quickly, those caricatures lose their value. Kenneth the page seems to exist on the show only to make jokes about hicks and people who love TV, and really there are a finite number of times you can make that joke before it just seems mean. Many of the characters who play the writers and actors on TGS also suffer from the same limitations. As a result, the show focuses mostly on story lines with Jack and Liz and the rest of the cast becomes zany caricatures to populate subplots or complicate the two principal characters’ lives. Over time, even Jack and Liz suffer as characters because the stagnancy of the rest of the characters forces them into becoming stale and static. Liz Lemon should have learned long ago that Tracy Jordan is going to always do something stupid and Jenna Maloney is going to do something self centered, but she continues to fight the same battles over and over again with the same tactics. This stagnancy explains the cycle of new characters that the show has brought in over the past few years since there are only so many times that a caricature’s obstinacy can be used as an excuse to advance a story line without killing the show.

It’s not as if 30 Rock isn’t aware of this problem either. They try to put in episodes to develop the other characters. They’ve had story lines focusing on Kenneth the page, Jenna Maloney, and Lutz, but those story lines usually fall flat, because you can’t simply ask the audience to feel sympathy for a caricature when most of the rest of the time you treat them as a joke.

That’s why any writer (television or otherwise) ought to study The Office.

When the show came over from England, I doubted whether the show would be able to find long term success. The original BBC show features a cast of almost exclusively caricatures, led by Ricky Gervais’s character David Brent. They were hilariously funny, but as the show continued on, the writers escalated the craziness of most of the characters, building around only one real storyline, a star-crossed romance between two of the office workers, Tim and Dawn. In total, the BBC got 14 episodes out of the concept, two 6 episode series and two Christmas specials. While many clamored for more, the show runners made a wise choice to end the show when they did because they pushed the concept about as far as they could.

The American version of the show seemed to be setting itself up to be a clone of the original show.  The show was also set in a paper company, swapping the name Dunder Mifflin in for Wernham Hogg. The first few seasons of the show revolved around Jim and Pam, whose great chemistry mimicked Tim and Dawn’s. Around them, the show put a crazy cast of caricatures, even copying the decision to cast a mix of comic actors and real people to give the show the same documentary style as the original model. The craziest of those crazies was Michael Scott, the American David Brent.

Not surprisingly, the first season of The Office in America drew the series’s poorest ratings. Had that copying continued, it’s likely that the show itself wouldn’t have lasted more than two or three seasons, perhaps ending with a finale episode Jim and Pam finally getting together. Yet the show is in its seventh season and still going strong, in terms of both show quality and ratings. The show’s writers wisely chose not to stretch out the Jim/Pam romance over the course of the whole series and wrapped that up early. Now, Jim and Pam have not only gotten married, but they’ve also had a baby together, and the spotlight of the show has shifted away from them.

The show’s lasting success comes from how it turned the caricatures of the British series into the characters of Dunder Mifflin. Michael Scott started out as a David Brent clone, accidentally offending minorities, insisting that people like him, and incompetently conducting office business as if it was there simply as a stage for a bad stand up comedy act. But over time, Michael has become someone the audience cares about while at the same time remaining someone we can laugh at. Because of that, The Office has offered up great television.

Last Thursday’s episode was one of their greatest, and the writing in it deserves to be recognized as some of the smartest they’ve done. In it, Michael proposes to his girlfriend, Holly, setting up a bittersweet send off as the two of them move off the show. The climactic moment of the proposal is simultaneously romantic and humorous. To set it up, Michael walks Holly through the office pointing out the spots where their love flourished. Before opening a door to the break room, Michael tells Holly that it is here where their love faces the greatest test, opening the door and revealing the entire staff holding candles and lined up in two rows. Michael walks Holly through the two rows and as he does, members of the office ask Holly to marry them. To each, she refuses. This set up offers the opportunity for Michael to deliver clever one-liners in a subtle and understated way. Passing through all the staff and reaching the area of Holly’s desk, which is covered in candles, Michael tells her that this is where they fell in love, and getting down to one knee, he proposes. Intercut into this scene is a shot of the shades of the annex opening up to reveal the entire staff watching. At that moment, the heat from the candles sets off the sprinkler system, drenching the kneeling couple, creating that cinematic rain effect that Michael would have planned if he had thought of it. When Holly accepts, the camera again shows the smiling faces of the office staff who share the moment.

