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The Office: The Decline of Kevin Malone

The Office’s Kevin Malone started out as reserved, if not a little slow—but then he turned into one of the most cartoonish characters of the show. Why did the writers choose to do this? Is Kevin a victim of Flanderization; i.e. reverse character development? In this video we dive into the story of Kevin’s mental decline.

TRANSCRIPT

Every character on The Office gets their chance to make us laugh. But it’s Kevin Malone who seems to exist solely to be the butt of the joke. Despite his lovability, Kevin is defined by his shortcomings—his lack of intelligence, his incompetence, his sexual depravity, and his obesity. If you look back to the Kevin of early seasons, though, he’s far from the food-obsessed simpleton who will later be mistaken for mentally handicapped. He’s a fairly regular guy who’s maybe a little vulgar and slow-witted.

As the series goes on, Kevin becomes more and more of a caricature, growing cruder and stupider, as all his worst qualities are exaggerated until they completely consume him. So why does Kevin get dumber? TV Tropes coined a term for what happens to Kevin: “Flanderization,” named after The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders—who went from the annoyingly perfect neighbor seen in early episodes, to a full-blown religious fanatic in later years. Flanderization involves taking a character’s minor traits and emphasizing them to the point of outlandishness. But while Kevin isn’t the only character to see themselves Flanderized (even on The Office itself), he may be one of the most illustrative examples of this phenomenon ever to appear on TV. Here’s our take on the

Flanderization of Kevin Malone, and what we can learn from the de-evolution of one of TV’s biggest idiots.

The Evolution of Kevin Malone

When we first meet Kevin Malone, he’s not quite the walking punchline he would become in later seasons of The Office. As one of Dunder-Mifflin’s three accountants, Kevin is primarily a foil to his closest colleagues—logical, efficient Oscar, and especially uptight Angela, whom he frequently annoys.

Kevin: “He’s got to come out sometime. [laughing] To go to the bathroom.”

Angela: “Kevin! That’s inappropriate.” - S1 E3

But for the first season, at least, the show treats Kevin like a sympathetic, if unexceptional human. The character of Kevin was intentionally underdeveloped.

Brian Baumgartner: “The character description for Kevin was: the only thing remarkable about Kevin is that he is remarkably unremarkable.”

Kevin was partly based on his British counterpart from the original BBC version of The Office, Keith Bishop, played by Ewen McIntosh. Like “Big Keith,” Kevin was designed to be little more than an oaf. He’s a dull guy who makes the occasional inappropriate remark.

It was an unusually restrained role for actor Brian Baumgartner. A veteran of theatre, Baumgartner repressed much of his natural showmanship to play Kevin. He also lowered his voice and spoke in a slow, halting monotone. But as The Office began to grow away from the British series that inspired it, over time, Kevin became a much livelier presence. Baumgartner justified the change as Kevin growing more comfortable with The Office’s faux-documentary crew.

Baumgartner: “At the very beginning, Kevin was very very nervous of the cameras being there, and as the cameras were there longer and longer, his childlike personality and unique charm was able to come out just a little bit more.”

As Kevin began to open up more, we learned he was a glutton, a pervert,

and definitely not the sharpest guy in the office. But while many of the jokes still revolved around his immaturity or his weight, there were also hints that there was more to Kevin. For one thing, he could be surprisingly perceptive. Time and again, Kevin was usually first to suspect when his coworkers were romantically involved.

Kevin: “Pam and Jim are totally hooking up. All they do is smile; they’re just keeping it a secret.” - S4 E1

He could be surprisingly athletic. He was generally sweet-natured and a loyal friend—especially to Oscar, whose coming out he accepted without hesitation, even if he couldn’t help making a few jokes.

Kevin: “Oh, hello, Oscar. How was your gay-cation?”

Oscar: “That’s very funny.”

Kevin: “Yeah? I thought of it like two seconds after you left.” - S3 E13

In those first few seasons, Kevin also had actual storylines, and it seemed like his coworkers—and the show—genuinely cared about him. Kevin had a fiancee, Stacy, and even came very close to having a stepdaughter. The show treated Kevin’s and Stacey’s breakup seriously, giving Kevin a rare moment of vulnerability.

