The Monstrous FinchAlgonquin Kids' Table
The Office
Page Four


David N. Rothschild - 12:52pm Aug 3, 2003 PST

Building on what William Ham said about the lack of catharis, it's noteworthy that the show never lets us truly hate David Brent. I've had worse bosses than him, more malicious and cruel. Brent has no desire to see his employees humiliated or fired- he wants to be liked and entertaining above almost anything else. That's not to say that he's incapable of cruelty, just that it's not his primary motivation. And most of the squirmishness I feel watching the show comes out of embarrassment for him as joke after joke fails miserably. The genius of the show is that doesn't allow us to feel either sympathy or contempt for him, just extreme discomfort at his actions.


Phil Nugent - 01:13pm Aug 3, 2003 PST

Gervais's performance is a peerless depiction of a man who has no capacity for seeing how he looks to other people. In the first season, at least, everything in the performance seems to be building to that moment when David tells his employees that he's accepted a promotion that will doom most of them to being fired, and for the life of him is unable to grasp why they don't see that this is "good news". They're not real enough to him for him to understand why they'd rather have their jobs than be happy for him. One suspects that he barely lets on just how appalled he is at their selfishness.

I used to think that Garry Shandling's Larry Sanders, and Ken Finkleman's George Findlay (in The Newsroom), had taken comic self-effacingness about as far as it could go and still be funny, but Gervais makes those guys look like Kevin Costner showcasing his profile in A Kevin Costner Film. It was possible for a viewer with some kind of ego to identify with Larry Sanders and George Findlay; hell, I've identified with Basil Fawlty, though I'd prefer it if this information is kept from any future in-laws or jury members who I might one day have to impress. All those monsters had the appeal of being larger than life. Sanders' panic attacks of insecurity and guilty self-doubt can't cancel out the fact that he's a star--a rich, oversexed celebrity who's sitting on top of the world. George is a well-paid man in a glamorous field. Even Basil Fawlty inspires the odd kind of respect due to men who sometimes seem to have been drawn by Ralph Steadman and animated by Ray Harryhausen. But both David and our identification figure, Tim, are scaled small, like the workplace irritations that gang up on you and drag you down, like the Liliputian army attacking Gulliver. Whatever David was once capable of, before his boredom and frustration ate his superego and his capacity for empathy, he's obviously far removed from anything he ever could have wanted to be. And as Gary says, the poignancy the show develops stems from a viewer's dawning realization that Tim might be headed the same way. Tim isn't heroic and he doesn't seem to be especially ambitious and if he has any grand dreams he keeps them to himself. All that makes him the identification figure is that, like people we've all probably known whose lives just disappeared out from under them, he's smart and decent enough to deserve better than what he's settling for. Which is why that moment in the first season finale where he seems to be "adjusting" has a whiff of tragedy to it.


Davey Schmitt - 01:29pm Aug 3, 2003 PST

There is one moment where Brent explodes, although in typically repressed fashion, and it's probably the most shocking moment of the first season in that its the one time where his desperate need to be liked gets buried under outright hostility ("Yeah, and from behind because your breath stinks like onions, I didn't tell you that did I?"). Its a window into the seething core of David Brent and its more than a little horrifying (witness Timothy's even more agog than usual reaction).


Phil Nugent - 01:40pm Aug 3, 2003 PST

There's almost an element of relief to that scene; watching this guy ooze around, vibrating like a tuning fork under his clothes, you can't help but feel a morbid curiosity about what's underneath the joyless smiles and the permanent layer of flop sweat. Given how easy it would have been to come up with a way for David to cut himself out of his big promotion by having him inadvertently offend or insult someone, it's interesting to me that he ends up losing out because of his high blood pressure. The suggestion that he's such a wreck internally that the bosses would prefer to just keep him parked in his little office while waiting for the inevitable fatal coronary is more believable than funny. But boy, is it believable.


Chris Roberson - 02:52pm Aug 3, 2003 PST

Brent, by himself, is not especially villainous as villains go. He's mostly pathetic, with a tinge of contemptible. What makes him the villain is his position of authority, for which he is completely unqualified.

