It is understandable and logical to frame The Office as a comedic, documentarian look at office work and life as experienced by generations of workers. This is, first and foremost, its raison d’etre.
Yet under the surface, there lies a deeper layer of both exploration and subversion to Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant’s series: the presence of comedy and entertainment itself within the narrative. The show, revolving around hapless, deluded ‘fun’ boss David Brent and the employees of the Slough branch of paper merchants Wernham Hogg, is ostensibly about the titular office but this is simply the framework on which to present the show’s dissection of comedy & reality, and the growing juxtaposition of television and the real world, moreover how that world is presented and presents itself.
In that sense, The Office really did break the mould on arrival in 2001. It was format breaking while adapting a well-established format itself. In the penultimate episode, as Brent is attempting to pass himself off as a celebrity in a grocery shop, a man asks “are you that fat one from Airport?”. This is a reference to the BBC’s documentary series Airport which ran from 2000 to 2005 and the breakout star of that series, Jeremy Spake; a rather camp, stout employee with similar features to Brent. The Office exists, technically, in the same space, and in the concluding two episodes actively presents itself as a ‘show within a show’ in that sense.
Before that, however, as the series arrived, it was a BBC gamble that would pay off to a greater degree than anyone anticipated.
For one thing, as ubiquitous and all-encompassing Gervais might now be as a transatlantic star, in 2001 he and Merchant were a unknown quantity from the Home Counties and West Country respectively who had previously toiled in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the edgier arena of Channel Four late night comedy, contributing to series such as The 11 O’Clock Show (on which Sacha Baron Cohen made his name as Ali G) and developing projects such as Meet Ricky Gervais, an intentionally shambolic take on the traditional chat show format.
In all of these examples, Gervais played a darker extension of his own provocative personality; a rude, obnoxious creature filled with prejudice, boasting an arrogance that was later revealed as deep insecurity, especially when Merchant would play, in contrast, a perverted and eccentric ‘manager’ figure in scripted scenes. Their comedy was, to put it mildly, both of a certain taste and in many respects intentionally tasteless; what they sought was to both shock and render the audience implicit and uncomfortable in regards to their comedy. You laughed at Gervais’ persona but you were often unsure if you actually should, which stood in contrast to a great deal of comedy presented on British screens at the time.
Neither he nor Merchant, however, were anywhere close to breaking out as national or international hits. Their Channel Four comedy was niche, often strange, but always in retrospect on brand. Everything they did was about entertainment and the presentation of entertainment, beyond comedy into the realm of so-called ‘light entertainment’, that was profoundly post-modern in construction. They pioneered the post-modern trend of British comedy at a point the genre, in the U.K., was running in place.
This is not to say the 90s or indeed the end of the 90s was bereft of good or indeed great sitcoms. The Royle Family, which arrived in 1998, reconceptualised the idea of the home-based family sitcom by using the living room and kitchen areas of the home, predominantly, as the nexus for observational rather than plot driven comedy, built on naturalistic language and character motivation, working in real time – the epitome of ‘a slice of life’ and frequently extremely funny and moving as a result.
Surrealism peaked with the narratively dense One Foot in the Grave, an erudite blend of Gothic horror and traditional sitcom tropes; Father Ted, which adapted the contained, constrained essence of Fawlty Towers into a hyper-real, comic book-style deconstruction of the traditional family structure; The League of Gentlemen transformed sketch comedy into a dark, funhouse mirror inversion of old-fashioned ideas, shot through with a twisted, horror realism while balanced with a sarcastic pragmatism and, deep down, fairly end of the pier humour.
Comedy thrived in many of these examples but none of them fundamentally changed the relationship between the show and it’s audience in the way The Office would.
In all of those examples, and the majority of situation comedy of the era, a laughter track was included, even when scenes were shot on location (as they would be in The League of Gentlemen) rather than a studio, which for years had been the traditional environment. The audience had a complicity in those recordings but it was specifically one way – audiences would watch, laugh and have their enjoyment, purely as spectators, recorded in order for audiences at home to capture the same theatrical sense studio audiences, who would always be ‘warmed up’ beforehand, felt during the recording.
The Office did not exactly break the fourth wall, to use the famed parlance, but it found a structural mechanism to peek through it by utilising the documentary format, talking heads to clarify or contextualise aspects by speaking to camera (and by extension to us) and removing the laughter track. Audiences would now have to find the comedy in a series that would not, on the face of it, contain any ‘jokes’ in the traditional sense of the term.
The Office was not the first series to abandon the laughter track, or even canned laughter which would often be used in shows of that era. The aforementioned The Royle Family abandoned it, as did other comedy series that played with audience expectations and challenged the division of comedy and drama – Marion & Geoff, a series of shorts featuring Rob Brydon as a tragic taxi driver whose wife abandoned him, delivering a series of Alan Bennett-esque monologues to camera or Brass Eye and before it The Day Today, which directly spoofed news broadcasts and factual documentary series.
