The Office, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Work Experience’ (1×02)

In some ways, Work Experience exists as an extension of the first episode of The Office, in how it frames itself around a similar story structure.

Just as the tour that David Brent gives incoming temp Ricky works as a device to introduce Wernham Hogg and the culture within the office, here the action is framed around a similar tour being given to Donna, a new office assistant who Brent has taken on temporarily as a favour to his friends Ron & Elaine (the real life names of Stephen Merchant’s parents incidentally). Whereas Downsize was designed to use this device as a way of setting the scene of the office and Brent’s personality, Work Experience is predominantly focused on exploring the culture inside the office and, particularly, the institutionalised level of sexism that becomes apparent with the arrival of Donna and thanks to images being shared of pornography adapted for comedy purposes.

It makes a lot of sense for Ricky Gervais & Merchant to do this in the second episode, having established the setting, because the culture and tone employed in so crucial to understanding The Office and what the documentary captures about not just Wernham Hogg but office culture as a whole. Donna is young and attractive, if seemingly quite working class and with zero interest in a role she has clearly been corralled into doing, but the treatment of her is instantly appalling in a manner that the show recognises as such while mining as much comedy out of the built-in misogyny as possible. This is often the delicate balance The Office treads, and for the most part stays on the right side of – depicting cultural trends and behaviours in a corporate business environment that shouldn’t be present but have been allowed to perpetuate.

Work Experience doesn’t necessarily go down as the showiest episode of The Office, filled with truly memorable moments in the series’ run, but it’s a key establishing piece for the audience.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×15: ‘Facade’ (TV Review)

When ABC laid down the edict midway through Alias’ second season that the series needed to become less impenetrable to audiences, Facade in many respects feels the closest the series has yet come to providing the show the network perhaps wanted it to be.

Facade, barring one or two continuing narrative aspects, character beats and story ideas, is perhaps the most truly stand-alone episode of Alias yet. It is also, in many ways, certainly one of the best episodes of the third season, if not the entire series. It links to Season Three’s arch villains the Covenant, and ties directly back to a small dangling thread from Full Disclosure, but Facade is the first experiment with crafting a contained, focused narrative that could be watched independently of understanding the myriad amount of complex mythology and character stories Alias is built upon. In narrative construction, it also owes the biggest debt to date to one of the series’ primary influences: the 1960s iconic spy series Mission: Impossible.

Why now? Why create an episode like this as the show enters the last third of a season?

Though the primary reason is to build an episode around the special guest star of the week, Ricky Gervais, there is also a strange logic to Facade’s placement at this stage in Alias. It would have worked in the fourth season, a year which embraces stand-alone storytelling intentionally in the first half of the season, but Facade also exists within the strange nether-space of Alias between two distinct stages of the series’ mythology: the Prophecy and the Passenger. After Six and Blowback certainly advanced the duality inherent in the dynamics of Syd/Vaughn, Sark/Lauren, but from a narrative perspective they advance nothing of importance. Lauren doesn’t even feature in this episode at all. Alias is in a holding pattern that only starts to shift from Taken, next time, onwards.

In the third season, there is no better place for Facade. It exists almost independently of many of the plot lines and character stories around it. Maybe, in the strangest of ways, that’s a major reason why it works so well.

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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…”

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Film, Reviews

JOJO RABBIT is weak satire but full of heart (Film Review)

At a time when being a Nazi for many does not seem like a terrible proposition, Jojo Rabbit should have been a film to tear at the satirical jugular of recent history’s worst fanatical movement.

Taika Waititi on paper was surely the right writer-director to make this happen too. He has taken a hilarious, incisive scalpel to the traditionally serious supernatural tropes of vampirism and lycanthropy in What We Do in the Shadows and parlayed that eccentricity into his colourful sojourn into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, so you can imagine him looking at Nazism and understanding what he needed to take aim at for comedic purposes. The trailers suggest that to be the case; promoting Jojo Rabbit as a perky, plucky zany, ‘Allo ‘Allo-style comic adventure with Waititi hamming it up as an imaginary Adolf Hitler. Only… that’s not really what we get.

Jojo Rabbit is a surprisingly melancholy, somber affair, particularly after an opening first half an hour which establishes the life of young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten year old member of the Hitler Youth toward the end of World War Two who finds himself tormented by older boys who question his strength as a budding Nazi, especially given he’s doted on by his mother Rosie (an accented Scarlett Johansson). There are japes. There is dancing. There is a lightness of touch. Then he finds Jewish girl Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) being hidden at his home by his mother behind a wall and Waititi moves away from the Nazi lampooning into different, altogether more difficult tonal territory.

It’s that second act that causes Jojo Rabbit to collapse in on itself, losing its initial inertia as it attempts to use Jojo as a prism to explore difference, extremist thought, and naturally how, as Jojo’s friend Yorki (Archie Yates) puts it “definitely not a good time to be a Nazi”.

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Essays, TV

Alias Ricky Gervais: AFTER LIFE and the comedic therapy session

What happened to Ricky Gervais?

His latest major television project, After Life, feels like the culmination of this divisive, oft-controversial comedian and what he has been attempting to give audiences for almost 20 years, since The Office made him a household British and American name. Gervais, as grief-stricken widower Tony, has lost touch with the purpose of life to such a degree he no longer cares about offending anyone; and is resolved to say what he wants, when he wants, to whom he wants.“It’s like a superpower…” he boasts with the freedom of someone with nothing to lose.

Yet what on the face of it is billed as a dark, mordant comedy with a bad boy streak, with the wilfully offensive Gervais having the vehicle to create a comic monster filled with bitterness – David Brent spliced with One Foot in the Grave’s Victor Meldrew – never actually comes to bear. After Life is underpinned with a powerful sense of at times mawkish sentimentality to the point you wonder whether you should be laughing at the clear, telegraphed comedy built around Tony’s refusal to edit himself? It almost feels too personal to laugh at, given Gervais wants us to simultaneously wince and care about this broken, sad and nihilistic man.

What it left me wondering is this… is After Life really about Tony, or is it in some bizarre way about Ricky?

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Essays, TV

Revisiting… Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant’s EXTRAS

Looking at Extras, the second comedy project from Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, a decade on, you realise for all the Leveson enquiries, disgraced newspapers and changing models of television, the world of media and entertainment looks a great deal similar. Few lessons have been learned. Most structures and institutions remain the same.

Because, let’s not split hairs, Extras was and indeed remains a quite clear cautionary tale about the lure and subsequent perils of fame. Not just fame either but fame for fame’s sake, both of which are areas Gervais’ show touches upon the deeper it propels into its narrative over the course of two six part seasons and a feature-length Christmas special finale.

Extras turned out to be much like The Office, its predecessor that took Gervais from a memorably offensive supporting player on late-90’s edgy Channel 4 comedy and made him a star of international, indeed Hollywood proportions. Not in style, not even in story, but in the sense of how it constructed a story arc around a concept and concluded in strong, often quite dramatic fashion.

Though it lacked the iconic nature of The Office, Extras had the heart, many of the laughs, and certainly had the point of why it existed, right up to the very final scene.

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