Algonquin Kids' Table: The Office
Page Three

Gary Mairs - 09:11am Aug 3, 2003 PST

they're smart, they're personable, they're educated and funny -- and they all work for David Brent.

With Tim, it's worse than that. In the final episodes, we get to watch the first steps of the one person we can possibly side with in this show becoming David Brent. Their moment in the pub, when he decides to take up Brent's offer to stay on and get a shot at management, is about as horrifying as anything I've ever seen on television, precisely because I'm sure I'd suck it up and say yes, too, given the same offer.


William Ham - 09:14am Aug 3, 2003 PST

But he's more true-to-life than Basil Fawlty in one regard: he never explodes. He never boils over and blows up.

As goeth the character, so goeth the show as well. On reflection, I can't think of a single sitcom that does quite what The Office does structurally. Fawlty Towers may have been the prototype, but there's been quite the bull market of late for comedies driven by hostility and anchored by unlikable (or at least morally and ethically imperfect) protagonists - on TV alone, you have The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Canada's The Newsroom, even the two most popular shows of the nineties, The Simpsons and Seinfeld - all of which are saved from being too uncomfortable to watch by providing a big, satisfying burst of hilarity at the end in classic farce style. Not so The Office. Every single episode winds up on a note of no resolution, a moment either awkward (Brent pretending to fire Dawn as a "hilarious" practical joke), painful (Tim reaching the breaking point and loudly walking out on his job, a triumphant moment undercut in the next beat by asking Dawn out on a date and being rejected in front of the entire staff) or sad (the last scene of the first season, where Tim chokes utterly on his principles in front of the only person who truly respects him). Even in the one case where the show provides a recognizable, even somewhat hackneyed punch line (Brent makes a big show of calling to fire Finch for his pornographic e-mail gag, only to be caught calling the exact-time number), it lingers on the aftermath, where no one says a word and Brent is left to slink off in poorly-disguised shame, for nearly a full minute afterwards, brilliantly undermining the joke. Those other shows might provide sweet release via the writer's trick of a neatly-bound resolution (or, in more skilled hands, the perfect convergence of several plot strands at once) or the performer's trick of uncorking their (and the audience's) frustrations in a beautifully explosive tantrum (or, in Curb Your Enthusiasm 's case, six or seven of them per show). Both of which are delightful when done well, but also let the spectator off the hook a touch too readily. That's part of why The Office seems more honest (i.e., less pat) than most comedies - I have never seen a show where the (frequent, copious) laughter is so utterly lacking in catharsis.


Austin Swinburn - 09:24am Aug 3, 2003 PST

On a side note, at my newly acquired shitty part-time job we've recently had our incentives for getting credit card numbers changed. Now, instead of getting an additional $0.25 on our paycheck for every card number, if we do over 30% on a given day we get one ticket put in a drawing for a $200 bonus at the end of each financial quarter. Or put another way, the company is only paying bonuses for 800 credit cards, and only one person gets the bonus, the rest of them get jack shit. It's like David Brent's two-facedness not as a personal trait, but as company policy.

I'm sure almost anyone in a crappy office job has similar horror stories (I know Leonard has a boss whose musical talents rival Brent's.) The effort Ricky Gervais and his collaborators make to replicate that environment and push it just barely beyond the awful familiar limits is critical to "The Office's" success, as far as I'm concerned. It's not strictly realistic, at least for a US workplace, but it's totally recognizable. Most workplaces on TV don't resemble the real thing whatsoever. The lack of a laugh track helps a lot with this, too.


William Ham - 10:04am Aug 3, 2003 PST

True. And one thing worth noting is that The Office stands pretty much alone in giving a face to its drudgery. Dilbert, Office Space, and Work Is Hell (in addition to others with varying degrees of spiritual kindredness to the show, such as NBC's short-lived sitcom Working and even Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men ) all take place in completely anonymous, generic companies where the actual nature of their work is never specified. Which is something that could have been pulled off with relative ease in this case - after all, you don't see much work getting done here, either - but that's another case of Gervais' (and Stephen Merchant's, lest we overlook the co-mastermind behind this project) excellent instincts, providing just enough specificity to make the workaday misery more universal. I mean, what could be more soul-deadening than working in a paper company, aside, of course, from whatever job it is you're presently doing?


Leonard Pierce - 10:21am Aug 3, 2003 PST

In the final episodes, we get to watch the first steps of the one person we can possibly side with in this show becoming David Brent. Their moment in the pub, when he decides to take up Brent's offer to stay on and get a shot at management, is about as horrifying as anything I've ever seen on television, precisely because I'm sure I'd suck it up and say yes, too, given the same offer.

Ayup. That scene is one of the all-time knife-twisters in the history of television. And I usually hate TV shows where the writers are arbitrarily cruel to characters for the sake of cheap drama (see: pretty much any TV show where characters break up or die), but that scene is the farthest thing from arbitrary as you can get. It's necessary. It's inevitable. Season 1 pretty much couldn't have ended any other way.

William, re: your comments on the sophisticated, catharsis-free structure of the show --

Again, I think this is a function of the fact that this show was given the luxury of being a limited-run show. Not having the need to just keep producing show after show after show, Gervais & Merchant were able to set up this excellent structure with its reflexive, clever structure, both episodic and with a clear beginning, middle and end. I don't think the writers of The Simpsons (for example) are incapable of writing something like that; it's that, given the way they have to write the show, they can't. Whether Gervais/Merchant pitched the thing as a sort of mini-series, or whether the BBC commissioned it that way to begin with, or whether it just ended up that way, it allowed them the chance to play with the structure in a hugely rewarding way.

And one thing worth noting is that The Office stands pretty much alone in giving a face to its drudgery...I mean, what could be more soul-deadening than working in a paper company, aside, of course, from whatever job it is you're presently doing?

Well, of course, it COULD be almost any job...but the specificity, oddly enough, allows them to throw in jokes that play up the universality. I'm thinking particularly of when we're first introduced to Tim Canterbury, and he describes his job in very specific terms, and then trails off, and finally admits "I'm even boring myself." Who among us hasn't had this same experience when someone asks us what we do for money? Christ, I know I have. Another mini-class note: When David Brent reads the poem about Slough at the end (I think) of episode #4, it's an absolutely delightful middle-class moment of impugning the artist for what the art has to say. This bloke didn't like Slough, eh? Overrated. Wanker.


“You can't help but feel a morbid curiosity about what's underneath the joyless smiles and the permanent layer of flop sweat.”
----------------------->Page Four of Office talk

Page One
“Why has this show struck such a chord among comedy acolytes?”
Page Two
“What's hard is to write a funny episode of a sitcom where the cast and characters are strong enough to make everyone realize how goddamn funny it is.”
Page Three
“As goeth the character, so goeth the show as well.”
Page Four
“You can't help but feel a morbid curiosity about what's underneath the joyless smiles and the permanent layer of flop sweat.”
Page Five
“Alas, there will be no third season.”
Page Six
“I, for one, have just had the unusual sensation of feeling offended on behalf of Barney Fife.”