The Office

Monday, September 30, 2002 by

It would be particularly interesting at this point in time, I think, to be able to flick through some back copies of Radio Times from 1979 and have a gander at what sort of comment the second series of Fawlty Towers was creating around itself. Not having that special retrospective luxury I shall have to merely assert with a blind confidence that I bet it was as nothing compared to the general mania that has surrounded the second series of The Office.

It is difficult to recall the last time a sitcom attracted so much interest in the media. Peter Kay’s recent second series of Phoenix Nights gained a healthy amount of coverage to be sure but, pointedly, pieces on that particular success story almost always managed to include some kind of reference to the first series of The Office. It was as if being broadcast in the same year made it mandatory for the two to be compared against each other, or rather for Phoenix Nights to be held up to comparison with The Office which has somehow managed to become the new gold standard in the genre.

I say somehow, but this is not a part of the inevitable backlash that will surround The Office and its progenitor Ricky Gervaise at some point in the near – probably the very near – future. I enjoyed the first series of the show and have anticipated the second batch of episodes keenly, as have most of the civilised universe, if the press is to be believed. And enjoy the first episode I did but not in the same way that I took to its predecessor last year when it seemed original, smart and relevant as well as funny. The Office series one was an accomplished exercise in character study and dealt well with plot with a good deal of straightforward comedy to hold it together. The Office series two, if the first part is a pointer to the remainder of the run, is to be an exercise in embarrassment more than anything else and it is difficult to see how that can be sustained across six episodes.

Before the programme even began the stage was set as the continuity announcer warned us that we should be prepared to feel the ground swallow us up. We were not to be disappointed on this score as, true enough, I spent much of the show looking at the ceiling, or through my fingers at David Brent – Gervaise’s character – delivering his excruciating speech to the new arrivals in the eponymous office, or trying to wriggle his way out of having told offensive jokes and so on. If this was the object of the programme, as it seemed to be, then it succeeded triumphantly. But is it enough to make a successful comedy out of? To refer back to Fawlty Towers for a moment; it had its fair share of laughs derived from embarrassment, but these nestled comfortably alongside healthy doses of slapstick, barbed one-liners, observations and plain buffoonery to sustain it. The first series of The Office had much of this also, for along with the moments of cringing agony there came the laughs associated with the episodes in the disco and the pub quiz all strung together with a particularly keen sense of observation (or perhaps it is unkind to compare any show to the genius of Fawlty Towers, but the hype rather demands that this show be considered at home amongst such lofty peaks.) None of this broader comedy seemed on offer in the first part of series two.

There seemed to be little sense that any of the characters had developed either, all seemed almost exactly the same. True enough that “in real life” people may remain largely the same but then this is not “real life” and something new is required to maintain interest (even though within the show’s chronology only a period of weeks had elapsed since the end of the first series). The greatest advance in any character was handed to Tim. About to leave office hell at the end of the last series to return to University he seemed to have sold his soul to promotion here in the present day, which was quite a shock as he had been the character the viewer was supposed to actively like from first time around: the sane man in a world gone mad. To see him developed into just another office shit was a surprise and it raised hopes of a new turn for the plot. When would redemption come for Tim? Well, about 10 minutes in when he showed that he was just the same good ol’ fun lovin’ chancer he had always been after all, which was rather a shame.

Meanwhile every other character left over from the first series seemed to be still in exactly the same place – and clothes and haircuts – as when we left them. The stagnation of the players is one thing, the dilapidation of others is something else. Gervaise’s character seems even more idiotic than he was before which begins to present problems of its own. How does someone so patently incompetent and clueless become a senior manager in any kind of firm? Surely that cannot have been Brent’s first time making a speech welcoming a new intake or addressing a gathering of employees? For a show that takes reality as its theme this seems rather anachronistic.

Unfortunately it would appear that the team behind The Office have forgotten much of what made the first show such a success and managed to dismiss the formula that lead to that BAFTA, the possession of which has been trumpeted from the rooftops. Curiously, a show which spawned a million water cooler moments has distilled itself into those moments only and seems to understand itself purely through the recollection of those people who have recounted such moments back to them. It has become a show that does precisely what has been expected of it but nothing more and the expectations are not a true reflection of the actual programme itself. The second series would, so far, appear to be doomed to be a caricature of the first rather than an expansion upon it. Where Phoenix Nights 2 was able to develop a plot across six episodes – admittedly to not quite the effect of the first series – and develop its characters accordingly, The Office has thus far failed in this (although admittedly we’ve only seen one episode so far) and has seen some characters even lapse into cartoons of themselves. Hopefully, now that the characters have been introduced to the army of viewers who were not present first time around, we will see some movement in the right direction over the coming few weeks as it would be a shame to have another original comedy series descend into mediocrity and lend even more ammunition to those tired old lags who would forever have us believe that sitcom is dead.

I’m optimistic, but then I’m also basically just a chilled out entertainer.


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