The Tube: Carell vs. Sheen

Steve Carell’s decision to leave The Office in April, after seven marginally-rated but well-Tivoed seasons, has surprised the entertainment industry. Its producer, Paul Lieberstein, hopes that the show will continue even after Carell graduates to the full-time big screen roles, but I’d rather see it pink-slipped, and not because it’s outlived its creative potential or degraded its TV legacy.

In truth, The Office was never that creative. A remake of the BBC’s unsparing and morally complex original, its American version feels defanged by comparison. Despite garnering awards for its writing and acting, it reeks of the supposed middle-class values that the Sitcom was engineered to reinforce. For example, characters on the show repeatedly and unrealistically turn down big-time job offers because they’re happy where they are.

Carell has for several years been a perennial nominee and occasional winner at the Emmy awards. Each year, though, I’m rooting instead for Charlie Sheen of The Office’s funnier and more refreshing hit-sitcom contemporary, Two and a Half Men.

Now suffering the consequences of a turbulent personal life, Sheen, like Carell, finds his future in Sitcom-Land in question. Men producers are fighting tooth and nail to defend him, but Sheen still has media insiders speculating: Will he get fired or walk away from his million-dollar-a-week gig? Or will CBS executives stand behind him and keep their Monday-night Nielsen gravy train running?

Created by multi-millionaire college dropout Chuck Lorre, Sheen carries the show with the charm of a guy who is better than you and knows it. Two And A Half Men scores with every obvious punchline and second-hand two-act machination. It gets big ratings, makes big money and it’s funny because it’s fun.

Sheen’s character, Charlie Harper, doesn’t pretend to be someone he’s not and he could care less if “nice” people like him. He goes through life without imposing moral judgments on others or subscribing to any himself. His sitcom glorifies the lifestyle of a high-earning bachelor at the comedic expense of his uptight chiropractor brother. It’s a loud, garish, lowbrow, punk rock Republican repudiation of middle-class, self-effacing humility.

The Office, meanwhile, is written from the perspective of Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), a workaday Everyman, married to a sweet local girl, grinding out a sales job in his hometown and raising a family in his childhood home. He gives the show’s faux-documentary cameras a knowing wink at appropriate intervals, when one of his more interesting co-workers exhibits eccentricity or ambition. Eighteen to 49-year old viewers get the hint and they, in turn, get to smirk at the oddballs right along with him.

In fashioning Halpert as the show’s self-comfortable protagonist and vilifying the upward mobility of corporate climber “Ryan Howard” (B.J. Novak), Office writers draw for the series a clear ethical viewpoint. Frustrated, talented young urban professional longing to escape the Chili’s and Target grind? What a jerk. Guy who looks and acts like your freshman-year Resident Advisor? Humble-minded hero.

The Office has always been a typical codification of small-minded suburban strip-mall values. Critics who praise the show for its stylistic originality might as well dole out sexual liberation awards to teenage girls who bare their midriffs before marriage. Verite-Lite camerawork can’t distract from what The Office fundamentally is: a 22-minute ode to smug, bourgeois self-satisfaction.

Considering that The Office cast and crew read like a Who’s-Who of effective Gen-Y personalities (most of the cast members are distinguished improv-comedy veterans or Ivy League graduates who log double-duty on the writing staff), the show’s thematic viewpoint rings false. B.J. Novak, for instance, leapt from middle-class Newton, Mass. to The Harvard Lampoon and a high six-figure Hollywood income. Now, as “Ryan,” he’s a swaggering asshole jester, selling out every like-minded nerd who ever felt bad because he couldn’t just suck it up and sigh his way onto the honor roll.

That Men counts fifteen million viewers to The Office’s seven and a half has long agitated critics. They cite this viewership disparity as yet another harbinger of the decline of public taste. Maybe they’re right. But maybe, instead, it indicates what television executives have long understood, and what critics fail to grasp: TV viewers don’t like to be judged, and the 21st-century American consumer is becoming increasingly odd, often sharing the ambitions, vanities and eccentric behaviors that Two and a Half Men so sloppily congratulates.

The Office, by contrast, boasts a sharply-written, well-structured narrative universe in which middle-class caricatures smirk at each other for getting out of line. The status quo reigns supreme and the normal guy gets the girl. It is a smart kid’s labored reconstruction of the way they think we live and a misguided testament to the humbler-than-thou virtues we supposedly espouse.

With network’s two biggest sitcom stars gravitating away from the small screen, it might be appropriate to label this a benchmark phase in sitcom history last rivaled by the mid-2000’s, when Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, Frasier, and Drew Carey all simultaneously closed the book on sitcom’s Golden Age. But, in considering the departure of Carell and the possible axing of Sheen, I can only bring myself to care about the latter.

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