Okay, it originally aired four years ago, it’s won an Emmy, lots of critics (justifiably) think it’s one of the best shows ever produced for television, and it’s already spawned a weak-kneed American version. So, I’m late to the ballgame. Fine. I love The Office anyway, and here’s why.
If there’s one thing television does better than cinema, it’s the portrayal of work life. By offering its art in serial form, television shows allow us to watch how the day-by-day small progressions of workaday life actually build—or stubbornly refuse to build—into actual moments and eras of significance. A feature film condenses life into its defining moments, its brightest spots and darkest places. Movies portray the news. A serialized TV show, at its best, can do precisely the opposite, portraying the everyday happenings that, by dint of being everyday happenings, are by definition not news.
The Office—a show about the sad, sad lives of office workers in a dreary town (Slough; the name is brilliant) for a dreary paper supply company—is dazzling; Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s creation justifies the medium and foregrounds its possibilities. The concept is not so much simple as it is perfect—a silent TV crew documents the exploits of the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg Paper Company, presumably for either a reality TV show or a training exercise. The branch is run by David Brent (Gervais), a inept boss who barely contains his racist and sexist tendencies, and who doesn’t contain his ego at all. He’s oddly pompous—he blows himself out of proportion by putting on a nice-guy, friendly-jokester act for the camera. So he’s most pompous when he’s eager to portray himself as a man of the people. He’s got no sense that he’s an asshole, nor that his underlings only laugh at his jokes to keep on his good side. He undermines the confidence and efficiency of everyone he works with; he unsettles everyone with his embarrassingly inappropriate comments; he’s constantly getting caught in lies and being proven inept. Everyone around him knows it, which is the source of most of The Office’s dry, mordant comedy.
But everyone also knows that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can done about it, which is the source of the show’s tragic undercurrents. From the naturalistic light—dull grays, fluorescent lighting scheme, perpetually overcast weather—to the dry wit, The Office captures how work can be mind-numbing and infuriating all at once. The show’s best relationship is between Tim (the smashingly droll Martin Freeman) and his nemesis Gareth (uptight, frightening Mackenzie Crook). The two work side by side, and hate each other. Their mutual derision comes not from overblown circumstances (although there are some of those, such as Tim’s perpetual burying of Gareth’s office supplies in Jello, or Gareth’s violent fantasies), but from the run-of-the-mill annoyances that build up as time goes on. Gervais and Merchant get lots of mileage from the fact that Gareth can say things so wildly inappropriate that you think you’ve entered the Twilight Zone. And, just when you think he can’t possibly top himself, he does.
Character quirks snowball over the course of the series’ six episodes, heightening the tension (ahem, hilarity) to small, acute breaking points. The Office’s foibles draw guffaws because they’re so muted, so rooted in sly glances, opened mouths of disbelief, and offhand quips. The cinema verité camerawork and editing works like an eavesdropper, so that we feel embarrassed and uncomfortable watching this stuff. In particular, the casual sexism is hard to watch. The women, generally, hold up better than the men—they’re more mature, more resourceful, and yet sadly more resigned to dealing with untoward advances and bad jokes at their expense. The Office captures the casual sexist cruelty of practically every office place and how it can’t just be eliminated by legislation alone.
By the end of the sadly hysterical series, we’ve watched people lose their jobs, their holds of sanity, and their dignity. Gareth’s distraught tears almost make us sorry for him, even as we’re chuckling. Tim’s fumbled flirtation with Dawn (Lucy Davis) rings true because it’s so awkward and poorly conceived. And, in the most authentic note of all, only David is blithely untouched by the end. He goes on to a ridiculously undeserved promotion with his feral, maniacally idiotic smile intact. I’d never want to work at Wernham Hogg, but it’s a helluva place to watch.
Come to think of it, in some ways The Office IS news, in that it offers us a honest portrayal of workplace life that’s so rarely seen otherwise. It makes The Apprentice look like the complete nonsense that it is.