Certainly also People Like Us, a forerunner to The Office’s documentarian style which saw now disgraced actor Chris Langham play Roy Mallard, a well meaning but quite naive documentary maker who would depict various professions episode by episode. People Like Us failed to get a third series thanks to The Office being commissioned but the meta-awareness of its audience certainly inspired The Office, even just on a textual basis. What The Office managed to achieve was a synthesis of traditional tropes in situation comedy and more abstract series’, blending them into a fundamental shift in the reception of comedy by audiences.
Gervais and Merchant would, of course, later directly comment on this in their follow up series Extras, which in many respects dramatises their own efforts and difficulties in breaking through the BBC’s accepted vision of how comedy is made, and how unusual at this time an auteurist vision would be to pull off.
The Office does it, but Gervais’ Extras character Andy Millman does not, watching his own series about factory workers which he perhaps envisaged in the same pseudo-realistic nature of The Office churned out into a fusion of Are You Being Served? and the still to come Mrs Brown’s Boys. They might now be considered examples of ‘lowest common denominator’ comedy, perhaps an elitist term that would be chastised in the post-Brexit, culture war landscape, but one The Office is acutely aware of in how it depicts both class and various forms of educational strata. It features ordinary, fairly working class people in a somewhat deprived, sub-London town, but there is a constant undercurrent of working or even lower class values and the aspirational, sub-metropolitan world view of the New Labour generation.
In the grand sense of British comedy, however, these people are failures. The office of Wernham Hogg is, in some sense, their purgatory. There is a strong argument that every groundbreaking British comedy character is rooted in existential ennui, tragic insecurity, cosmic bad luck and practical failure. Tony Hancock pioneered such nihilism in the post-war comic bleakness of Hancock’s Half Hour in the 60s. John Cleese presents Basil Fawlty in the 70s as a post-colonial, repressed bag of tortured neuroses in Fawlty Towers. David Jason’s Del-Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses is the deluded extremis of 80s Thatcherite myth, the fallacy of neoliberal self-improvement that promises success on one hand but guarantees it only for the class above Del-Boy on the other.
Steve Coogan presents Alan Partridge across the 90s as a bitter representation of these false promises; the radio DJ with delusions of grandeur, chronically undercut by his own prejudice and incompetence in life and his work. David Brent is the symbolic character for the 2000s and an extension of many of these previous examples; Brent has the repressed sexual anxiety of Basil, the false aspiration of Del-Boy, and the consistent lack of skill and temperament of Alan. Yet he remains unique in that he exists in a world where these examples live and breathe in his mind.
Brent is a comedy character born of comedy creations.
There is perhaps the greatest overlap with Partridge in that they both inhabit worlds where they have a knowledge of or understanding of BBC entertainment, or at least Brent believes he does.
Partridge will often name drop real life people in entertainment who have faded somewhat in the public eye – Bill Oddie, Sue Cook etc… – and the comedy we extract comes from the world of what The Office’s Ricky might describe as “old entertainment”, and Alan’s belief that knowing these people makes him the kind of celebrity everyone else can see he isn’t. Brent rather name drops characters like Basil Fawlty in terms of the comedy he employs to ‘entertain’ the workers in the office – indeed in Merger he recreates the famous ‘funny walk’ scene from Fawlty Towers’ The Germans. He describes his influences as “Milligan, Cleese, Everett” adding “Sessions” to land the laugh. Brent and Gervais here, as they frequently will, unify as one in terms of the mindset Brent as a character he employs.
Every character Gervais plays in his work feels like an extension of facets of his own personality. Brent’s particularly is his obsession with comedy and entertainment. This places Brent as the natural evolution both of a deluded, failed entertainer like Alan Partridge and equally the kind of arrogant yet deeply insecure characters Gervais played before he created The Office. The difference is that Brent is not intentionally offensive or cruel. He never sets out to directly mock gay people or people of colour or disabled people, indeed his prejudice is often born out of desperately trying to prove, to camera, that he doesn’t hold these views.
The probability is that Brent does have a great deal of institutional prejudice as a white middle aged man who grew up in a world of developing, but not ingrained multiculturalism and gender evolution, but we never see Brent when he isn’t ‘performing’ for the camera. The aspects of his real personality always emerge in what he doesn’t say, or has to apologise for, or blunders into, but the only real moment of truth we see from Brent comes in two places. Firstly, in second series finale Interview, when he begs to keep his job when faced with redundancy, and finally the very last episode when he tells his ‘best mate’, Chris Finch, to “fuck off”.
Beyond that, he never directly allows the veil to slip.
The same can be said of the other key characters who form the basis of The Office and, indeed, the central narrative arc that Gervais & Merchant employ, because they regularly disguise the presence of continuing story development through what would appear the fairly static existence of Wernham Hogg.
We see it most acutely in the romance of Tim (Martin Freeman) & Dawn (Lucy Davis), he a bored sales rep who survives in a job he hates in no small part thanks to she, the office receptionist trapped in a relationship that doesn’t truly work. They epitomise the closeness yet distance of colleagues in a contained environment and as we never see them truly beyond the office a great deal, we are left to the small snippets of information Gervais & Merchant give us about their lives to ascertain how their dynamic seems to exist in an office-based vacuum. Would Tim & Dawn even work as a couple beyond an office environment where their sense of humour and easy going dynamic works completely, and where both are miserable when not around the other? The Office allows us to draw our own conclusions come the end.
