Monday, May 31, 2004

DVD Review: The Office

The Office is a British sitcom that casts an unflinching eye on the mishaps and horrors of corporate office life for the employees who work at Wernham-Hogg's Slough (rhymes with cow) division. The second series DVD has just been released over here and if anything, I think the second season may be funnier than the first.

In typical Britcom fashion, the main character, office manager David Brent, is a horrid, self-obsessed weasel who is wildly insecure. He constantly craves attention, even to the point of stealing it back from those he thinks are taking it from him. He can also take the most PC phrases or ideals and torture them into horribly un-PC situations. This year, Brent must try to please his new boss -- his former peer in management -- while deflecting all attempts to change anything.

The main cast consists of newly-promoted senior sales manager Tim, who is now nine years into a career he insists is simply a diversion from his university schooling. There's Dawn, who is strongly attracted to Tim and flirts with him all the time. But don't try to take her up on it. She'll shut you down immediately. Then she'll restart the flirting. Gareth is also back, and just as insensitive and "laddish" as ever.

The show has a great cast of secondary characters, though only Keith and Finchie survive from the first season. Keith is the enigmatic, Buddha-like, passive-aggressive one. He rarely says anything or acknowledges someone when they speak to him. When he does speak, it is to offer opinions of a deeply personal, and unwanted, nature. Finchie is the same vulgar, lower-class roughy we loved last season. New this season is a host of people from the just-merged Swindon office. Chief among them is Rachel, the office hottie who takes a fancy to Tim, causing jealousy and confusion for Dawn. We also meet Gareth's mates The Ogg Monster and Jimmy the Perv.

The creation of Steven Merchant and Ricky Gervais, The Office gets its humor from just watching things happen. David Brent alone is a walking disaster. The series continues its style of faux documentary: hand-held cameras, long takes, long shots that feel like eavesdropping and rambling scenes that seem to always go on just a bit too long.

That is the vehicle of the humor. Whenever Brent says something that no one should say on camera, you always see someone acknowledge that camera, and us, by flicking a glance as though to say, "Can you believe he said that?" The scenes are never cut, but kept going, held, for delicious anticipation of Brent's recognising his stupidity and then trying to cover it up, which is always worse. It's this squirming discomfort we stew in. There are no punchlines to release us, only Brent's efforts to rescue himself or to slink away with his image unscathed.

The engine is the hilariously blunt and non-politically correct talk of the staff, and Brent's stupefyingly unbelievable efforts to appear cool, knowledgable and capable. He is a jerk, a buffoon, an attention hog, and every kind of "ist" there is: rascist, sexist, genderist, handicappist, etc.

The Office is an acquired taste, and not just for its "no laugh track," fake documentary style. Much to most British humor is based on the class distinctions of their society. Those barriers and markers between classes are real and clear. England is a class-based society and consequently most English chafe under the rule of someone who is their superior only by luck of birth. Anger and resentment at bosses is endemic.

So, their humor reflects that. The main character will be someone who is an object of scorn and ridicule. Examples abound: Keeping Up Appearances, Fawlty Towers, One Foot in the Grave, Waiting For God, Brittas Empire and more. Then there are the shows which focus on the ensemble, but put them under an unlikeable boss: Are You Being Served?, Blackadder, Red Dwarf, etc.

American comedies just don't do this. We demand likeable characters that we can embrace. Even our villains and bad guys get softened up over time into plush toy versions of themselves, one whose badness we "understand" because it has a "motivation." For example: Archie Bunker, Frank Burns, George Jefferson, Lou Grant.

The Office is a comedy of uncomfortability. It is fantastic at letting its characters take all the rope they need to hang themselves, giving them some more, then letting them twist slowly in front of the camera for our delectation.

Highly recommended!

Combined First & second season DVD
Office 1 scripts
Office 2 scripts
The World of Ricky Gervais

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