"The Office" Christmas Special
The British series "The Office" came to its conclusion last week on BBC America with the airing of "The Office Christmas Special." A smash hit in its native country, "The Office" has created a bit of a stir in the United States as well, at least amongst comedy nerds and TV critics. This short-running sitcom (there are only 2 seasons, with six episodes each, and this special) is framed as a BBC "documentary" of a paper manufacturing office in the dingy suburb of Slough as it undergoes a round of downsizing, redundancies and a merger. In the first season, we are introduced to the main characters of the series. Chief among them are David Brent (Ricky Gervais, who, along with Stephen Merchant, created and wrote the series), the deluded fool of a manager who, as Gervais puts it, "confuses popularity with respect," and Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), an office drone who dreams of one day leaving Wernham Hogg to get a psychology degree and also of winning the heart of the office receptionist, Dawn (Lucy Davis). The second season then takes these characters to their lowest depths, as Brent is humiliatingly fired and Dawn rejects Tim's public declaration of love and moves to Florida with her loutish fiancé.
"The Office Christmas Special" picks up a year later, on the premise that the BBC has sent a follow-up crew to catch up with its subjects. For the most part, the special continues with the show's distinctive brand of brutal, punchline-free, squirm-inducing humor. Ultimately, though, it gives us what the first and second seasons did not, a happy ending. This optimistic conclusion could be seen as a loss of nerve. I prefer to see it as chance for release, a satisfying glimpse of redemption at the end of what is essentially a bleak and unrelenting stare at a group of people spiraling down through various stages of degradation, humiliation and hopelessness.
With the recent airing of the special, much ink has been spilled discussing the genius of Gervais and his character, David Brent. There's no disagreeing with any of it. Twenty years from now, when the actual series is only hazily remembered, David Brent will still loom large. His influence has already popped up in contemporary comedy (see the usually hilarious Sam Seder's shameless David Brent rip-off in Trio's miniseries "Pilot Season" for one particularly flagrant example). Surely, we can expect more pale imitations of Brent in the future, including Steve Carrell's Brent in NBC's forthcoming American version of "The Office." David Brent will surely join Homer Simpson, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, Max Fischer and George Costanza as one of the seminal comedic characters of our time.
But this focus on Gervais comes at the cost of what is essentially a brilliant ensemble comedy. It's only fair to give a little credit to two other driving forces behind the success of "The Office" Merchant and Freeman.
Merchant has been noticeably absent from this round of US press in support of the Christmas special, while Gervais has been pretty much everywhere (just this week: The Museum of Television and Radio, David Letterman and Charlie Rose). One can only wonder whether Merchant has chosen silence or if Gervais' celebrity has simply outgrown that of his writing and directing partner. Still, it'd be nice if Merchant were around. Re-watching the "How I Made the Office" documentary on the Series One DVD and reading transcripts of interviews, you get the impression that Gervais plays the role of the precocious child in this partnership, bubbling over with unfettered creativity. Merchant is the parent, the taskmaster and craftsman. If Gervais is the heart of "The Office," Merchant is surely the brain. Merchant, who worked as Gervais' assistant at the London radio station XFM, first had the idea of putting Gervais' "Seedy Boss" character on film for a BBC internship, and it is apparently Merchant who gives "The Office" its unflinching comedic edge and darkness. Together, Gervais and Merchant create a perfect comedic yin and yang, and it would be a shame if Merchant's contributions were forgotten in favor of his more prominent partner.
Also providing understated support is Freeman, who plays Tim Canterbury. Freeman has the unforgiving task of serving as the show's straight man, the audience surrogate who gives us our entry into the dreary world of Wernham Hogg. Freeman not only fulfills this role, he creates one of the best straight men in recent memory, with a performance that harkens back to the glory days of Bud Abbott and, of course, Oliver Hardy. In fact, Freeman acknowledges Hardy as a direct influence in the DVD documentary. Because of this careful study and appreciation of the classics, Freeman has become a master of the tools of the straight-man trade: the double take, the slow burn, the eye roll and the mock surprise. Interestingly, the show's mockumentary format is liberating for the straight man. For the first time since the 1940s, he can look directly into the camera and appeal to the audience. Freeman capitalizes on this, and his knowing glances to the camera provide some of the funniest moments in the entire series.
In addition, Tim's yearning and often humiliating relationship with receptionist Dawn crackles with quiet electricity. Freeman loads every look and every moment of physical contact with meaning. His ultimate success in the Christmas special, though slightly corny and pandering on the writers' part, feels so hard won, one can't help but grin with satisfaction. And it is Freeman's understated yet compelling performance that makes this possible. Rewatching the series in its entirety, I often found myself wanting that insufferable bore Brent to get off the screen and for the camera to focus back in on Tim Canterbury, documenting his particularly agonizing life of quiet desperation.
"The Office" is a gigantic achievement in contemporary comedy, one that builds on the brilliant work of Christopher Guest (from Spinal Tap to A Mighty Wind) to bring the mockumentary format to its apotheosis (in fact, let's stop making these because it's just never going to get any better than this, OK?) and may just be the best piece of British comedy since Monty Python. Gervais certainly deserves a great deal of credit for the show's success, but let's not forget that he got there with an exceptional team, whose contributions are just as important as his. After all, there is no "I" in "team" though, as David Brent would probably smugly point out, there is a "me."
Steve Carey (poppycockcircus at gmail dot com)