Feared, Loved, Ridiculed
From the January/February 2007 Issue
The British and American versions of the popular TV comedy series ‘The Office’ both debunk the authority of the boss, but in ways that distinguish the two cultures. James Bowman explains.
On the question of whether it is better to be feared than loved, Machiavelli notoriously advised his Prince to choose the former, and the Great American Boss—at least as we have come to know him in popular entertainments—has tended to agree.
The boss has always occupied a special position in American culture because he could not rely on the habits of deference to social superiors that were taken for granted in Europe until recent times. We Americans have always known what the Marxists were later to teach us, namely, that the boss occupied his position of authority on the strength of his economic clout alone—and not because of any innate superiority or divine entitlement that the mystique of honor and rank in the Old Country provided him.
Still, the boss is no more beloved in America than in the rest of the world. At best, he is like Mr. Dithers in the comic strip “Blondie,” who terrifies Dagwood with his frequent threats of firing that never come to anything and who is humanized by the fact that he himself lives in terror of his much larger wife, Cora. Also terrifying is C. Montgomery Burns of “The Simpsons,” who is represented as an embodiment of evil but whose capriciousness and inattention to his underlings’ antics render him harmless.
In one episode of “The Simpsons,” Mr. Burns is inspired by a Richard Branson–like celebrity billionaire to seek affection, but, of course, it comes to nothing, and Mr. Burns remains a lonely bulwark against the encroachments of the celebrity culture by demanding fear and respect rather than love.
Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the boss in the NBC television series “The Office,” which was launched in June 2005, asks himself a similar question. “Would I rather be feared or loved? Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” Michael is the Scranton regional manager of the Dunder-Mifflin paper company and as stupid as his words would suggest. Not only does he miss the point completely, but in doing so, he illustrates why the boss, like the Prince, should choose to be feared rather than loved. For it is his pathetic need to be loved that makes him contemptible in our eyes as well as those of his employees.
In spite of his Gordon Gecko haircut and his fine conceit of himself as a masterful businessman, Michael says he wants his employees to think of him “as a friend first, a boss second—probably an entertainer third.” He is hopeless in all three roles. The office is kept in a constant state of forced hilarity because of Michael’s manic attempts at jokey camaraderie, but everyone dislikes him except his own version of Mr. Burns’s sycophantic assistant, Mr. Smithers—the even more stupid and insensitive Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson).
“The main difference between me and Donald Trump is that I get no pleasure from saying, ‘You’re fired’,” Michael says. And when he has to fire someone, he asks an employee he’s not firing: “If you were getting fired, how would you want to be fired so that you could still be friends with the person firing you?”
In the British series, Ricky Gervais in the Steve Carell role is in some ways even more of a jerk, but he is also a more complex and interesting character, almost a tragic figure.
Michael’s inability to understand that he has no real friends makes his eagerness to please even more contemptible. Yet in spite of his dislike of being ordered by “corporate” to fire anyone, he also imagines that it will be a joke and “a kind of a morale booster thing” to pretend to fire his sweet receptionist, Pam (Jenna Fischer), on a false charge of theft. “You’re a jerk,” says Pam in tears, stating what to anyone else would be the obvious.
“I don’t know about that,” says Michael with a wink, as if even now he thinks that he has simply made a joke.
Such an extreme of stupidity and insensitivity beggars belief. Nevertheless, we find at work in the show the sitcom imperative to make even the most vile character lovable. At one point in the second season Michael even appears to induce Jan (Melora Hardin), his own scary boss from “corporate,” to sleep with him. This is a creative mistake, I think. No amount of alcohol could explain such a turn of events without a change in Michael’s character for which there was no independent evidence. Similarly confusing was the running theme of Michael’s possible homosexual interest in the office intern, Ryan Howard (B. J. Novak).
Intrigues and jealousies of the other characters offer too many diversions for the focus on the boss-as-jerk to be as pitiless as it is in the British series, also called “The Office,” on which the American one was based. There, Ricky Gervais in the Steve Carell role is in some ways even more of a jerk, but he is also a more complex and interesting character. As Dave Brent, he is not merely a fool but a fool desperate to prove he’s not one.
Indeed, Dave’s desire to be thought “an entertainer” and a man of sophistication and intelligence is not based on mere ignorance, but on some degree of recognition of what those qualities are without the ability to grasp them himself. He almost rises to the level of a tragic figure, as his buffoonish American counterpart does not.
The near-tragedy becomes apparent in a hilarious but touching exercise in literary criticism when Dave attempts to take apart Sir John Betjeman’s 1937 poem “Slough.” Slough is the town where Dave’s company is situated and a long-standing joke in Britain largely because of this poem, which begins, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough.” The poem conveys an aristocratic contempt for the suburban and commercial classes who, in the 1930s, tended to ape the manners and tastes of their social betters.
“The stinking cad” whose profits were among the targets Betjeman’s bombs would have destroyed was presumably a businessman, like Dave, but a man “who’ll always cheat and always win” and who is thus hated for being too good at his job, and not hopeless at it like Dave.
Thus, when Dave goes through the poem line by line, missing every nuance, every irony, every allusion, and proceeds to pronounce the poet to be “overrated,” there is a triple failure: 1) to understand that it is Dave and his kind who are the objects of such snobbish contempt, 2) to understand the terms in which that contempt is conveyed, and 3) to be worthy of that contempt since Dave is a loser, not a winner.
While the American boss is undermined by his insensitivity and abuse of power, his British counterpart suffers an extra blow from being socially and culturally maladroit in a world where manners can still be more important than power and wealth.
He is equally uncomprehending of the civil, business, and professional culture of which, as boss, he is presumably meant to be some kind of leader. In one episode, for instance, he makes a mention of the classic World War II film “The Dam Busters,” in which the hero has a dog named “Nigger.” But, adds Dave hastily, “it’s not racist. That was before racism was bad.” There is a sort of magnificence to such obliviousness, and the show constantly appeals to us like this over Dave’s head, flattering us with the assumption of our familiarity with a culture from which Dave is shut out, as much by breeding and education as by stupidity.
Mr. Carell’s Michael is also oblivious to his own boorishness, but the element of cultural background scarcely arises. He will never have heard of Sir John Betjeman—or possibly of poetry itself—and would have no interest in the fact if he were told that someone had written an insulting poem about Scranton. In his self-delusions as a boss, a friend, a comedian, and a man of the world, he is so far isolated from reality that we lose any of the sympathy that might otherwise arise from his falling short of his self-defined standard.
But Dave Brent is always seen, by himself as much as by us, against the backdrop of the culture he tries and fails so utterly to live up to. He reminds us that the British boss is still being compared to a quasi-aristocratic forebear. Both shows debunk the authority of the boss, but where the American boss is undermined by his insensitivity and abuse of power, his British counterpart suffers an extra blow from being socially and culturally maladroit in a world where manners can still be more important than power and wealth.
The American version of “The Office” is broadcast on NBC Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. eastern standard time. The first two seasons of both the British and U.S. versions are available on DVD.