The Office, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Downsize’ (1×01)

The opening episode of The Office establishes, in broad strokes, the majority of storylines and thematic ideas that will run across the entirety of the two series and fourteen episodes of the show’s run.

Downsize first and foremost introduces the key, signature character of David Brent, our protagonist as played by co-writer/director Ricky Gervais, and placed him in context. Brent, almost immediately, works as a comedic creation. Gervais, and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant, provide an opening scene which gives us a very clear flavour of who Brent is – a self-aggrandising joker desperate to impress, yet without the arrogance that would distance him from the audience. Gervais plays Brent so painfully cheesy and wilfully, blissfully unaware of how uncool he is, that you can’t help but immediately find him funny. His opening monologue, delivered to an incumbent forklift driver called Alex, is a perfect introduction.

Gervais and Merchant then swiftly introduce the office setting that will be crucial in their depiction of a workplace purgatory; a status quo of middle England static inertia, characterised in how drab Slough—the location of paper merchants Wernham Hogg—is presented in the credits. Concrete edifices, a holdover from the brutalist architecture of the 1960s that infested towns across England; roundabouts; eternally overcast skies; and finally the view of an office building that could be any industrial estate in the country. The interior is equally unremarkable, and indeed was constructed as a set around a largely defunct office space that Gervais & Merchant wanted to retain the shabbiness off – a sense of eternal coffee stains and badly cleaned interiors. The employees themselves appear lifeless and drained of energy for their work.

It is perhaps the introductory to camera moment for Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), one of the audiences’ relatable surrogates, that perhaps sums up the initial impression of the setting of this new comedy. “I’m a sales rep, which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantity and type of paper, whether we can supply it to them and whether they can pay for it… and I’m boring myself talking about it…”

Downsize, as a pilot episode, was based on a great deal of uncertainty, trust and gut instinct as Gervais & Merchant began production.

The BBC, and particularly those running the comedy and entertainment departments of the BBC—Jon Plowman & Jane Root at the time—took some convincing that The Office was a worthwhile endeavour. Gervais and Merchant were entirely unknown quantities in the year 2000, known largely for a niche vein of late night, edgy comedy on Channel Four in which Gervais played an intentionally arrogant, prejudiced version of his own personality. After meeting Merchant when he hired him as an assistant while working at XFM radio (where they would be produced by eventual podcast collaborator Karl Pilkington), and forging a writing partnership with him, Gervais would appear on cult Channel Four series The 11 O’Clock Show in this persona and eventually get his own pastiche chat show, Meet Ricky Gervais, with Merchant cuckolding him as a perverted manager behind the scenes.

In advance of this, Merchant had joined the Trainee Assistant Producer Scheme at the BBC (TAPS) in the late 1990s where he met eventual producer of The Office, Ash Atalla, and with Gervais created a short comedy film that would serve as the primary genesis for the series called ‘Seedy Boss’, in which the character of David Brent first appeared in rough form, boasting similar characteristics to the eventual Brent we would see on screen, extending a character Gervais had performed for friends casually in the past. Merchant utilised the same stylistics The Office would later employ but admits that a level of unintentional happenstance led to that approach in the first place:

We shot it in the documentary style because that was the quickest way to do it. We only had a camera crew on the day, so we decided to do it that way because it would forgive and kind of dodgy lighting or noise or clunks, and just meant we could do it a lot quicker. We also realised that if we interviewed the character we could get more stuff in the can without lots of lengthy set ups.

This proof of concept, alongside the track record of Gervais & Merchant in their Channel Four fare, saw the BBC commission a pilot episode of what would become The Office due to low cost overheads due to the documentarian, apparently verite approach. Boasting an unknown, cheap cast (at the time) and a single location, Downsize was not too heavy a risk for the BBC to take, despite reservations from almost everyone involved that The Office was actually funny. Though The Royle Family had succeeded free of a laughter track, operating in real time and capturing the naturalistic cadence of working class family dialogue, The Office did not ostensibly provide the established norms of what to expect from a comedy series. You knew you were supposed to laugh at Jim or Barb or Denise or Dave in The Royle Family.

It was less clear whether you should be laughing with or at David Brent.

