Mrs. Carlson owed a conglomerate of companies, of which WKRP was only a floundering part. She was ruthless and tyrannical. Almost everyone was afraid of her – even those who weren’t were cautious about her. Where Jennifer charmed people into doing what she wanted, Mrs. Carlson intimidated, humiliated and demeaned them into it.
She’d groomed her son, Arthur, to be so weak that she could manipulate him any way she pleased (although Arthur made the weakness into gentleness, thus redeeming himself). The episode that best exemplified just how nasty she was started off with a new ratings book that showed the station had significantly improved. As the staff celebrated, Mrs. Carlson decided to turn the station to an all-news format. This effectively put most of the staff out of a job and decimated their sense of accomplishment. Finally, Johnny Fever discovered what she was really up to: she was using the station as a tax shelter. It had to keep running at a loss to offset the rest of her corporate gains. She was sabotaging the station.
Now, she could have told the staff, “I’m sabotaging you for tax purposes – it’s a business decision, deal with it.” Nope – she handles the situation in a way that maximizes everyone’s sense of failure – including her son’s. Her actions indicate it’s not just a business decision – she actually wants to spite people. Why? Who knows? Maybe she’s jealous of the little family they’ve formed – it’s apparent she can’t form bonds with her own child, let alone colleagues. Maybe degrading others elevates her own self-esteem. she’s just damaged goods.
Whatever her problem is, I’ve met people – men and women – like her. They enjoy hurting people, for whatever reason. To me, there was nothing stereotypical about this woman: she was realistic, and I only wish there were few of her about in real life.
She was also a helluva villain, something writers seem to have inordinate trouble creating in females, for no apparent reason. She was underhanded, mean and sneaky. Perhaps part of what made it work was that we never got the reason why she was like that. And who cares? Whatever made her that way, it was her choice to continue to behave that way.