The Office

Saturday, December 27, 2003 by

I’m a bit wary of commenting on The Office, as it seems to be one of those programmes where only people who liked it from day one feel they are entitled to critique it. As it happens, at the beginning I hated it, loathing Ricky Gervais in advance. But gradually, it began to win me over and although I’m loathe to admit it, as everyone else began to jump onto the series I also started to really enjoy The Office.

This Christmas, then, I was surprised to find that The Office Christmas specials were the only programmes over the festive period that, for me, will leave any lasting impression. They made me laugh, made me punch the air when Brent told Finchy to “fuck off” and made me warm inside when Dawn and Tim got together after all.

It would have been terribly easy to carry on down the cynical “look at Brent – what a wanker” route to the bitter end, something which in my opinion was one of the problems with the second series of I’m Alan Partridge. The fact that the programme didn’t is to the credit of – yup – Ricky Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant. The fact that Gervais has discussed Brent in the context of Shakespeare has always suggested to me that he sees him as a “tragic” character, and that means he’s made up of three basic elements – a character flaw (insecurity), a moment of tragedy (his sacking) and a moment of redemption. With hindsight then, it was obvious that there would have to be a character shift in Brent come the final episodes to secure that redemption, but the way in which it worked was still enormously satisfying and entertaining.

Brent’s realisation that the PR gigs he was doing were pointless (although I suspect in real life the post-modern student union crowd would have embraced him without any of the awkward silences) plus the juxtaposition of his character with Bubble of Big Brother 2 and Howard from the Halifax ads was perfect as far as micro-celebrity goes. It was here that his character began to become a little more self-aware, a through-line continued in the final part of the episode which saw Brent honestly discussing his failings with his blind date at the office Christmas party. Brent’s character has always just wanted to be loved, and I found it to be a truism that when he stopped trying he finally put himself in a situation where that might become possible. In any case, if anyone had missed that point, the scene where he told Finchy to “fuck off” was a wonderful piece of television. It has been said that David Brent is just a wanker but when it came down to it Chris Finch was the real thing (as indeed was Neil, who was positioned here as being properly on Finchy’s wavelength – something Brent aspired to, but never really managed). In contrast it turned out that Brent does in fact have some redeeming qualities after all, and can actually learn from his mistakes. Lovely.

I have a sneaky feeling that there are a lot of people out there who would have been happier if The Office had ended up with a more downbeat, unhappy ending, and that Tim and Dawn getting together was a cop-out. I beg to differ. In my opinion it would have been very easy, and very much expected to leave this storyline unresolved. The twist, then, was that the show chose to do the opposite and move the characters to a place I never thought The Office would go to.

But amongst all this I haven’t yet mentioned whether any of this really made me laugh. It did on several occasions, with a few big belly-laughs and a few quiet chuckles too. I loved the scene where Brent almost leaves the restaurant when he sees his second blind date, or where he tells the overweight woman he was worried that she was his blind date. Like all great comedy (and despite running the risk of being accused of surfing the zeitgeist, I do think it is great comedy) The Office is also good drama. It has a particularly refreshing view of workplace relationships as revealed mainly through Tim’s commentaries which pointed out that you don’t actually truly connect with most of these people you have to spend a huge part of your life with. An observation that must have hit home with many, surely?

Ultimately I found The Office as a whole, and the last episode especially, to be as much about how people treat each other as about making people laugh – and the fact that it also boasted a very un-sitcom level of character development was very satisfying. Basil Fawlty (the character most often compared with Brent) never really changed, or learned from his mistakes, something I have always found enormously frustrating. Similarly, in Only Fools and Horses – which has often been held up as a good example of “dramedy” – Del and Rodney never really changed, they just went through life with things happening to them. As such, The Office has redefined the standard for effective comedy that actually has something to say. It’s shown the competition just how to mix drama, comedy, characterisation and poignancy without becoming too cynical, or mawkish.


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