30.8.09

The Office

Just finished watching the 'Office Night' on BBC2, and I feel like an idiot for never having managed to catch the show before. This is blisteringly good television.

The gags speak for themselves. What I'm interested in (as usual) is the moments when the show gets deadly serious. The Office is at root a riff on the tedium and pettiness of white-collar work, and by extension, life in dreary Middle England towns. The atmosphere of the series, captured by an unglamourous documentary camera, is crushing. There is no way out of this horror show. A person's aspiration has no wiggle-room to breathe under the weight of ignorance, selfishness and arrogance coming from higher up the food-chain. At my most insufferable, I would describe The Office as an existentialist horror. It's a zombie movie without the zombies, and all the more terrifying for it.

What catapults the show into the stratospere of pure genius is the ending of the final episode. Tim -- the romantic hero, the person who we identify with and root for -- is turned into a villain. He bottles his chance at freedom, to go back to school, to do something with his life, for a measly promotion and a dull existence climbing up the company ladder. In justifying his decision, he is almost transformed into his vile boss. The writers twist the knife expertly. All those reviled managers were once good people, turned into monsters by the mundane workings of the corporate machine. The look on Dawn's face when Tim leaves is devastating. Brilliant television.

From that scene of tragedy we shift back to the familiar close-up of David Brent. But here, he isn't an entirely ridiculous figure. His cringe-inducing escapades are of course all about attention-seeking, but there is an element of humanitarianism about them. Brent wants his staff to enjoy themselves. He recognizes that the job is soul-destroying, so he tries to inject some fun into it. And he succeeds unwittingly. Through his speech, the writers put forward their basic manifesto: that the way to ward against despair is through comedy. The world of The Office is bleak, we can only bear it by laughing at it.

What was interesting about the interviews preceding each episode was the way Gervais behaved in relation to his creation. When he describes the show's sophistication -- the way it deals with feminism, class and the nature of comedy -- you cannot help but be reminded of Brent boasting to camera about his abilities and achievments. There is definitely an arrogance in Gervais that comes through in the interview, and makes him rather less likable than the grinning Steven Merchant next to him. But what's really impressive about Gervais is that he recognizes his faults, and knowingly uses them for satire. He puts his flaws on television for the world to see. There's something incredibly brave and selfless and humble in that. We should remember it when Gervais goes off to Hollywood and has his ego swollen to enormous proportions, and compare him favourably to Eddie Izzard.

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