One of the broadest concerns of Gervais & Merchant going into the series was that it would lean too heavily into the sitcom environment when, in reality, there is no direct ‘situation’ that underpins The Office.

Brent is not a trapped character in the vein of Basil Fawlty or even Alan Partridge – Brent has transformed the office environment into his own platform for humour and passing himself off as a wannabe entertainer. The majority of sitcoms, especially great sitcoms, are built on a character or characters desperate to escape their circumstances in various different ways. Brent does want to escape but rather proactively rather than reactively. He sees the documentary crew filming the ‘fly on the wall’ slice of life series about his unremarkable office as his potential meal ticket, a way of communing with an audience he believes he should always have found. He talks about himself when claiming ‘wasted talent’ is his biggest frustration with the job: “People could come to me and they’d go, “excuse me, David, but you’ve been in the business for twelve years, can you just spare us a moment to tell us how to, ya know, run a team, how to keep them task-orientated as well as happy”. But they don’t. That’s the tragedy.”

Yet at the same time, Brent presents to the audience, both us as the view and on a meta textual level the audience in the series’ universe watching the eventual documentary, a world in which he directs the entire culture of the office. Ben Walters points out in his critical reading of the series, how in the opening monologue Brent is talking to three sets of people at once:

To Sammy, he’s discussing a new employee; to Alex, he’s demonstrating his clout and magnanimity; and to the cameras crew (and, through them, the audience at home), he’s showing what a great boss-cum-entertainer he is. Time and again, the botched negotiation of such boundaries will be central to the series’ action, and in Brent’s case it’s usually that desperate stare into the camera he’s tried so hard to nonchalantly charm that gives the game away.

Brent is immediately fascinating as a main character because the audience can instantly see through him. Everyone has worked for or at least met a Brent; outwardly confident, self-aggrandising, even visibly arrogant, and obsessed with finding a joke wherever they can. The reactions of everyone in the office to him is telling – a combination of appeasement and bafflement at the brace of jokes & pop culture reference points he throws at people, expecting reactions he seldom gets (consider how the moment he hears the name ‘Ricky’, he launches immediately into a Bianca from EastEnders impression). The only possible exceptions to this is his confederate Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a fastidious jobsworth who titles himself “assistant regional manager” (always corrected by Brent as “assistant to the regional manager”) and even his boss, Jennifer, probably because she isn’t around enough to witness his behaviour.

Everyone else seems to have accepted that Brent is not that funny, a bit weird, and they have existed so long in the null-space of such a low dynamism office environment that they have simply accepted this is who Brent is.

Nonetheless, there are hints of tragedy lurking in the background.

Dawn suggests that Brent suffered some kind of breakdown as the episode provides a mechanism to introduce the series in Ricky (Oliver Chris), a temp who Brent takes on a hour of what little there is to see in the office, but who voices Dawn’s comment. “I haven’t had a nervous breakdown” Brent rejects and Dawn gives Ricky a look that says “why did you say that?”. This suggests an unspoken acceptance of historical fact and reality that they just do not speak about, perhaps even to spare Brent’s feelings as they collectively, even unspoken, accept his deep insecurity as a manager. There is even the suggestion of Brent’s heavy drinking, another sign of deep depression, which Brent attempts to frame as part of his youthful, ‘crazy’ attitude to life, getting bladdered (or “blottoed” to betray his middle aged reality), but which he equally understands is a cover for deeper anxieties, as he grows defensive at the suggestion from Dawn that he drinks too much. Brent wants to control the perception of himself as much as possible to the watching cameras.

Brent nevertheless remains entirely oblivious, or has convinced himself of a truth that he can’t bear not to accept. “People say I’m the best boss. They go “Oh, we’ve never worked in a place like this before, you’re such a laugh, you get the best out of us.” and I go, ya know, “c’est la vie.” If that’s true, excellent.” You know, even as he says it, that nobody has ever remotely said anything like this to him. Brent, therefore, exists in a constructed fantasy version of the work environment in which he is both boss, friend and comedian. “I suppose I’ve created an atmosphere where I am a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third.” He presents himself as such to Alex, and later to Ricky, as he introduces the castle in which he is king, or which he likes to perceive himself as king. He introduces other office workers under his aegis as “absolutely mental”, when they appear anything but. He is obsessed with presenting himself as ‘one of the lads’ and, indeed, has visibly fostered a culture where off colour sexist and potentially racist remarks are endemic and institutionalised, partly thanks to his lack of oversight.

