A Look Back At “The Office”

Tim Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer. Shakespeare?

By David B. Grelck
March 12, 2005

Allow me to pontificate briefly (although a parenthetical here would likely debate whether or not anyone reading this has ever read me do anything even closely resembling the word brief) about the nature of British Television. They believe their sitcoms and humor is vastly superior to us. Of course those wacky Brits believe that they’re better than us at most anything. And while I hardly like to concede anything, I will give them this: They have the right idea for TV shows. They don’t stretch a premise vellum thin into 22 episodes whether it deserves them or not. They do a series of six episodes or eight episodes, or whatever the hell number the series creator feels like writing. That’s it. Then, maybe next year (or in the case of Absolutely Fabulous’ bizarre return many years later) they’ll do another series of six. What does that give us? Six solid episodes, mostly written by one or two people. Consistency, direction. Though, I must admit, I’m spoiled by the few shows I’ve taken the time to watch. Namely Fawlty Towers and The Office, the latter is what we’re discussing now.

As you can see up there in the corner, that’s my one of a kind collector’s item (cuz I made it) a mug for the Wernham Hogg Paper Merchants, the titular office of one of the most brilliant satires I have ever had the opportunity to view. Oh now, there’s a big shock, Dave using hyperbole. Boy, we missed him.

Seriously though. Until last year, I thought that Britcoms peaked with Fawlty Towers and nothing much of worth was done since with the occasional flash in the pan like the unapologetic Friendsrip-off that had it’s own demented genius Coupling. But then I sat down one rainy afternoon with The Office and I met David Brent. Basil Fawlty was a real prick. Most of the time in fact. He cared for basically no one but himself and utterly loathed the people who gave him money to stay at that little hotel in Torque. But even he had his nemesis, someone worse than him. We could sympathize, or at the very least empathize with the poor man when Sybil came a calling and poor Basil had to assure her that yes indeed the moose is up! David Brent has no such nemesis. He is a malevolent ball of self involvement so dense he has absolutely no clue about the real world outside his fantasy construct.

Brent (played fabulously by Ricky Gervais, a comic genius to sit at the same table with the greats he so idolizes, Cleese, Chapman, Idle) is the manager of a small paper merchant in Slough, a suburb of London. His narcissism is rampant, he insists he’s in his thirties and that nothing be said differently though he’s thirty nine. He claws desperately at any suggestion that someone might find him funny, instantly digging himself into a hole with an ill advised racial stereotype or dick joke. He flirts mercilessly, has no inner sensor (a fact which leads him to talk about being terrified that he’d found a cancerous lump in his testicle that turned out to be nothing to a horrified co-worker just trying to enjoy her lunch) and spends far too much time at the bar with foul and mean spirited Chris Finch (Ralph Ineson, almost a dead ringer for a young John Cleese in his Python years) and dumber than shit narcissist in training Team Leader Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook) who, as co-worker Tim points out doesn’t have a real title, just one that someone is given when they’re needed to do something extra for no pay.

Gareth idolizes Brent in much the same way Brent idolizes Finch. Gareth however does sometimes get fed up with Brent’s jokes and putdowns, though he dishes out some truly mean spirited shit to Tim Canterbury, the everyman hero of the piece (played by soon-to-be Arthur Dent Martin Freeman) who, after the revelation of his last name to be Canterbury, Brent goes, stream of consciousness word association to The Canterbury Tales, then Chaucer, then, inexplicably, Shakespeare. Freeman’s performance as the very put upon Tim is breathtaking, as this could’ve easily become a forgotten role with two such bizarre characters next to him. Freeman plugs in a dose of Oliver Hardy, giving the exasperated looks at the documentary cameras capturing all this, or a horrified look after Brent says something truly awful.

And then, the crux of the series, Tim’s utter adoration of receptionist Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis). These two share the kind of bond you’re lucky if you get at a job once, maybe twice in your lifetime. A playful banter. A friendship that allows you to forget for a little while at least that you’re in a stifling office environment that is nowhere near where you wanted to be at that age. Together they play tricks on Gareth, from gluing his phone down to asking him very double entendre questions about his time in the Territorial Army. Alas, Dawn is taken, nearly engaged and Tim is left on the outside to pine.

I’ve often expounded praises on Fawlty Towers, claiming that it’s the nearest to perfect six hours of television I’d ever seen. It still ranks. The Office wins, hands down. Racking up a slightly longer running time than its older brother, the show, with two six episode series and a 90 minute special, is absolutely perfect. Perhaps because it didn’t wear out its welcome (as Friends so fabulously did in its final season), bang it was there, bang it was gone, like one of those amazing conversations that last a night with someone you barely know. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke made a movie about that once.

Now, onto other things. The three DVDs containing The Office are also well worth the buys, if only so you can sit back and in a sitting blast through series one, debating whether you should pop in series two or actually go to bed because dammit you have to be up tomorrow morning. But then you realize, curling up on the couch with another series of The Office, the second that finds a whole new batch of employees arriving at Wernham Hogg’s Slough branch, and a new superior to David Brent, and then, even more delightful, onto The Office Special that revisits Wernham Hogg two years down the line to see what the reality TV show did for the cube rats.

Forgive me as I cut this review short, as I’m heading down to put the disc in and cue it up. Perhaps I’ll also watch the documentary about the making of the series on volume 1. Or listen to the commentary on the last half of the special. Or maybe, just maybe, cue up the episode where Brent shows off his songwriting skills and sings about “Free love on the free love freeway. The love is free and the freeway’s long. . .”

All hyperbole aside (and we’ll see if I can stick by that) The Office came from someplace different. And I’m not talking about across the pond. It came from a different world entirely, from that rift in space time that dropped magical shows on us, shows like this, Fawlty Towers, All in the Family, Firefly, Buffy and Gilmore Girls, shows that don’t talk down to us or inundate us with “very special episodes.” Shows that simply open themselves up to us, and allow us to love them.

Would I like to see more of David Brent and Wernham Hogg? Absolutely. Just as I’d kill to see Basil Fawlty throw one more tantrum in his run down motel. But both of these hopes are perhaps better left as that. Because maybe part of the greatness here is the abbreviated time we spent with them. We got to see them at their best and never had to see a bummer episode. Who can ask more than that?

Certainly not this reviewer.

Dave Grelck used to write Gilmore Girls reviews. Then, after a long hiatus where he just complained that no one saw his photography as a creative endevour, he bit the bullet and waxed poetically here. Those of you who love snarky, angry Dave, fear not. The wrath will return. Just ask him about all that changed music on the Quantum Leap DVDs. I mean who in the name of God authorized those changes? REALLY!