Last week's series finale of "The Office" reminded me of one of the show's smaller, but to me most interesting running jokes: is Kevin "retarded"?
Kevin is an utterly ordinary-looking guy … somewhat overweight, balding, dressed professionally but forgettably. His voice is kind of slow and deep, which contrasts with the childish enthusiasm with which he often expresses himself. And his enthusiasms always seem to involve basic, uncomplicated pleasures … cookies, M & Ms, his recipe for chili, and occasionally the prospect of female companionship. He also frequently misses the point of things, and the overall impression is that he is either unusually dull-witted, or possibly that he is in fact a high-functioning cognitively impaired man.
For much of the series, the question is implicit but not stated … and carefully left unanswered, maybe unanswerable. Then Holly Flax joins the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifilin as a new manager. With just a hint of mischievous prompting from Dwight, she fully assumes that Kevin is impaired, and we all cringe as she openly treats Kevin the way a semi-enlightened, well-meaning, and a bit klutzy HR Manager would … with a cringe-inducing mixture of encouragement, condescension, and forced normality. We sense right away that Holly's got it wrong somehow but how wrong is she really? Do we cringe because she is mistaken, or because she's so blunt and unselfconscious about it? Would her condescension be any more or less appropriate whether Kevin was "retarded" or not?
Later on in the series, the writers seem to weigh in, making Kevin even stranger, and occasionally implying that he really might be cognitively impaired. For instance, there's a scene where it appears that Kevin doesn't know the alphabet. Yet, there are just as many, if not more hints throughout the series that he'd just slow spoken and a little weird.
It's all funny, and as with most of the humor on "The Office", it's funny because it's 1. familiar, and 2. based on embarrassment. Whether or not Kevin the character was ever intended to be "retarded", he causes us to ask the same uncomfortable questions we do in real life. What is cognitive impairment? How are we supposed to act with people who have it? How is it different from just being "stupid" or "strange"? Is it okay that we're even thinking about it? If we really wanted to know, who would we ask? How would we ask? I think we are laughing at Kevin, but also at ourselves, because we feel foolish and dumb about the whole thing, and we can all remember being in situations like this in real life.
We're not sure, and we're not sure that if we were sure, what difference it would make. We want to know for sure. We feel we shouldn't want to know. But we really do ... you know ... want to know! It reminds me of another sitcom for the ages, "Seinfeld", where the characters, after vehemently denying that they are gay, compulsively add, "Not that there's anything wrong with it!" I think we are definitely at a similar stage with cognitive impairment. We are mostly enlightened, but only mostly.
By the way, while I was searching in vain for a clip of the first Kevin and Holly scene, I ran across this blog post from some sort of Human Resources Guru:
"That's what she said!" - May 22, 2008.
There's also a running poll on this question at at website called Fanopop - "Is kevin retarded?" And, I found another YouTube clip not worth sharing, but with the awesome title, "Kevin is NOT retarded!"