What strikes me especially about The Office, particularly in comparison to American situation comedies, is how understated it is. Many of the funniest lines are barely audible; David Brent's attempts at clowning would hardly even register as clowning to American audiences. It reminded me of Chuck Barris's belief that everyone watching American television is eating (dinner, a snack, popcorn, something) and heavily distracted, forcing producers to make everything loud and banish all subtlety. The creators of The Office, on the other hand, require their audience to pay very close attention if they want to get anything out of it.

They also assume a fair amount of literacy on the part of the audience. Slough is an actual suburb, of course, but to readers of A Pilgrim's Progress it will also call to mind the Slough of Despond. Not that the creators try to make a big point of this; but it is a satisfying bit of subtext.


Gary Mairs - 03:04pm Aug 3, 2003 PST

The suggestion that he's such a wreck internally that the bosses would prefer to just keep him parked in his little office while waiting for the inevitable fatal coronary is more believable than funny.

Actually, one of the few things I find unbelievable about the series is the fact that he was ever up for promotion. He flaunts his gross insubordination and general idiocy before his superiors, flagrantly lies to the person who he'd be replacing in the hierarchy, and is caught and called on it. I understand the Peter Principle, but it really seemed to me that it would be in the best interest of the company to can his ass while the canning was good.


Leonard Pierce - 03:10pm Aug 3, 2003 PST

The notion that Brent doesn't allow you the normal access of emotion is well-observed. He's too much of a failure to hate, too much of a creep to love, too arrogant to pity and too asinine to respect. One thing about the character-driven sitcom format (as opposed to, say, satire or pure farce) is that you have to make the characters dramatically interesting -- that is, they have to be something other than just funny. And the amazing thing about the character of David Brent is that you could transfer him into a drama, or even a tragedy, and have him be believable and effective, with almost no change at all.

hell, I've identified with Basil Fawlty, though I'd prefer it if this information is kept from any future in-laws or jury members who I might one day have to impress.

Ha. Well, shit...so have I. Fawlty is a pompous, self-important buffoon, but when he goes into one of his meltdowns, more often than not, something legitimate sets him off, whether it's his wife or an incompetent workman or a clueless guest or (usually) the exposure of this own scheming. He's both angry and legitimately funny, which are two states of being David Brent just can't aspire to. Basil Fawlty, for all his, well, faults, will not go to his grave thinking he's an acceptable human being who makes everyone's life a joy; he knows he's a scheming prat who's constantly being hoist on his own petard. Brent, on the other hand, thinks he's enriching everyone's life, and is totally oblivious to the flaws in his own character that defeat him again and again.

There's a great episode of Fawlty Towers where Basil -- screwed by his own scheming once again -- has a world-beating meltdown. He becomes absolutely insane and goes off on his guests like never before ("This is EXACTLY how Nazi Germany got started!"). The fact that all their complaints are entirely legitimate, and that he's going berserk to deflect attention away from his own incompetence, doesn't slow him down one bit. This would never happen with David Brent; he can't muster the hysteria needed to deflect criticism of his flaws with that sort of meltdown for the simple reason that he's not aware that he has those flaws. In the computer porn episode that ends with the phone call to the time & temperature service, Basil Fawlty would have exploded in a litany of everyone's failings but his own; David Brent just walks away sheepishly, no doubt thinking "eh, they won't remember."

Given how easy it would have been to come up with a way for David to cut himself out of his big promotion by having him inadvertently offend or insult someone, it's interesting to me that he ends up losing out because of his high blood pressure. The suggestion that he's such a wreck internally that the bosses would prefer to just keep him parked in his little office while waiting for the inevitable fatal coronary is more believable than funny. But boy, is it believable.

See, I was actually going to bring this up, because it was one of the few moments of the show that I found difficult to buy -- although this may be a cultural issue. Is it standard practice to give an executive a physical before a big promotion? I've never heard of it being done, and can't imagine someone losing a position based on having high blood pressure. Is this commonplace only in Britain, or is it just something I've never happened to have heard about?


“Alas, there will be no third season.”
---------------------->Page Five

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.”