I must admit, the beginning of the aughts did not set my expectations high for television in the new millenium. Reality shows were in full controversial flux, with the likes of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and Joe Millionaire making headlines for bringing out the worst in people. There was the influx of boring game shows with Matrix-like sets (Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, The Weakest Link), the growth of procedural dramas, and the quite decline of my favorite genre, the sitcom. The nineties seemed impossible to top, having given us the greatness of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and The Simpsons at its best. The networks tried to hang onto the genre with flat family centered fare like Yes, Dear and According to Jim. But in 2001, a BBC show called The Office came along that reinvented the sitcom and made the aughts bearable long after its short run. Its American version, along with newer hits Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and even Arrested Development owe it a debt in terms of style and subtlety. The Office‘s influence is more potent than ever six years after its series finale.
With the American Office currently surfing that same tide that compelled Fonzie to jump the shark, it becomes clear that one of the smartest decisions Gervais and Merchant made with the original was letting it go in its prime. Part of this was due to early struggles with ratings, but on American television it is unheard of for a show to complete two seasons and two specials, achieve massive international success and acclaim, and then go quietly into the night. This decision leaves the show fresh in our minds and joyfully re-watchable; it hangs together like a film, and its seriality is emphasized and clear. No plot becomes unwieldy or far-fetched as so many sitcom plots do. The first season is more lighthearted and comedic, with the second season twisting into drama and bringing us to an almost gut-wrenching low point in the first Christmas special.
What remains most influential about The Office as a sitcom is its documentary-style set up, with cameras catching what appear to be offhand exchanges and conducting confessional-style interviews with characters. The dialogue is tightly scripted, and it’s a tribute to great writing and acting that it appears so off-the-cuff. It is through this innocuous lens that we meet David Brent, Gervais’s self-absorbed boss who tells juvenile jokes and talks in circles about his life and management philosophies (he’d like to be remembered as “the man who put a smile on the face of all who he met”). But he’s so much more than that. His childish jealousy and insecurity lead to a number of the show’s best moments (a singalong of his band, Foregone Conclusion’s, repertoire; a dance-off with Swindon boss Neil), and his personal experiences later in the series are the most affecting. We also have Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a character who is at once a serious know-it-all and a childish naif; Tim (Martin Freeman), a witty average joe who still, at the age of 30, sleeps in his childhood bedroom and has no idea what to do with his life; and Dawn (Lucy Davis), a bored receptionist set to marry a creep who won’t let her pursue her dream of being an artist.
We grow to love these characters despite the obvious flaws and poor decision-making of each, and in addition to laughing at and with them, we also feel wounded with Tim when he’s bullied by Chris Finch, trapped with Dawn when she moves to Florida with Lee, and rejected with David when he loses his job at Wernam-Hogg. We’ve all spent time in a place like Slough, less a town and more of a state of mind: bleak, confining, routine. The Office Christmas specials were the most impressive of the series because they weren’t afraid to dwell, to an uncomfortable extent, on the dark undertones of the show. The point of the Office, is seems to me, was to focus on the ways in which people get trapped in jobs and life, and how we cope with this by scaling our fantasies down and attempting to act them out within these confines. We see this in the way David slumps in his hotel after a degrading promotional appearance, and in the way Tim accepts David’s old position and begins adopting his own Brent-ish management speak.
The end of the series is, of course, some of the most satisfying television ever created (from Tim’s illustrated note to Dawn, “Never give up,” to David’s long-awaited dressing-down of Chris Finch). The characters seem to finally have what they need to move forward in life. The series doesn’t push it, however, so once the euphoria wears off we won’t be stuck seeing the characters’ lives falter once again. What makes The Office so special, I think, is something its imitators can’t get a handle on: dynamics. Like great composers, Gervais and Merchant attuned the audience to subtle shifts in mood. They brought us down and back up again, the whole time laughing, squirming, and feeling.