I had a little Office phase myself. For three and a half years, I was employed with a company that published free, weekly newspapers. The leadership was incompetent and insensitive to the needs of its staff and morale plummeted to the degree that a co-worker and I began to notice obvious similarities to The Office, not only the David Brent-style qualities of our boss, but also how we started to slip into the character of Tim, who kept pulling pranks just to make time fly. Eventually, we worked up the courage to quit, which Tim never did. The Office is still comforting to anyone who’s been in the same place. You are not alone.
The show is a faux reality series, taking us to a small paper company in Slough called Wernham Hogg. The audience is invited to follow its employees and their daily routine. Working at Wernham Hogg is a slow march toward death, especially for Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), a man in his late twenties who’s still living with his parents but hoping to escape both them and Wernham Hogg in favor of something better. In the meantime, he spends his time flirting with Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), the receptionist, and pulling pranks on Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook), a hopelessly humorless suck-up to authority.
The star of this reality series though is David Brent (Ricky Gervais), the regional manager, who considers himself a sexy, 30-year-old, generally beloved, funny and revered role model to everyone at Wernham Hogg when in fact he’s an out-of-shape, 39-year-old blowhard whose clumsiness and ineptitude is becoming a real problem not only to his staff but his superiors…
Not an instantaneous hit
This was the project that brought fame to Gervais and Stephen Merchant who had first met in 1997 at a radio station. Together they came up with the idea for The Office, which was not an instantaneous hit on BBC Two; the show suffered from low ratings, but word of mouth generated enough support for a second season, which was filmed the following year. Once the ball started rolling, The Office began wowing audiences all over the world, including the U.S. where it won two Golden Globes and opened up a host of possibilities for Gervais.
Throughout its 12 episodes, The Office stayed true to the faux reality format and used it to perfection; the comedy often lied not only in Brent and Gareth’s absurd behavior, but very much in how they and others (especially Tim) reacted to the ever-present camera. This invisible documentary crew certainly caught human behavior in the raw. One certainly laughed, but there was so much awkwardness that one couldn’t help watch the show in the same way you can’t avert your eyes from the grisly scene of a traffic accident. Every time David Brent opened his mouth was a disaster, and Gervais knew exactly how to play him, likely drawing from rich experiences in his own life. After all, as I began this review, most of us have met our fair share of clueless Brents.
Crook and Freeman were also brilliant, creating workplace characters we also know far too well. The show ran a risk of being too heartless, but the growing love affair between Tim and Dawn was cute yet realistic.
In 2003, the gang returned for a two-episode Christmas special that offered closure in a way that the second season had not. The comedy was equally brutal in its depiction of male chauvinism, office boredom and tragic delusions of life… but there was also light, even for poor David. That feat was accomplished with very little sentimentality by Gervais and Merchant, geniuses as ever.
The Office 2001-2002:Britain. Made for TV. 12 episodes. Color. Created by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant. Cast: Ricky Gervais (David Brent), Martin Freeman (Tim Canterbury), Mackenzie Crook (Gareth Keenan), Lucy Davis (Dawn Tinsley).
Trivia: The show was subsequently adapted for international audiences in Germany (as Stromberg (2004-2012)); the U.S. (as The Office (2005-2013)); France (as Le Bureau (2006)); and Canada (as La Job (2006-2007)). Brent also appeared in the feature film Life on the Road (2016).
Golden Globes: Best Comedy Series, Actor (Gervais) 04.
Quote: “There are limits to my comedy. There are things that I’ll never laugh at. The handicapped. Because there’s nothing funny about them. Or any deformity. It’s like when you see someone look at a little handicapped and go ‘ooh, look at him, he’s not able-bodied. I am, I’m prejudiced.’ Yeah, well, at least the little handicapped fella is able-minded. Unless he’s not, it’s difficult to tell with the wheelchair ones.” (Gervais)
Last word: “I enjoyed every moment of it. I enjoyed the result and I enjoyed the pride. I also realised in retrospect that I didn’t enjoy all those things because of how good I thought it had turned out. I enjoyed it because of how hard it was.” (Gervais, The Guardian)