Is a kinder, gentler Michael Scott the key to Emmy?

Steve Carell has one more chance to win Best Comedy Actor at the Emmys; he’s nominated for a sixth consecutive time for playing paper company manager Michael Scott on NBC’s “The Office.” He left the series in April to pursue his burgeoning film career, making him the sentimental favorite to finally prevail, but will Emmy voters like Carell any more this year than they have in the past?


Carell is certainly well liked in the TV industry. Like another repeated Emmy also-ran, Hugh Laurie, Carell has won a Golden Globe and a Television Critics Association Award, and though he has never won an individual SAG Award for his performance – Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock“) has dominated SAG’s Comedy Actor category for the last five years – he has been awarded twice for Best Ensemble along with his “Office” cast-mates.

But Emmy judges have never responded well to Carell, and it’s no wonder. He often submits sample episodes in which he plays Michael at his most obnoxious. For his first nomination in 2006, he submitted “The Injury,” in which Michael whines about burning his foot in a George Foreman grill while employee Dwight (Rainn Wilson) shows symptoms of a concussion following a car accident. Many thought he had a chance two years later with the episode “Goodbye, Toby,” in which he meets future love Holly (Amy Ryan) for the first time, but throughout the episode he mercilessly ridicules poor, unassuming Toby (Paul Lieberstein), the company’s human resources representative, whom Michael hates for no good reason. Last year he submitted “The Cover-Up,” in which he hires Dwight to stalk his girlfriend, whom Michael suspects is cheating.

The problem for Carell is that so much of the show’s humor is based around Michael Scott’s ineptitude. When he submitted more sympathetic performances in “Business School” in 2007 and “Broke” in 2009, they proved not to have the necessary heft to defeat competitors Ricky Gervais (“Extras”) and Alec Baldwin, respectively.

But this year Carell has his best chance ever thanks to his episode submission, “Goodbye, Michael.” It’s Carell’s final episode, in which Michael bids farewell to his staff and has a tearful moment with Jim (John Krasinski) before leaving the company to join fiancee Holly in Colorado. It’s fifty minutes long, full of humor and sentiment, and it’ll remind voters that this is their last chance to award Carell for this role.

Many wonder if he should instead have submitted the previous episode, “Garage Sale,” in which he proposes to Holly, but appealing to voters’ nostalgia was probably a wise choice; Michael J. Fox won this category in 2000 by submitting his last episode of “Spin City,” and Sarah Jessica Parker finally won Best Comedy Actress in 2004 for the “Sex and the City” finale. But it’s not a foolproof tactic: Martin Sheen never won Best Drama Actor for playing President Bartlett on “The West Wing,” despite submitting the series finale for his seventh and final nomination.

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Playing unlikable characters often but doesn’t always hinder actors at the Emmys. James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”) and Michael Chiklis (“The Shield”) won for playing sociopaths, and this year Margo Martindale is expected to win Best Supporting Drama Actress for playing the ruthless matriarch of a crime family on “Justified,” but those are larger-than-life roles played with emotional gusto. Hollywood loves awarding that kind of flamboyant performance, big-screen or small, perhaps because it’s like voting for “Macbeth” over and over again.

Playing Michael Scott, alas, does not have the same cachet. When he is unlikable, he alienates voters instead of calling attention to Carell’s acting chops. Perhaps that is the inherent risk of comedy as opposed to drama. The TV Academy frequently honored the man who played Tony Soprano, but lowly Michael Scott gets no respect.

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