The moment feels appropriately perfect and climactic, yet it’s worth noting how much went into making that moment feel the way it does. The over the top set up of the moment fits the caricature of Michael Scott the show started off with. It’d be easy for it to feel silly and contrived, but it doesn’t. Part of the credit for that is due to Carrell’s performance throughout the show. Carrell doesn’t play a brainless idiot; instead, he plays an idiot who is self aware of his own shortcomings and earnestly wants to do well. But just as important is the way that the writers set up the show.

The writers of The Office succeeded where others fail. What started off as a show full of caricatures became a show filled with characters. And they accomplished that because they focus more on developing the relationships between characters than they do on developing the characters quirks. At the same time, they’re able to have quirky characters because none of the characters in the show treat the other characters like caricatures, even when they’re doing something that might ordinarily label them as such. For example, in the proposal episode, a scene opens with a shot of Pam buying coffee. She spies Michael out of the corner of her eye spreading gasoline on the ground. Pam runs out to see what he’s doing, and when Michael asks her to light the match for him as he has gasoline on his hands, she agrees only to be able to grab the gasoline and matches and put them a safe distance away. Then, she walks back over to Michael to find out that he had intended to write “Will you marry me?” on the ground as a proposal to Holly. Pam is thrilled by the news of the proposal, yet still alarmed by the extreme plan which likely would have resulted in several car fires. She encourages Michael to come in side and rethink his proposal.

The playing out of the scene introduces three points of character motivation that are crucial for the success of the final scene of the show: Michael wants to marry Holly, he wants to have a comedically gigantic proposal, and the rest of the office is thrilled for him. Most writers would have no difficulty with the first two of those motivations. It’s easy to show someone wants to propose, and if you’re just going for laughs, well, you can do a lot with a gasoline can and matches. However, many writers would accomplish the second motivation through the use of a caricature. It’s easy to imagine this scene starting with a shot of Michael in the parking lot pouring out gasoline. Pam would come out and attempt to stop him. Played that way, the scene overplays the craziness of the idea. As such, the scene would show an idiot starting a fire and a nagging co-worker attempting to stop him.  However, because the scene starts with a  shot of Pam, she becomes the central figure, and we see Michael’s actions through her eyes. We take in the fact that she is excited by the news but concerned that the proposal is done in an appropriate way. The ultimate proposal ultimately feels less contrive because it involves all on the staff and because it channels Michael’s zaniness into something that appropriately shows his enthusiasm and earnestness.

Fans of the show will recognize Pam’s intervening on Michael’s behalf as a common theme. Indeed, Pam is the perfect character to use in this situation because she has been the character all along who sees Michael as someone worth caring about. And because she cared, the audience learned to care.

It remains to be seen how long The Office can continue to be a great show without Steve Carrell. However, the show’s writers have given fans a lot of reason to be optimistic. By focusing on developing relationships instead of characters, they’ve transitioned several caricatures into characters, adding to the emotional weight of the show and creating reasons to care about the show. Over the past few seasons, other characters have taken on a more central role in the show, and often those characters started out as caricatures as well. Ed Helms’s character, Andy Bernard, stands out as a primary example. Other characters, such as Erin, Kevin, Oscar, and Phyllis, could easily fall into the caricature trap, yet all of them are successfully incorporated into more meaningful and earnest story lines because the writers never have any other characters react to them as caricatures. At the same time, the show does have a few caricatures who remain caricatures, Ryan, Kelly, Toby, and Creed, yet the writers place them into increasingly minor roles in the show.

Many creative writing classes have students write a character sketch. Perhaps that’s why we get so many sketchy characters on television. Instead, we should tell writers to focus instead on how much of a character is really created that character’s interactions with other people. In other words, if you want to create characters that people care about, you need to create caring people around them.


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Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

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