Kevin: “After Stacy left, things did not go well for a while.” - S4 E14

For a while, at least, the show balanced Kevin’s more outlandish moments with empathy, giving his comedy a tinge of melancholy.

Baumgartner: “Half the people come up to me and they’re like, ‘Dude, that is so hilarious, I love when you drop the chili,’ and other people are like ‘I can’t watch it, it disturbs me. It’s so sad.’”

But as The Office wore on, its empathy for Kevin seemed to fade. Kevin became increasingly cartoonish. It seemed like Kevin was no longer evolving, but regressing. What was going on?

The De-evolution of Kevin Malone

As The Office passed its fifth season, Kevin’s “childlike personality” became noticeably more infantile. He went from merely dull to borderline disabled.

Holly: “He is mentally challenged.”

Kevin: “Wait, back up. Do you think that I am retarded?” - S5 E1

And while Kevin was never exactly articulate, increasingly it seemed like he had trouble speaking in complete sentences.

Kevin: “So me think: why waste time say lot word when few word do trick.” - S8 E2

He was no longer just a bad employee—it seemed like a miracle Kevin had ever been employed at all. Kevin’s mental deterioration became so pronounced that the show turned it into a self-referential joke.

Angela: “He’s always been like that.”

Pam: “No he hasn’t.”

Angela: “I mean, he’s gotten worse over the years…” - S8 E2

But while it acknowledged what was happening, it never explained why.

Oscar: “He’s making a statement. It’s an ironic comment on our expectations of him. A funhouse image of our model of Kevin.”

Kevin: “You keep think that.” - S8 E2

In the meantime, some fans even theorized Kevin’s whole persona might be just a ruse.

After all, Kevin had shown the occasional flash of genius over the years.

Kevin: “The pie shop is thirteen miles away. So at fifty-five miles an hour that just gives us five minutes to spare.”

Angela: “When pies are involved you can suddenly do math in your head?” - S9 E4

He was also an avid gambler, so he must be good at bluffing. In a third season episode, Kevin even seemed to hint that he might be up to something criminal.

Kevin: “I had Martin explain to me three times what he got arrested for… it sounds an awful lot like what I do here every day.” - S3 E9

So, some theorized that Kevin was only pretending to be stupid—to avoid hard work or maybe even to cover up some kind of criminal plot. Baumgartner doesn’t buy it. He says there’s a more pragmatic explanation to be found behind the scenes.

Baumgartner: “When Steve Carell left a couple of years ago, and the writers sort of had this pathetically dumb idea which, you know, was some, normally some big physical comedy thing, they sort of gave it to Kevin after that.”

But even before Carell’s exit in the seventh season, Kevin had gone from being a sympathetic, lovable loser to a broad exaggeration. Apart from his lack of smarts, Kevin’s overeating became his most defining characteristic. When his mouth wasn’t full, Kevin was usually talking about food.

Kevin: “Every time you buy a Big Mac you set one ingredient aside. Then at the end of the week you have a free Big Mac.” - S8 E8

Meanwhile, the other characters—his supposed friends—treated him with open ridicule.

They no longer seemed to regard him as a person. Kevin became so broadly drawn that he often no longer seemed like a real human. This loss of realistic depth in favor of flashier comedy tends to happen to any successful series that enjoys an unexpectedly long run. So we can find some explanations for what happened to Kevin by looking at other TV characters who met a similar fate.

The Flanderization of Kevin Malone

One of the textbook examples of “Flanderization” is, of course, The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders. In early seasons, Flanders’ churchgoing was just one facet of his overall nice-guy personality. But gradually, Flanders became a fanatical Christian zealot who was defined almost entirely by his religion—and the show’s constant jokes about it. Most other characters on The Simpsons have also been shaped by increasingly exaggerated gags about their most obvious traits, whether it’s Mr. Burns’ age or Homer’s stupidity. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, before adapting The Office to American TV, Greg Daniels spent several seasons as a writer on The Simpsons.

Still, the idea of Flanderization predates its namesake. The popular phrase “Jump The Shark,” the turning point when a show or work of entertainment becomes a caricature of itself, originates from one of TV’s most famously Flanderized characters: Fonzie on Happy Days, who gradually transformed from a normal, if impossibly cool guy to a magical superhuman who could do anything—even jump a shark on water skis.

