Buoyed by Steve Carell’s meteoric rise as a bona fide comedy superstar and following a stellar sophomore year, the upcoming third season of "The Office" promises to be one of this fall’s most anticipated returns. Audiences and critics alike have warmed to its faux documentary conceit filled with awkward silences, cringe-worthy moments of social discomfort, and refreshing lack of a laugh track or studio audience. Carell perfectly embodies that sad little man, boss-from-hell Michael Scott, but notable improvements in the writing and memorable turns by the talented supporting cast have also helped elevate the show to its new perch on top of the TV comedy heap.
This surge in popularity for an intelligent comedy like "The Office" is refreshing, especially in a year that saw "Arrested Development", arguably the funniest show in recent memory, finally get the ax from Fox after continued low ratings. As happy as I am to see the gang at Dunder Mifflin find their way into the hearts of the American public, the feeling is a tad bittersweet. I worry that people will forget or may never even know about this series’ origins in the depressing English town of Slough at a little paper merchant known as Wernham Hogg. It was there that co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant set the original version of "The Office", with Gervais crafting one of the greatest comic incarnations of all time in David Brent, the bloated office manager and self-proclaimed “chilled-out entertainer” who infuriates his beleaguered staff by constantly preening for the ever-present cameras.
A surprise double winner at the 2004 Golden Globes for Best Actor (Gervais) and Best Comedy Series, the BBC "Office" remains one of the greatest single accomplishments in the history of comedic television. This is not to say that the American version is deficient in some way – I don’t intend this in any way to be a comparison of the two. It’s a testament to Carell and company that they’ve achieved such success because many in the industry, including vocal fans of the original like David Letterman, were quite skeptical of the decision to mess with something so sacred. But make no mistake, as good as the American "Office" can be at times, it pales in comparison to the subtle, heartbreaking perfection of the BBC version and fails, through no fault of its own, to reach the lofty heights that Gervais and Merchant achieved with their landmark production.
For fans of the American version, the premise of the series is identical to the original – only the location and character names were changed. A documentary crew films the ho-hum proceedings at a local paper supplier where Brent (Gervais) regales his underlings with a succession of painfully bad jokes, impressions, and musical numbers, all colored by a hilarious lack of self-awareness and cultural sensitivity. Cleverly edited talking-head segments introduce us to the other primary characters. Mackenzie Crook plays the cadaverish, militarily-obsessed Gareth Keenan, who delights in his role as Brent’s toady, terrorizing his unfortunate desk mate Tim, played by Martin Freeman. Tim is our Everyman, a voice of reason with whom we can identify, whose priceless glances at the camera perfectly capture his frustration with the soul-crushing inanity that surrounds him. Tim harbors an apparently unrequited crush for close friend Dawn (Lucy Davis), the office secretary who shares his sense of humor but is engaged to Lee, a selfish lout who works out in the warehouse.
One aspect of the BBC "Office"’s greatness is its relative brevity. So many wonderful shows that start out promisingly inevitably falter because they simply try to milk it for too long. "The Office" ran for only two seasons, with each season consisting of six half-hour episodes, followed by a ninety minute Christmas finale that actually aired two years after the second season finished its run. The result is a lean, mean comedy machine without a misstep – a mere 7-1/2 hours of constant laughter combined with unexpected, genuine moments of pathos. Although there are some notable standouts, the episodes are best viewed in order because they do comprise a running storyline. In Season One, the cloud of possible mass redundancies (a wonderfully British euphemism for firings) hangs over the staff at Wernham Hogg as Tim and Dawn’s relationship begins to bloom. Season Two brings additional cast members as a branch from the neighboring town of Swindon is incorporated into the office and David tries way too hard to be popular with his new audience. And finally, the long-awaited Christmas special provides a riotously funny, tear-jerking, incredibly satisfying conclusion to the beloved series. It’s everything that the "Seinfeld" series finale was not.
There are so many reasons to recommend this classic but I’ll name just a few. First and foremost, Ricky Gervais is undoubtedly one of the two or three funniest living humans. Jerking on his tie, swallowing nervously, and flashing that trademark overbite as he lapses into managerial double-speak to worm his way out of another embarrassing situation, he is at once repellent and sympathetic, an insufferable boor who desperately wants to be loved. Check out Episode Four of Season One, widely considered to be the best of the series, to discover the quintessential David Brent, interrupting a training session to serenade the staff with songs from his ill-fated music career. The dance he performs during the Comic Relief episode must be seen to be believed. But despite his pathetic attempts to grab the spotlight, Gervais imbues Brent with a humanity that makes us root for this slob in spite of ourselves. The closing moments of Season Two are surprisingly moving as a result, although Brent’s final words of perverse wisdom quickly restore the laughs.
As much as we love the shenanigans of David Brent and marvel at Gareth’s creepiness, at its heart "The Office" is a love story in the most classic sense. The Tim and Dawn saga is the backbone of the entire series and is handled deftly by both the writers and performers. Freeman and Davis share an undeniable chemistry, whether innocently flirting under the watchful eye of Dawn’s fiancé Lee, marveling at another one of Brent’s inappropriate comments, or winding up Gareth about his military experiences. It’s no wonder that their story’s resolution packs such an emotional wallop in the finale – what happens in the end is well worth the wait and guaranteed to crank up the waterworks for those easily moved.
"The Office" is at its best in capturing the uncomfortable silence following a joke that went flat, the almost unbearable tedium of a mundane office job with no better prospects on the horizon, and the vain strivings of the profoundly untalented. But it does so without judgment, without even a whiff of a condescending tone. The cinema verite approach proves incredibly effective here, lending an element of realism to the wildly comical proceedings, allowing characters to connect with us directly through their confessional interviews. It’s almost hard to watch at times, so funny it hurts. But I guess in the end, tragedy and comedy have always gone hand in hand.
Available on DVD separately or as the complete "Office" collection, it remains “Must-See TV” both for fans of the American version and for anyone with a modicum of intelligence, a sense of humor, and a love for life’s little absurdities. Each disc contains innumerable extras, including blooper reels, deleted scenes, music videos, and extensive documentary features and cast interviews, all well worth checking out. It’s the type of series that rewards multiple viewings, especially when British accents are involved, so I’d suggest buying it. I’m confident in saying that you won’t be disappointed. Incidentally, Gervais and Merchant have already shed the one-hit wonder label with their brilliant new series "Extras" on HBO, soon to be released on DVD. Filming for Season Two is wrapping up this month and should premiere on HBO sometime early next year.