Here is a truncated list of inappropriate things that Michael Scott has done to his staff this season on The Office:
• egged Toby’s house; publicly given him an award for being despicable; yelled at him “You bitch! You can’t help people. You couldn’t help your marriage”; other daily tortures
• been so overcome by jealousy that he interrupted Andy’s performance in Sweeney Todd with boos, and other petulant behaviors
• lied to Dwight about recommending him for a job
• crashed Jim and Pam’s child’s baptism; called their child a “b-i-t-c-h”
• humiliatingly force-fed Kevin broccoli
• had a temper tantrum at Gabe’s apartment because he felt his authority was being threatened; his poor behavior included being rude to Gabe, throwing pizza dough, destroying everyone else’s ability to watch Glee
• regularly disparaged Phyllis about her age, even though they went to high school together
• tried to keep Darryl from getting his due credit for an idea
So why are all of these people serenading him on the occasion of his departure?
Yes, the Michael Scott of season seven of The Office is slightly less boorish than the Michael Scott of season two. He has matured over the course of the series — and especially this season, thanks to having found his soul mate, and, of course, having to wrap up his story arc. Michael loves his staff like they are family — they are his adopted family; that’s the show’s essential premise — but he still remains capable of remarkable acts of insensitivity, which is, and always has been, an integral part of his character. Michael is not, and has never been, perfect. But as Michael Scott, Steve Carell has been nearly so. And over these last few valedictory episodes of The Office, Steve Carell and Michael Scott have gotten conflated. In the world of the show, a lovable buffoon is moving to Colorado; in reality, a beloved TV star is going to make movies. Only one of these guys is getting the send-off he deserves.
There were two moments in which this has been most clear, wonderful though they were: the candlelit proposal scene with Michael and Holly, and last week’s heartwarming rendition of Rent’s “Seasons of Love.” Both were bravura scenes — sweet, tearjerking, momentous. But they don’t really make sense in the world of Dunder Mifflin. (For a solid take arguing that they do, read this Alan Sepinwall piece.)
First, the engagement: Right up top, it’s doubtful that the entire staff would unite to help him stage a beautiful, candle-strewn proposal, considering that he’s ruined every employee wedding that he’s been begrudgingly invited to. But then, after hearing the news that Michael is moving to Colorado, the entire staff looked stricken. Now, much later, after great reflection, Angela, Oscar, Toby, Phyllis, and Darryl, to name a few, would maybe feel a little bittersweet about Michael leaving. But would that be their first reaction? From no-feeling Angela, perma-exasperated Oscar, tortured Toby, marginally less-tortured Phyllis, and Darryl, who doesn’t sweat the small stuff? Doubtful. Even if you interpret their looks of shock as surprise, not pain, where are their jokes? This is Michael! He may be more competent than he once was, but he’s still borderline incompetent and a daily aggravation. All it would have taken to make this fit in with the show’s history and character development are a few well-placed quips acknowledging that Michael’s leaving could be an okay thing, or that it’s really only horrible because it upsets the beloved status quo. (As the Dunder Mifflin–ites said in the Timothy Olyphant episodes earlier this season, they most want things to stay the same.)
And then there was the serenade. Would some of Michael’s colleagues care enough about his departure to put together a performance of “Seasons of Love” to honor him? Okay, we’ll go with it, even though the staff has always hated group functions and up until this episode seen Andy Bernard’s a cappella stylings as a joke. But would Stanley, who wants to do the absolute minimum of office bonding and has long-brewing authority issues with Michael? Would the recently slighted Dwight, who holds a grudge the way only an unhinged beet farmer can? Would Toby, whom Michael has abused, season in and season out? Probably not. Would it have greatly undermined the sweetness of this scene to have some people sit it out, or perform it grudgingly? Not at all — but it would have excluded the actors from saluting Steve Carell in the sweet and public fashion he, if not Michael, deserves.
What does it matter, one might ask, if these moments aren’t really in keeping with the characters. They’re so sweet! They’re so fun to watch! We’ll miss Steve Carell, too! When Jim tells Michael, “What a great boss you turned out to be” tomorrow night, just episodes after the entire office has spent a ruined day hunting for him like one would a lost child, we’re gonna tear up! Who cares if the show forgoes a little consistency?
Well, how’s this: The Office is a show about how people who don’t like each other need each other. The British Office mercilessly explored the patheticness of this circumstance, whereas the American Office has largely explored its surprising benefits. These people may not like each other, but they do love each other, and at least one of their number — Michael Scott — has become a better man because of the rest of the group’s begrudging affection and guidance. If Michael is a more thoughtful, competent person than he was at the beginning of the series, it’s thanks to his employees’ kindly and unkindly meant exasperation and put-downs, their critiques and eye rolls, their jokes and enforced patience, their calm steering and angry explosions. If Michael Scott is in a position to go off and make himself a good life, it’s because their scathing regard got him there. It would be fitting then, if they kept at it. The ribbing, the annoyance, the heavy sighs, the outrage, as much as the sweeter signs of affection, have been instrumental in making Michael cut his crap down to just occasionally wanting to set the parking lot, building, and probably himself on fire. Steve Carell may be leaving, but Michael Scott’s not perfect yet. They shouldn’t give up on giving him shit now. It’s not the nice thing to do.