Leslie Knope vs. Michael Scott

27/05/2011 § 2 Comments

I am a big fan of both The Office and Parks and Recreation, although the former was quite a disappointment this season.  The two shows are quite similar in style, in that they both focus on office humor, both make use of the “mockumentary” style of filming (which appears to be all the rage for all comedies on TV right now), and both focus primarily on the boss character.

In spite of these differences, P&R is vastly superior to The Office.  I think the main reason for this is due to how the character and dynamic of Leslie Knope differs from the character and dynamic of Michael Scott.

In the first place, Leslie is directly subordinate to Ron Swanson (who is played the hilariously deadpan Nick Offerman), which means that her harebrained schemes and plots can be kept in check.  She also trusts Ron as a confidante, which helps to keep her grounded.  Also, as Ron made clear in the season three finale, he has known Leslie a long time, and can read her pretty well.  As such, Leslie has the same capacity for trouble as Michael Scott, but is unable to exercise it because Ron reins her in.

Michael, however, is the highest man on the totem pole at Dunder-Mifflin, and his closest superior is in New York.  There is no one to restrain in the same way that Ron restrains Leslie, so he often does incredibly stupid things. The only thing that can restrain Michael is social shaming, to which he is impervious up to a certain point.  His theatricality knows few bounds, as does his sense of propriety and social normalcy.  The lack of restraint enables him to do things that make for good cringe humor.  He is not malicious, to be sure, but he is socially clueless, and does not have anyone to keep tabs on him.

The differences in dynamic is important because it helps ensure that Leslie is eminently likeable, whereas there are occasions when one can’t help but wonder why people even bother to put up with a jackass like Michael Scott.

Furthermore, Leslie is eminently likeable.  She has a certain sweetness about her, as evidenced by the way she cares for her friends and coworkers.  The way she plans a celebration for Ron’s birthday is the result of knowing Ron for a long time and making the effort to do something spectacularly special for him, and only him.  And the way she helps Andy get his life together also evidences her genuine care for him.

Michael, in contrast, uses his coworkers to feed his own ego.  In both “The Gay Witch Hunt” and “The Convict,” Michael Scott goes out of his way to exploit the personal lives of his coworkers to make himself feel important.  With the former, he uses Oscar’s gayness as a way to show to the office how open-minded he is as a manager.  With the latter, he uses Martin as a way of showing the office that he’s not racist. Nearly everything Michael does is for himself.

The irony here is that both and Michael and Leslie treat their office mates like family.  The difference is in motivation:  Michael’s treatment of his employees feeds his narcissism and masks his insecurity while Leslie’s concern for her coworkers is genuine and heartfelt.

Of course, the difference between these two characters is partly due to the roles they play on their respective shows.  Michael Scott would be drastically out of place at the Pawnee Park Department.  Likewise, Leslie Knope would be out of place at Dunder-Mifflin Scranton.

Even so, Leslie is more enjoyable to watch because she seems both nice and real.  One watches Michael for the same reason one watches a car wreck:  One simply cannot help but watch.  Both characters and both respective shows are funny, but only one provides a sense of warmth:  Parks & Recreation.  That feeling of warmth is due to Leslie Knope.

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§ 2 Responses to Leslie Knope vs. Michael Scott

  • Mike says:

    I think one important difference you left out is the issue of Michael’s private sector to Leslie’s public sector. Public figures have a knack for winning the hearts of people. Perhaps the politician in Leslie is what’s charmed you about her? Just a though.

    • Simon Grey says:

      Perhaps, although a lot of private sector leaders have won people’s hearts as well (think Lee Iaccoca, eg.). To me, though, I think the difference is in how the characters are written. In season 1 of P+R, Leslie’s behavior is textbook Michael Scott. She merely existed as a plot device (and frankly, Michael Scott existed primarily as a plot device, which is why it’s hard to sympathize with him). In season 2, though, the writers made a point of humanizing Leslie, which is why it was easier to like her.

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