“The people you work with are people you were just throw together with. You know, you don’t know them, it wasn’t your choice, and yet you spend more time with them then you do your friends or your family. But probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for 8 hours a day. And so, obviously, when someone comes in who you… you have a connection with… yeah. And Dawn was a ray of sunshine in my life and it meant a lot. But, if I’m really being honest I never really thought it would have a happy ending. I don’t know what a happy ending is. Life isn’t about endings, is it? It’s a series of moments. It’s not if, you know, if you turn the camera off it’s not an ending, is it? I’m still here, my life’s not over. Come back, come back here in 10 years, see how I’m doing then. ‘Cause I could be married with kids. You don’t know. Life just goes on.” – Tim Canterbury
If you want to look at The Office from a historical perspective, it was The Sopranos of TV comedy: A distinctly turn-of-the-millennium show that would have seemed impossible before it came out and changed everything afterwards. Remember that Frasier and Sex and the City, alternately pleasant and simple-minded, were the consensus best sitcoms on TV before The Office.
You can trace its influence not only to its independently essential American spinoff… not only to mockumentary and “non-punchline” sitcoms… but to pretty much all single camera comedies. It’s hard to think that Scrubs or Arrested Development or How I Met Your Mother or Parks and Rec could have existed without David, Tim, Gareth, and Dawn.
There are a lot of TV moments I absolutely adore and would consider all-time favorites, but the scene featuring Tim’s monologue at the beginning of this article is pretty damn close to #1. The camera cuts back and forth between Dawn and Tim as the reality of a forever alone starts to sink in, their chance to reconnect wasted. (Here’s a low-quality version.)
(Another Office scene, the “she said no, by the way” closer to Series 2, is up there, too.)
It’s a great, understated scene. It’s also an indicator of how The Office shaped the last decade of comedy, making it personal and cinematic and almost naturalistic. I watch that scene, and I see Michael quitting Dunder Mifflin; I see Ted recounting the night he learned “nothing good happens after 2 AM;” I see the members of Party Down Catering arguing whether they’re waiters or actors. I see comedy that offers frivolity and humanity in equal measures.
The Office is fundamentally about the struggle and dignity of normalcy. Todd VanDerWerff has written an incredible love letter to this show — maybe the greatest homage to any show I’ve ever read. He comes very close to capturing my feelings of what makes this show compelling.
There are three main stories to The Office: David Brent trying to convince the camera he’s a heroic, wonderful boss; Tim and Dawn flirting with each other; and Wernham Hogg’s struggles to keep its branches afloat.
The first of those, the focus on David Brent, is the most controversial of those. My wife can’t stand to watch any scene focusing on Ricky Gervais’s wonderfully dreadful character. I think of it as a deep tissue massage: painful but worth it.
What makes David Brent inspire such strong reactions is that he’s deluded and petty, but fancies himself the hero of the story the documentary is telling. VanDerWerff makes a good case that Brent is an immensely personal statement character for Ricky Gervais. Gervais depicts his fears of being alone and misunderstood and unimportant through a character who has become those things, yet doesn’t realize it.
The Tim and Dawn story is the romantic heart of the show. Tim is a straight man. but also a victim of the show’s scorn. The show spends the first half of its run wondering why he’s too afraid to try for something better (romantic or otherwise), then spends the second half watching the world crap on him when he does try. He and Dawn circle around each other for the duration of the show in a way that feels very realistic. This realism makes their closest moments tremendously moving and tantalizing.
The third plot of the show — Wernham-Hogg’s struggles — serves mostly to amplify the other stories. The frailty of Slough as a branch makes it all the more pathetic that David, Dawn, and Tim cling to their jobs as key parts of their identities.
Of the two series (aka “seasons” for us patriots), the first is more episodic and funny. The show performs brilliant — often cringe-inducing — twists on workplace sitcom tropes, turning them inside out and removing the expected beats. When David pulls a prank on Dawn, joking that she’s fired for stealing post-it notes, it doesn’t escalate for laughs. Instead, it implodes into awkward tears and anger.
The show portrays other sitcom staples — after hours party, an attractive new employee, office love triangle — and twists them all in some way to make them less jokey, more realistic, and more cringe-worthy.
The first series is also intensely funny from time to time — particularly at the expense of Gareth and David.
The second series is a little bit more serial and even harder on its characters than the opening chapters — especially David, who humiliates himself again and again. Tim settles for the pretty, but somewhat uninteresting, Rachel. Dawn begins thinking beyond Slough.
I won’t spoil the specifics of it, but the ending to the second series of The Office — which the creators initially pegged as the end of the show — is incredibly downbeat and bleak (at least within the small scales The Office deals with).
Each of the first series totaled six half hour episodes, so when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant announced a Christmas special that would include two hour-long halves, it was the next best thing to a new full series.
The Christmas Special shows the characters in the aftermath of the documentary filmed during the two series. The special digs into a theme that would be the focus of the creators’ next show, Extras — the fickle, ugly nature of minor fame — as each character comes to grips with their fading chances of finding anything special in life.
Some critics have lambasted The Christmas Special as too upbeat for the show. I disagree on two counts. First, parts of The Christmas Special are pretty harsh. David is at his most petulant, and we learn life is not much better for anyone than before the documentary. Second, it’s not only fun to watch a couple of happy endings, but those endings feel earned. To steal a phrase from Todd’s recaps, all happy endings in The Christmas Special are the result of SELF-ACTUALIZATION on the part of the characters.
I worry I make the show sound too academic or dense. It’s not. It’s a fun show. While there’s a lot packed into these 7.5 hours (is it really that short?), it’s a show that tells a story with good characters and makes me laugh. That’s all I can ask for: to swoon when Dawn asks Tim to braid her hair, to guffaw at “Gareth Keenan Investigates”, to sing along with “Free Love Freeway,” and to cringe in abject horror as David says something wildly inappropriate.
Then I feel both happy and sad when it’s all over, tempted to hit play on the pilot once again.
Hell, I’ve even come around on the show’s theme song (“So what becomes of you my love!?”) as a sort of Pavlov’s bell of intense involvement and curiosity and repulsion to come for the next half hour.
My biggest complaint with the series is that they simply don’t have enough screen time to fully explore everything interesting about these characters. Gareth never really goes through an arc the way the other protagonists do. Rachel and Lee don’t get any redemptive or human moments. And it took the show too long to figure out how riotously funny the accountant Keith is, so he’s underused until the final episodes. The show was only starting to figure out side characters and running jokes just as it ended.
But I can’t complain because everything we have here is so damn perfect. Pound for pound, it might be my favorite TV series ever. It’s certainly far deeper and darker and faster-paced than its warmer, sprawling, American counterpart. But that’s a topic for another day.