In between campaigning for a pre-posthumous beatifying for Posh and Becks and secretly hoping for Prince William to slip and sprain his knee, the Brits managed to produce “The Office,” an unassuming name for a television show – the second season of which was just released on DVD – that almost completely redefines television comedy. Creator/star Ricky Gervais and co-writer Steven Merchant use a single camera mockumentary format that time and time again feels more honest than docudrama analogues. This style allows for a variety of tones to work cohesively; in any episode we get sight gags, rampant silliness, pathos, longing, painful drama, uncomfortable moments and, ultimately, uniquely unidentifiable characters.
Gervais plays David Brent, the man in charge of the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg paper merchants, where, in more ways than one, “life is stationary.” Brent is the sort of hapless goof that American television is brimming with, but whereas those characters exist merely as sketches and straight men, Brent is living, breathing and lonely. The first season showcased his ego as he endearingly spat out lines like, “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying to those of us that do.” Preferring to be well-liked than to be a good boss, he doesn’t have the skills necessary for either.
In season two, Gervais revels in Brent’s mediocrity and his hopeless attempt to play counterculture while slavishly abiding by company policy. The downsizing of the company’s Swindon branch brings new underlings and new boss Neil to the office. Neil’s popularity brings out the worst childishness in Brent, and when he finally breaks down and drops the charade of confidence it’s hard to watch, even among other cringe-worthy moments.
Brent gets the screen time, but Martin Freeman as Tim is the show’s protagonist. Amid a slew of characters that have compromised themselves to purgatory, Tim seems constantly poised to take a risk for a better life. These flirtations toward a return to school and a potential psychology degree find opposition from Brent, whose valorizing of white-collar existence becomes a running joke. Tim’s other dream is to win the heart of receptionist Dawn, who shares his amusement and distaste for team leader Garreth, a committed innocent who reveres Brent and possesses a painfully funny, little birdlike face. Dawn is engaged to a brutish warehouse worker, but her desire for Tim creates an emotional chasm across the tiny office, longing looks getting sucked into mundane repetition. Without revealing too much of the plot, if you watch the show in reference to Tim, the ending becomes strangely satisfying.
“The Office” is a show in which so much is working beneath the surface. Aggression and sexuality, removed from the sterile desk-job setting in order to increase efficiency, seem to flare up at random moments. During one such incident in which a pantsing takes place, Brent looks as if he’s in Lord of the Flies, pouncing on weakness during a rare chance to share an experience. This whimsy is taken away soon after, when his powerful higher-up, Jennifer, comes down from headquarters and verbally castrates him in front of Neil. These ups and downs push the narrative to a place that is hardly comedy.
An American remake of “The Office” is now in production and, given historical evidence, it will be watered down, which is sad because no one needs to hear these messages more than the only industrialized nation with a rising hourly workweek. Given the lack of homes with BBC America, it makes sense that the show would fly under the radar, but it’s almost cowardly that no major network picked it up. The accents aren’t overly gruff or mumbling, and the few British references actually play better when they’re unintelligible to foreign ears. They demonstrate the sort of awkward water cooler talk that goes on when people aren’t made to feel comfortable discussing anything more than pop culture. In essence, network executives think we would get antsy without site-specific markers to assuage our newly globalized but still xenophobic pea brains.
During a training meeting, Garreth inappropriately asserts that his fantasy is two lesbians, sisters, and he’s just watching. My equally unlikely fantasy is that you will all prove those slimy U.S. television execs wrong by renting or buying this DVD free of ads (well, only one) at your local retailer.