We see this in how he presents Chris ‘Finchy’ Finch, who leaves an answer phone message in advance of us meeting him proper in The Quiz, as a “bloody good rep” in front of Jennifer before Finchy starts openly talking about how much he would shag Brent’s (and his) boss, and Brent turns in order to distance himself from remarks he would have both laughed at and joined in on behind Jennifer’s back. He calls her “Camilla Parker-Bowles” behind her back, after all, and The Office here provides the first evidence of class culture that ripples beneath the show. Jennifer is visibly middle class, educated; the kind of woman who grew up within a workplace culture rife with sexism but prospered in part due to her social status. She is afforded a level of basic respect from Brent at least because of her role as his boss, but Brent does not extend this respect to the other female employees in the office.

Early on, he makes a tasteless joke about “waking up at the crack of Dawn” which goes down like a lead balloon. He shows pinned up cartoons of women being drawn lasciviously and attempts to cover up the misogyny. “Does my bum look big in these?” It’s not sexist that’s the bloke saying it… at last. So, all for that, all for that in the workplace.” He quotes the well known Arabella Weir catchphrase from sketch show The Fast Show here, which again was another current cultural reference point at the time, and a sketch entirely designed to examine female anxiety about body image in relation to men around her. Brent shouldn’t be going anywhere near these topics as a white middle aged man but they are part of the endemic culture, as is a latent level of established racism. 

The moment with sales rep Sanj (Paul Sharma), is fleeting but more than a little telling. Brent confuses Sanj with “the other one” when he tells Ricky the guy can do a great Ali G impression. Sanj questions his meaning “the other what… P*ki?”. Brent then suggests that word is racist but it’s a powerful moment. Sanj looks to the camera briefly for authentication, backed into using a racial slur frequently employed at the time against the British Asian population—perhaps more taboo now but still sadly utilised—and troubled by Brent’s meaning. Brent may not say the word but the inference is clear – he couldn’t distinguish between two Pakistani employees and he encourages them to perform a character who himself is a pastiche of black stereotypes. Incidentally, the reference is not just current for the time but also slightly meta, as Sacha Baron Cohen first brought Ali G to audiences through The 11 O’Clock Show where Gervais cut his teeth. Even more tellingly, we never see Sanj again but Brent alludes to him in the next season when he suggests they once had an Asian employee when defending his largely white workforce. “He left, didn’t like it, up to him”. It’s not hard to imagine why.

Downsize therefore presents what appears to be an office of unremarkable people working in rather tedious, monotonous environments. It recalls an updated aesthetic that a documentarian such as Humphrey Jennings would be proud of; someone who produced kitchen sink depictions of WW2 Britain emerging from the doldrums. If anything, The Office presents a Britain emerging from a 1990s that went from economic bust to cultural boom with New Labour. Life was stable when The Office arrived, perhaps too stable. Tim could very easily become a Tyler Durden from Fight Club in different circumstances – the white collar worker emptied of purpose as one of the “middle children of history. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”

Chuck Palahniuk could have been describing the existentialism of The Office that exists within the setting and characters such as Tim and to an extent Dawn.

In many respects, Tim is our accessibility point as an audience.

If we can assume people who watch The Office are relatively well educated urbanites who enjoy satirical comedy with intelligence, then Tim provides the sarcastic window into the series from a point of sanity. He is the straight man who sees the place for what it is – a void. He seems to like Brent well enough, indeed their interactions across the series are relatively brief, but he thrives only on two things: his unrequited love for Dawn, and tormenting Gareth, when not infuriated by him. He doesn’t care that redundancies might happen, or at least that he might be made redundant. He doesn’t like or truly care about his job. In Downsize, we see him eke out some semblance of joy about his day by putting Gareth’s stapler in a jelly, before erecting a tower of office files to prevent looking at him. “You bring me down to this!” Tim declares as Gareth gets more and more irate, passing the blame for his pranks to the pranked, to the colleague who lacks the social skills or understanding to appreciate Tim’s sense of humour in any way.

