"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." - George Washington
Thursday, April 03, 2014
My favourite TV show: The Office
For those of us who were teenagers when Ricky Gervais' sitcom arrived, The Office was more than just a great comedy – David Brent and his colleagues formed the basis for the way we relate to each other
The Office is a television programme that people actually take with them when they go on holiday. It's true. Not only have I come across – and watched – The Office box set on a coach in Thailand, I've also seen it played by young-ish travellers in a restaurant in India and at a hostel in continental Europe. It's the next item on a traveller's list behind those musky blue towels and eight unopened packets of condoms because, well, there is no more ubiquitous piece of popular culture than a BBC2 mockumentary about a provincial paper merchant. In the 1960s, it would have been a ragged copy of Catch-22.
For people old enough to have worked in an office when the first episode aired in the summer of 2001, The Office is simply a very funny and influential sitcom. For people like me, who were only just teenagers, it's a lot more than that. When you grow up with something you love it starts to rub off on you. You can hear it in the way people speak. The intonations, the one word sentences and phrases like "big time". Obviously people said "big time" before Ricky Gervais but now everyone says it likeGervais. It's that mock-boastful way you sometimes hear when people start discussing plans for a night out.
I really started to notice the impact The Office was having on popular culture around five years after it came out. I was at university and Brentlemania was in full swing. In those first few weeks in halls, it became the common ground over which nervous friendships were forged and, ironically, any awkward silences – there were many – were filled with quotes from the show and a surprising number of references to Winnersh and Yately. One afternoon, God help us, we thought it might be a good idea to film a recreation of the opening scene from the second series, when they sing the Muppets' Mahna Mahna song. We really were that coolio. But perhaps what was most surprising was that a comedy set in the average workplace appealed so much to us – people too young to have spent much time in one. It proved good comedy is universal and eternal.
For me, the thing that really makes The Office so great is its subtlety. The characters themselves – bar Tim – aren't even particularly funny; what's funny is their fumbling, berkish slog through mundane life. Real people don't look like the cast of Friends and neither did anyone in The Office. Real people say the wrong thing, boast and pretend to be a little cooler than they really are. And so David Brent wasn't a freak, just an exaggerated version of us – albeit with slightly better dance moves.
But the real heart of the series – and the reason why I think it remains such a treasured programme around the world – is, of course, Dawn and Tim. Their relationship, constrained as it is by a documentary camera, became almost Austenesque in its heightened frustrations, every glance significant and every touch a moment of real intimacy. By the end, when they finally kiss for the first time, The Office became a sitcom that could bring you to tears.
It just feels more fully formed than many other similarly treasured sitcoms like Fawlty Towers or Yes, Minister because it has more heart. In The Office the tragic clown does get a reprieve. In the final episode, after hours of relentless humiliations, Brent finally stands up to his big enemy, Chris Finch, and tells him to f-off. And the shiver that runs down your spine as he says it reminds of just how much you like and relate to the annoying little man with the rubbish goatee – in a way that you never could with Basil Fawlty or Jim Hacker. In what was virtually the final shot of the series – when they take a last group photo – the laugh that Brent finally manages to elicit is an exquisite release. Years of sadness vanish in one moment of real laughter.
The Office didn't invent the comedy of awkwardness or realism but it finessed and polished it into something approaching high art. And, like high art, it will age well. Brent elucidating on the myriad qualities of Ian Botham – or Beefy – will always be funny. I think when Gervais andStephen Merchant sat down in a broom cupboard at the BBC all those years ago, they might have grazed genius – big time.