The scene was a turning point for the show, similar to the one on Happy Days’ ratings rival, M.A.S.H., which Flanderized Larry Linville’s character Frank Burns, turning him from a sanctimonious jerk into a dangerously unstable moron. Feeling there was nowhere left for the character to go, Linville left the show in its fifth season.

Over the course of TV history, Flanderization has been common in long-running shows, as actors and writers seek laughs by leaning into and magnifying what audiences find funny or distinctive about a character. Kelly Bundy on Married…With Children went from sarcastic, rebellious teen to promiscuous, full-blown airhead. Friends’ Joey Tribiani, who started out at least with street smarts, seemed to lose IQ points with each passing season.

Kevin wasn’t even the only Flanderized character on his own show. Plenty of his Office coworkers gradually became exaggerated versions of themselves. Perhaps none more so than Michael Scott, who began as obtuse and obnoxious gradually lost any ability to read social cues then became stupid to the point of self-endangerment. At the same time, though, Michael was allowed to grow and The Office countered Michael’s exaggerated foolishness by increasingly drawing attention to his unique gifts.

Meanwhile, Kevin’s Flanderization robbed him of any character development whatsoever, relegating much of his life story to throwaway lines…

Michael: “You know, when I hired Kevin, he was actually applying for a job in the warehouse.” - S6 E11

… or often, to the deleted scenes.

Michael: “What do we know about him? He’s an accountant.”

Jim: “Uh, he plays guitar, he, uh, likes naval history. He’s a bowler.”

Michael: “He’s fat.” - S2 E1 Deleted Scene

After his fiance dumped him off-screen, Kevin was briefly given a new love interest.

But the show quickly abandoned this relationship as well—and once again, that resolution ended up on the cutting room floor. The deleted scenes are also where we meet Kevin’s sister and learn a little about his complicated family life.

Kevin: “We need to put Mom in a home.” - S7 E3 Deleted Scene

Leaving these moments on the cutting room floor in favor of more fat jokes might have been good for the comedy, but it was also a choice not to fully flesh out the character.

One of the main criticisms of The Office in its later years is that it became more removed from reality and that this faux-documentary about real people increasingly treated those people like, well, TV characters.

Even when Kevin gets fired at the end of the show, it’s yet another joke about food.

Dwight: “Our next and most thickly frosted cake is…for…Kevin!”

Kevin: “Yes!”

Dwight: “Go ahead and just read the frosting.”

Kevin: “Get out?” - S9 E23

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Flanderization, and many audience members might prefer its results. As TV Tropes points out, sometimes it can give a sense of personality to an otherwise unremarkable background player, and in a large ensemble comedy like The Office, making characters distinctively drawn gives everyone their moment to make us laugh.

Even within the show, the faux-documentary they’re filming turns Kevin into an exaggerated character.

Kevin: “What was that word they said when they showed me, skraldespand? What’s that mean in Danish? Cool guy?”

Oscar: “Dumpster Man.” - S9 E18

And it’s because of this that Kevin finds he suddenly has fans who are eager to buy him drinks, which he parlays into procuring his very own bar.

Kevin: “I ended up with a $16,000 credit. It was cheaper to make me a partner.” - S9 Deleted Scene

Of course, we only learn this in another deleted scene—but it illustrates how Flanderization can make a character pop.

Finally, Flanderization can also contribute greatly to a series’ rewatchability. Surely one of the reasons that viewers continue to stream The Office in record numbers after all these years is that its characters remain so reliably, recognizably the same. Today you can pull up any random episode of The Office and laugh at Kevin—no further context necessary.

Characters get Flanderized because their creators feed what audiences love and keep returning to about that fictional person. And so, many of our most enduring TV characters get stuck—which is often right where we want them.

Kevin: “If you film anybody long enough, they’re going to do something stupid. It’s only human natural.” - S9 E23

Works Cited

“Flanderization.” TV Tropes.

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Flanderization

Hood, Cooper. “The Office: Is Kevin Malone Secretly A Genius?” ScreenRant, 4 Sept. 2019.

https://screenrant.com/office-kevin-malone-genius-theory/

Craft, Kevin. “The Thing That Made The Office Great Is The Same Thing That Killed It.” The Atlantic, 16 May 2013.

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/the-thing-that-made-i-the-office-i-great-is-the-same-thing-that-killed-it/275883/