The Office

In 10 years of reviewing film and television for various publications, no comedy has given me as much pleasure as The Office. The British sitcom’s six-episode premiere season (2001), currently airing in the US on BBC America (and also available in the UK on BBC Video), offers a near-perfect balance of dead-on social observation and gut-busting farce.

Still, despite the “universality” of its themes — the soul destruction of mindless work, the grim hell of cubicle culture — I suspect that The Office isn’t for everyone. Its humor is as dry as vermouth; next to it, the Dilbert comic strip is The Man Show.

If that sets off warning bells for you, try gauging your response to this line of dialogue from Episode Four, in which the zombified employees of a paper supply company, “Wernham-Hogg,” endure a deliriously tedious all-day training session. The management consultant charged with steering the proceedings proposes a trust-building exercise, in which employees share their ultimate fantasies. After offering up his own (“To have my own island”), the consultant turns to buffoonish branch manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais, also the show’s co-director and co-writer), whose response, quoted verbatim, is as follows:

“Depends what you mean by ‘ultimate fantasy’ because… time travel’s actually impossible, so there’d be no point in wasting… Yeah, well, if you’re, if you’re talking about anything that could or could not be possible, actually, you know, anything that could be conceived of, to, to happen or not, within my realm, you know, ah, then probably some sort of everlasting… life, you know, I, I don’t mean a sort, just a spiritual, sort really in any sense, I mean actually to experience the future, and live, you know, on and on and on, you know, know what it’s like to live forever.”

Now envision this line delivered in total earnestness, doubled by a full complement of deadpan reaction shots. Maybe you’ll gag, or maybe (like me), you’ll be on the floor before the words “time travel” even escape from his lips. To my mind, within the space of that one impossibly protracted, repeatedly contradictory, and utterly meaningless sentence, Gervais (aided incalculably by his infantile affectations and exquisite comic timing) crystallizes the show’s profound achievement. In David Brent, he and co-writer Stephen Merchant have created one of the most thoroughly original comic figures to grace the small screen since John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. He synthesizes all of the repellent qualities of the modern corporate mentality while remaining a fully recognizable, all-too-human being.

Though too spineless to deserve the label of tyrant, Brent is a frighteningly familiar type of supervisor: utterly insincere and self-absorbed, utterly convinced of his workplace reputation as, in his own words, “a funny man and a great boss.” To illustrate his accessibility, he makes dreadful jokes of the “walk this way” variety; when he feels the need to assert his exceptionality, he coerces his employees into competing against him in rigged trivia contests. (In the middle of a “pub quiz,” Brent receives a call from his father’s caretaker; he interrupts the report about his dad’s mental deterioration in order to ask the caller if he knows who sang “In the Summertime.”)

Brent can’t resist the temptation to insert himself into any situation that will show him in appealing light. The joke is that he ruins every chance he stumbles onto, then digs himself even further into an abyss. He explodes with a tasteless crack, or is called on to deliver on a promise he had no intention of keeping. He laughs it off. Once he realizes the folly of this tactic, he begins to stammer and mince, twisting language into Gordian knots. Eventually, his voice evaporates, his mea culpas barely audible, and he sulks off with his remaining molecules of dignity in tow.

The Fawlty Towers comparison is, therefore, particularly appropriate. The premise that animated the earlier program (with its delusional, yet somehow sympathetic protagonist engineering a spectacular social death in episode after episode) is almost certainly an inspiration for Gervais and Merchant. Many American viewers will more likely associate The Office with the This is Spinal Tap brand of “mockumentary,” for there is (for reasons never clearly explained) a documentary crew following Brent’s every move at the Wernham-Hogg branch office.

The camera itself is thus one of the series’ most capable supporting players. Its presence encourages Brent’s hysterically self-serving monologues on subjects ranging from his management philosophy to his “charity work” (“five Fun Runs in two years!”). The fly-on-the-wall trope is even more significant for providing The Office with its distinctive, uncomfortably naturalistic style.

By dwelling on the temps morts of the workplace, the awkward attempts at communication, and dreary efforts toward self-preservation that characterize waking life for so much of the world’s white-collar wage earners, The Office rejects the setup-development-payoff gag structure that defines the sitcom genre. In fact, the jokes that sound the most like jokes typically yield the weakest laughs.

Correspondingly, the most immediately striking aspect of the show’s style may be the ever-present silence. This aesthetic choice is absolutely antithetical to traditional U.S. television, which relies on continuous noise as the guarantor of the TV viewer’s sustained attention. (There are currently rumors of an American network remake of The Office; certainly the first casualty of the translation will be this very quality.)

To this quiet end, most of the transitions between scenes are static images of garden-variety office monotony: shots of workers staring slack-jawed into space, stifling yawns, overlaid with nothing but the ambient noise of hard drives and vacuum cleaners. Even the conversations and monologues that comprise the “action” of the program are punctuated by agonizing pauses, at times emanating from Brent himself, as he tries to stammer his way through a piece of characteristically tortured logic.

More often than not, it’s Brent’s captive listeners who are struck dumb, and the “camera crew” are his co-conspirators in stifling employees’ self-expressions. The one exception is Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a superb study in low-stakes toadyism, who rarely passes up the chance to educate the viewer on his two favorite subjects: absurd survivalist scenarios (the fruits of his three-year stint in the Territorial Army) and his close “friendship” with the boss.

At the opposite end of the office food chain from Gareth, and the show’s clearest “victim” of the climate of repression enforced by the omnipresent camera, is Tim (Martin Freeman), an undermotivated Gen X-er who dreams of going back to school to study psychology — and of courting the office’s soft-spoken receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis). Played to hangdog perfection by Freeman, Tim would seem to be the program’s not-so-secret hero; the outpost of sanity within the asylum, towering above his fellow drones in his capacity to effortlessly outwit dimwits like Gareth (naturally, the nemeses’ desks are placed side by side) and to tolerate Brent.

But Gervais and Merchant don’t let him off the hook, either. Tim’s ultimate capitulation, his willingness to squander his abilities in the sales world, only diminishes him in the eyes of Dawn (who in turn is in desperate need of some motivation herself). The story of Tim and Dawn — which comes to a crisis point in Series Two — is the tragedy of The Office, a romantic subplot as evanescent as the paper goods their co-workers peddle. The romance between David Brent and himself, on the other hand, represents for Wernham-Hogg (and Gervais-Merchant) a resounding, unqualified success. Give them your business.