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The Eyes Have It: Steve Carell’s Best Trick

From ‘The Office’ to ‘Space Force,’ which hits Netflix on Friday, Carell’s power has always been in the tiny, subtle way he makes you feel his emotions

NBC/Ringer illustration

This is a theory, and only a theory. As such, there is the potential for a complete and utter incorrectness, because that’s how theories work. Please understand that going in. However, please also understand that many theories once considered silly, or preposterous, or even outlandish, were eventually proved to be truths. And also, please understand that many truths once considered unquestionable, or undeniable, or even unimpeachable, were ultimately unraveled entirely, like in 1598 when everyone knew that the earth was at the center of the solar system, or in 2003 when everyone knew that Season 2 of The Wire was bad. So, I mean, you get it. It could go either way, is what I’m saying.

But before the theory, some table-setting first: In the pilot of The Office, Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, the manager of a regional branch of a mid-level paper supply company, has his hair brushed back. It’s not a full-on brush back; it’s not completely committed—there’s a certain hesitancy to it, for sure. But it’s definitely there. It is, without question, a hairstyle that, were someone to ask you to describe it, you would use both the words “brush” and “back” at some point. Here’s a shot of him from that episode:

Screenshots via NBC

And that’s how we get to the actual theory, the first part of which is: I suspect that hairstyle was intentional. And more than that: I suspect that it was supposed to be a harbinger of sorts. I suspect that it was supposed to, either obviously or subconsciously, tell us that Michael Scott was intended to be at least 10 percent of a true slime ball, or possibly even a bad guy. That was the arc that his character was supposed to follow. Because that particular hairstyle—the one in which you brush it from the front to the back—is almost always used to relay that exact thing. Hannibal Lecter brushed his hair like that in The Silence of the Lambs. Gordon Gekko brushed his hair like that in Wall Street. Pretty much everyone who was in the mafia or was mafia-adjacent in Goodfellas brushed their hair like that.

Perhaps the most demarcated example of this: In 1991, Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in a movie called Double Impact. He played twin brothers who had been separated at birth. One of them, Chad, was raised in a loving household in France; the other, Alex, was raised in an orphanage in Hong Kong. Chad ended up sweet and wholesome and sincere; Alex ended up gnarly and rowdy and fond of fistfights and cigars. They looked exactly alike, which makes sense since it was just one person playing them, save for one key difference: Chad, who was good, brushed his hair softly to the side and Alex, who was bad, brushed his hair tightly to the back.

Perhaps the second-most demarcated example of this: In 1997, Keanu Reeves starred in a movie called The Devil’s Advocate. He played a small-time Florida lawyer named Kevin Lomax who gets recruited by a prestigious firm in New York. The firm is run by John Milton, a silver-tongued slickster played by Al Pacino. The twist in the movie is that not only is John Kevin’s father, but he’s also the actual and literal devil. When we first see Kevin trying a case in Florida at the start of the movie, his hair is brushed to the side, but by the time we get to the end of the movie and his life has fallen apart because Satan has put his fingerprints on John and turned him evil, Kevin has begun slicking his hair straight back.

So, again, the first part of the theory: I suspect that Michael Scott’s hairstyle was intentional. I suspect that it was supposed to, either obviously or subconsciously, tell us that Michael Scott, as a character, was intended to be at least 10 percent of a slimeball, or possibly even a bad guy. That was the arc that his character was supposed to follow.

But here’s the thing: Steve Carell has a likability in his bones that is … I don’t know … “predetermined” feels like the right word. There’s something inside of him that, when he turns it on, it scrambles everything inside of you. That’s why his portrayal of Michael Scott was so poignant, and so brilliant, particularly after the first season. It never mattered how off-putting a thing he did or said was, because all he had to do was start emoting and that was that. He’d start waterfalling emotion out of his eyeballs and suddenly—inexplicably, really—you’d forget that you just watched him assume that “Mexican” was a derogatory term or harass a coworker or yank away full-ride scholarships from a classroom of children.

It’s Steve Carell’s best trick as an actor: He’s able to weaponize those emotional eyeball bursts in a way that completely disarms you. It’s why The 40-Year-Old Virgin worked, and why he was so powerful at the end of The Big Short, and why the train scene in Last Flag Flying was great, and why, despite everything in place that was supposed to push you away from him in Foxcatcher, you still felt like you wanted to knock on his door and walk into his house. It’s also responsible for the times in his new show, Space Force, when things feel like they’re headed in the right direction. (Alan Sepinwall draws a good line in his review of Space Force for Rolling Stone, connecting the first season of The Office to this first season of Space Force.)

And that feeling is so clearly real that, just six episodes after The Office’s pilot, Michael was no longer brushing his hair back anymore. He started brushing it to the side. And the further the series went, the further to the side and the more pronounced his side part got. Here’s a shot of him in his last episode (not including the cameo at Dwight’s wedding). You can see both his new hair and also the eye trick in action:

Now, here’s the second part of the theory: I suspect that the change in hairstyle was also intentional, though in a completely different, more reactionary way. I suspect it became clear that Carell was in possession of that emotional magic he could summon through his eyeballs (he uses it the first time in The Office’s second episode, when Kelly smacks him during the diversity training, and then he uses it for a second time at the end of the basketball game in Episode 5 when the warehouse crew pressures him into saying that the office staff will work on Saturday) and so that became his new arc. The show wrapped everything around that particular weapon going forward.

Also: Steve Carell’s best trick isn’t deployed only in sad moments. He also turns it on in times of fury (like when he’s mouthing to Toby that he’ll kill him during his exit interview) and frustration (like when he grits his teeth while Angela talks about his coffee breath); or when he’s trying to be funny (like when he’s laughing into the camera after he gives Oscar a very poorly made doll as a gag gift and Oscar accepts it as a sincere gesture) or sappy (like when he realizes that everyone is about to sing him a song as a goodbye gift).

And also: We have to consider the idea that none of this was by accident. What I mean is: I mentioned earlier that, yes, his hair is brushed back in the pilot, but that there’s certainly a hesitancy to it. So, given that The Office is one of television’s sharpest, brightest, mostly smartly written shows, there’s absolutely a chance that everything was planned out that way. Someone in a writer’s room somewhere very well may have said something like, “He’s going to brush his hair like he’s a bad guy, but ultimately it’s going to change as we reveal more and more of his emotional depth.” There’s a real chance that happened.

I’m inclined to believe it was one of those happy accidents that became something bigger. I don’t know for sure, though. That’s why it’s a theory. Or a truth. But probably a theory.