Steve Carell is having well-deserved accolades showered upon him for his performance in Foxcatcher, and rightfully so. Carell has always been a wonderful comedic actor, but Foxcatcher is such a departure from what he’s managed to achieve in the past. I just finished watching the fourth season episode of The Office (US) this morning entitled “Dinner Party.” I’ve seen most of the seasons of the series on multiple occasions, but “Dinner Party” is probably in the top 10 of the episodes I’ve seen the most frequently, and a good deal of that has to do with Carell.
The Office was always at its best when it found that balance of uncomfortableness and the funny. While I love the six-episode first season of the series, some of the episodes were downright difficult to watch for how oppressively uncomfortable they could be. That’s why, and I don’t think I’m the first to first to say this, I believe the show’s glory days can be found in seasons two through most of four. From the stolen glances between salesman Jim and receptionist Pam, to boss Michael Scott making verbal faux pas after faux pas, be it through his bluntness and tone-deafness on topics ranging from sexuality to race, those seasons were always good at inserting something zany in the mix to cut through the discomfort. It helped the audience get past scenes that made you cover eyes, with your fingers opening to barely let you see the chaos unfold and slate faces stare back at Michael.
Carell’s acting had a lot to do with audiences being able to traverse those shaky seas of awkwardness. While it was usually Carell’s Michael who caused that very discomfort and awkwardness, it was Carell’s performance that helped you from downright despising Dunder-Mifflin’s branch manager. How Carell took the script and made Michael Scott a character to hate and pity was astounding.
For instance, while Michael’s initial man-crush on temp (and later salesman and eventually boss) Ryan when Ryan first arrived at the office might be, in part, from what he sees as “cool” qualities in the new hire, it can also be attributed to Michael reaching an age where more and more doors are being closed to him. In the season two episode “The Fire,” when Michael learns that Ryan is going to night school to get his MBA, it prompts Michael to reflect back on what he was doing at Ryan’s age, almost justifying his lack of ambition to the documentary crew filming Dunder-Mifflin’s workers so he doesn’t have to admit to regrets. When Carell interacts with B.J. Novak, who plays Ryan, you can see Michael’s reverence for the temp in just the way he squints his eyes when he tells Ryan how “effing smart” he is. At the same time, when it’s revealed that Ryan has started an office fire, Michael runs that mockery into the ground, and Carell’s dancing and singing at the news sells that push-pull between reverence and resentment of the new kid.
Of course, Michael’s awkwardness is a barrier to his relationships with others, both with his coworkers and the outside world. While it’s hinted at or outright said that the other characters have lives outside Dunder-Mifflin, the office and his job are kinda all Michael has. In season two, when Jim has a party at his apartment for his coworkers, he doesn’t invite Michael, as he feels it would be awkward for everyone. Michael catches wind of the party and crashes it, so desperate to fit in and not be alone. When Jim confides a secret to Michael in the episode “Booze Cruise,” Michael uses that secret to build a friendship forcibly from whole cloth. Carell uses these bits to their fullest, displaying a barely-contained sadness behind all of Michael Scott’s desperation and thoughtlessness.
Which brings us back to “Dinner Party.” The episode is Steve Carell in rare form; really, all of the actors are on point and bring their A-game. The set-up: Michael is dating his former boss Jan, who has moved in after being fired. After losing a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company, partly because of Michael, Jan has become even more unhinged than usual. Michael invites Jim and Pam and other couples from the office to a dinner party, which, in the current atmosphere in Michael’s condo, goes south fairly quickly. Throughout the course of the gathering, Michael and Jan snipe at each other and passive (and not-so-passive) aggressively deride one another, culminating in a verbal explosion and an appearance by the cops.
The dialogue and the plot are spot-on, some of the best of the series’ nine seasons. The folks from The Office tend not to venture off-campus very often, away from Dunder-Mifflin, and, when they do, it’s to mixed results. However, “Dinner Party” is the first time we’ve seen Michael and Jan in their natural environment away from the paper company, and it’s just as disconcerting as I imagined—more so, really, as the spectre of Jan’s unemployment and Michael’s financial woes looms over everything. Jan has enlisted Michael to set up this dinner party so that he could hit up Jim and company to invest in her candle company. We see a Jan who is desperate to matter, desperate to make things work with Michael (as he’s all she’s got), desperate to define her life outside of how she used to—that is, as a high-powered career woman. She wants to be something else, yet attain that life again at the same time on her own terms.
However, Jan is also just as controlling of Michael as she was when she dated him in previous seasons, as we see the small bench (that’s really a bench) Jan has Michael sleep on at the foot of his bed since Jan has “space issues.” And we see her slowly putting her creative touch on his condo, with hints that she’ll have the entire apartment redone. In addition, Michael reveals how many vasectomies and reversed-vasectomies he’s had based on Jan’s oscillating outlook on whether or not to have children. She is desperate to maintain control of something, which appears to be Michael.
While all of this is so uncomfortable to watch unfold, what makes viewing the chaos bearable for the audience is Michael or, more accurately, Carell. It’s clear that Michael cares for Jan or else he would have put her on the curb long ago, despite her overbearing nature. However, Michael’s reciprocating digs at his paramour depict a man who is at his breaking point, and Carell shows that slow-build throughout the episode. He smiles and grits his teeth through some of Jan’s most venomous insults, a smile that almost says, “I like her and it’s not worth the fight.” But Michael is also a grown man, a man who has let Jan invade his living quarters, and everyone has their limit. The twinkle in Michael’s eyes turns to a sad desperation and eventually full-tilt anger, and the subtle way Carell shifts that look throughout the course of the dinner party trainwreck is phenomenal.
The part of the episode, however, that shows just what Carell is capable of as an actor is when Jan mocks how Michael eats in front of the guests. There is no outburst, just a quiet anger that looks ready to explode on the proceedings. The way he quietly responds—getting up to hang up a sign in the dining room that he knows Jan despises—and sits back down tells you all you need to know about Michael’s state of mind and Carell is the one who sells that feeling. While some folks might contend that the yelling following that is what makes the episode so cringe-worthy, for me the yelling is what tempers Carell-as-Michael’s barely-contained rage. And that’s why Steve Carell is the best.
For more of Steve Carell just nailing it like a fucking boss, be sure to check out his turn in Foxcatcher.