Michael Scott is a much more sympathetic character than David Brent, his British counterpart on the The Office television shows. Or maybe that should be a less unsympathetic character. I’ve before commented that Scott was two-parts annoying and one-part creepy and Brent was one-part annoying and two-parts creepy. Scott is obnoxious, but Brent is slimy. American audiences don’t do as well with that kind of character, so we got a version slightly watered down with sugar-water. Besides, if we’re going to follow characters around for 100+ episodes over five or more years, we need help chugga-lugging down what might otherwise be digestible in the 12 half-hour episodes and movie special in Britain.
In any case, one of the things that I’ve heard at least a couple people say about Scott (both in comparison to Brent, though it can be said in comparison to Dwight Shrute as well) that he is obnoxious and immature, but basically harmless. I don’t entirely agree with that assessment.
The things that you have to ask yourself about people when assessing how dangerous they are to you is “What do they want?” and “How much do they want it?” With Dwight Shrute, what he wants more than anything is authority. This may make him a more transparently problematic person, but as with Brent at least you can see it coming. The problem with Scott is that what he wants is what we all want: to be loved, respected, and admired. The disquieting part is the second question. How much does he want it? Pretty much to the exclusion of anything else. Honor, morality, friendship, and romantic love are all subordinate to the desire to be included and admired.
The most telling scene with Michael Scott was when he was showing a video of his younger self on a kiddie show of some sort. He is asked what he wants most from life and he says it’s to get married and have 100 kids so that none of them could decline to being his friend. One of the saddest scenes on television pretty much ever.
Frankenstein’s Monster said something along the lines of “I am a monster because I am in pain.” Whenever I run across someone either in real life or in entertainment that has an emptiness in their heart, it makes me very wary.
Michael Scott’s younger years are never spelled out and though he likes to talk about himself he doesn’t really do so in honest or accurate terms, so we’re left to speculate. Nonetheless, it seems relatively apparent to me that Michael hasn’t just been hurt by what social rejection almost certainly took place in his past, but rather that he’s been scarred by it. I see within him a certain darkness in his soul where the part of him that is loved and accepted should reside. That’s not to say that he is completely unloved and unaccepted as his mother seems to love him (if not respect him) and Dwight functionally (if not earnestly) respects him, but it’s clearly not enough.
That’s the crux, for me. That’s the part that drives Michael Scott to be as obnoxious as he is. I don’t see Michael as, once having the love of a wife and the respect of some friends, becoming complete and satisfied. The people I’ve known that have been like him are often more than just missing something, but rather have hunger that is never really satisfied. Michael Scott is quite possibly warped by his own experiences and determined to be satisfied with nothing less than the impossible. People that are this way may be pitiable, but more than that they are dangerous. To become their friend is to in a sense feed a monster.
The monster isn’t Michael himself, but rather his insecurities and his need to be accepted. Give him what he thinks he wants and he will simply try to turn it into more. At your expense, if necessary.
The see the dark side of Michael Scott, you simply need to look at how he treats those whose approval he doesn’t need. It’s a relatively small group, to be sure, but it’s there. His atrocious behavior towards Pam’s landlord is an example. She is not young and not particularly attractive and so she is useless to him. He is nice enough to Dwight only when Dwight has something to offer him and is rather contemptuous the rest of the time. With the exception of her wedding, which I’ll get to in a minute, he is pretty consistently rotten to Phylis. Michael was nice to Phylis at her wedding and Kevin during the cancer scare, but his niceness only existed insofar as to draw attention to himself. Otherwise, they’re dead to him. Meanwhile, Ryan and Jim are useful to him because he admires them and Stanley, Darryl, Kelly, and to a lesser extent Oscar are useful to him because they reinforce his self-perception as a paragon of tolerance and understanding. Pam is invisible except insofar as she is pretty.
Nobody that is familiar with the show doesn’t know the above things about Michael, but it’s easier to overlook them. We pity him and we laugh at his ineptitude, but I think that we can sometimes overlook how toxic such people can be. You’re not even a person to such people but rather a positional lever. Subconsciously, I think he has the Groucho Marx philosophy that he wouldn’t want the earnest friendship of anyone that would sink so low as to want to be his friend. Once he is loved and accepted by a woman given time he will likely aim for more reassurance and look upward.
Despite all this, I have a great amount of sympathy for the character. The same sort of sympathy I have for stray animals and more recently homeless people. I feel terrible for their problem, but the second you involve yourself they become a problem for you. You can try to help homeless people and animals by donating to charities that get involved. Too bad there’s no such charity for giving the Michael Scotts of the world love and acceptance.