Curiously, Tim also doesn’t really seem to be playing up to the camera. You sense he would be doing this even when the cameras are off. It’s the kind of zany behaviour Brent believes he has engendered, and he certainly has fostered an environment where Tim has the time and space to do this, and later drop the stapler out of the window, without a superior explaining his behaviour is unprofessional. Tim would probably stop if someone said that to him but he knows Brent never will. Brent is more interested in making dessert jokes out of the moment, despite Gareth’s understandable frustration. He sees it as an opportunity for comedy, before the cameras, perhaps to reinforce the image of what he believes his fiefdom actually is, when in truth it says quite the opposite. Tim’s actions suggest an environment free of accountability in which the only way to get through the crushing boredom of the day is to wind someone up or make jokes. It says more about the office environment as a conceptual idea.

There is a certain nihilism about an office, certainly in terms of working in the kind of dry organisation of Wernham Hogg. There is a sense that you could remove any of these people and replace them and nothing would essentially change, which is a rather depressing thought. The New Labour years were primed to suggest a new prosperity made up of greater social mobility and “education, education, education” but The Office, a few years after the launch of that project, suggests a Britain listless as a result. Tim later reveals he dropped out of university, after all. Dawn we later learn is a frustrated, and indeed very good, fine artist. They are clearly well matched as friends, with a frisson of attraction, but they probably should have met at University as opposed to an office in their late 20s where Tim is counting the minutes before he goes home and Dawn is making do with Lee, a handsome but rather bland warehouse operative.

Downsize quietly introduces a dynamic between them that will blossom, ebb and flow but establishes the core functions of their character succinctly. They are slumming it and running in place.

If Downsize presents the office as Brent’s own personal playground, it also begins the primary narrative arc that will carry through the entirety of the show – the existential threat to Brent’s world.

Wernham Hogg is scaling back, for reasons unspecified, to just one branch instead of two and Brent will have to compete with his opposite in Swindon, Neil, as to which branch incorporates the other. Brent assumes Slough can do it, unable to comprehend the status quo he has fashioned being upended, and outwardly horrified at the possibility of redundancies happening. Yet he immediately leaks the information, setting the office ablaze with speculation as to what will happen, and compromising the professionalism of containing information. The only point this bothers him is when Dawn reveals to the staff, having minuted his meeting with Jennifer, that Slough might be in trouble after Brent arrogantly tells everyone they don’t have to worry. He is more interested in preserving the image he has created, or he thinks he has created, about himself as a boss in his staff’s mind.

Brent actually tries to frame himself as a literal David fighting the Goliath of ‘Head Office’, represented by Jennifer, in order to protect those who work under him. “This is my ship and I’m asking you trust me and you can’t go wrong” he tells them, more to goad from his staff the validation of hearing them say he is trusted than based on any practical honesty about the situation. Brent wants their trust, wants their faith, less for his vanity and more for his self-esteem than anything. He sees this as an opportunity for further acceptance rather than galvanising them to make whatever changes they need to make in order to convince Jennifer of their case. What does he do instead? Prank Dawn by pretending to sack her for gross misconduct in one of the most horribly misjudged gags Brent ever does on the show. Even Ricky, his unwitting partner in the prank, wants the ground to open up, let alone the audience. Dawn cries, genuinely convinced she’s being made unemployed after becoming aware of the downsizing plan, and Brent is left to roll back on his joke. Even he knows it failed. “You’re such a sad little man” she declares. “Am I?” Brent asks.

There is tragedy in this moment that underscores a great deal of what The Office already is, and will begin. It is a moment whereby Brent’s fantasy, his established world of humour and enforced friendship within an environment where he has been allowed to get away with such a toxic culture, falls away, and the sadness and smallness even of his world is revealed. The final monologue then reinforces it as Brent attempts to buy back into his hollow belief that he has a staff he has nurtured, who love him for what he says and does. “What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It’s the people. Investment in people.” In this, he is actually not wrong, but Brent’s investment is all one way. He takes without giving.

In these first thirty minutes, The Office establishes the tragic fantasy of an empty, hollow workspace for the 21st century. The remainder of this season, and the entire series, will show just how such a fantasy can utterly fall apart.

Check out our other reviews of The Office Series 1 here:

  • Downsize
  • Work Experience
  • The Quiz
  • Training
  • New Girl
  • Judgement

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