The Office

Christopher Sieving

The humor [of 'The Office'] is as dry as vermouth; next to it, the 'Dilbert' comic strip is 'The Man Show'.

The Office

Airtime: Thursdays, 9:30pm ET
Cast: Steve Carell, John Krasinski, B.J. Novak, Jenna Fischer, Rainn Wilson
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: NBC

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.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.