Nevertheless, the series presents Tim & Dawn’s relationship as the audience’s emotional attachment to a series that, ostensibly, could appear quite alienating, filled with otherwise charmless or even deeply irritating and unlikeable characters. They rank among the great ‘ships’ in television history alongside iconic pairings such as Mulder & Scully in The X-Files, their unrequited love for each other expressed in everything they don’t say – longing looks, unfinished sentences, thoughts that say one thing and mean another. There is a rare magic to their chemistry on screen and what their dynamic actually expresses, and serves as one of the core driving truths of the show – that The Office is really about the need for companionship and validation from other human beings.
Trapped in their existential hell, a Sartre’s paradise, Tim & Dawn’s ebb and flow realisation that they care for each other as more than just work friends, even with all of the barriers that press upon them, Tim particularly, that it could never happen, is a deeply touching and emotive story to experience. Rarely in television do you root for two people more.
Their experience leans toward the combination of fantasy, comedy and tragedy that underpins the dual significant narrative arc of the series – the rise and fall of David Brent.
Gervais & Merchant might ostensibly be creating a Seinfeldian ‘show about nothing’, but The Office—much like Seinfeld—is anything but. Downsize begins the series with an existential problem of its own – the impending reduction of the Slough branch as Wernham & Hogg downsizes, with Brent forced to prove the fiscal efficacy of his branch against their counterparts (unseen until the second season) in neighbouring Swindon. Brent fails to react to this challenge, singularly unaware of the import placed upon him – not just of what’s at stake, but in terms of the colleagues he claims to protect and nurture who are at risk of redundancy. Brent is more concerned with showboating before the camera – proving his progressiveness with women’s rights in Work Experience, chasing educated glory in The Quiz, attempting to validate his own thwarted career as a singer songwriter in Training, and on and on. Brent runs toward catastrophe—hiring new staff, undermining staff training—when he should be the vanguard against it.
As the realities of Swindon’s incorporation into Slough become apparent, Brent falls further from denial into outright fantasy. Unable to cope with the presence of Neil (Patrick Baladi), his Swindon equivalent turned direct superior, embodying everything he wants to be as a middle aged man—attractive, charming, competent and crucially funny to his staff—Brent becomes increasingly reliant on the projected image of himself not just as a fun boss who is more friend than manager, but of a budding stand up comedian and “chilled out entertainer”. He attempts a bit in Merger that turns into a car crash; he segues into tortuous motivational speaking in Motivation, extolling meaningless cod-philosophy as if he’s fronting a gig; and in Charity he does an impromptu dance for Comic Relief that ranks amongst the cringe-worthiest scenes in comedy history. Fantasy finally catches up to reality and the inevitable happens – he loses a safety and security in the workplace he took for granted.
Brent’s arc comes full circle from the opening scene of Downsize as he hires a worker he is later forced to fire through to his own downfall, only one that could have been prevented had he focused on his actual job rather than the life, and career, he wishes he had.
The only character in The Office who might be truly comfortable in both their own skin and their dowdy, uninspired surroundings is Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), the epitome of office workplace geeky fastidiousness.
A lanky, humourless drone himself with delusions of grandeur, he evolves from Brent’s stooge in the first series to his logical replacement. Gervais & Merchant use Gareth, certainly at the beginning, as their vehicle for some of the less palatable jokes and comments in the series, presenting him as deeply ignorant and prejudiced, if not a complete idiot – the constant butt of Tim & Dawn’s jokes given his complete inability to laugh at himself or engage socially with his peers on an equal level. Yet the series softens toward him, the second presenting him more as a sad, somewhat perverted figure before the finale episodes establish him as the new boss perfectly in tune with his surroundings. Gareth will never have the misguided aspirations of Brent, or even the listless wish to escape of Tim. He fits perfectly the purgatorial office environment because he sees it entirely differently to everyone else. To Gareth, this is success.
From a modern gaze, the presentation of Gareth raises certain interesting questions about how The Office engages both with mental health and indeed additional needs. Gervais finds jokes in physically disabled people but the joke on Gareth, a man who is very likely boasting undiagnosed additional needs, is perhaps crueller. One could even argue Tim & Dawn are guilty of the kind of institutionalised bullying that Brent has allowed to foster and fester in how they taunt, trick, cajole and manipulate Gareth for their own sarcastic amusement.
Again, The Office plays with perceptions of intelligence; Tim & Dawn consider themselves equals with a similar sense of self-knowing, post-modern humour that Gareth will never understand as he makes literal everything he hears or is told – such as when one of the office girls asks him to put in an email his intentions to have anal sex casually. It’s a joke Gareth is unable to see. From a distance, this is both funny and not, perhaps because Gareth’s intentions are genuine, however creepy and mercenary they can sometimes be. He is as he presents and, on that basis, is perhaps the truest character in the show. Everyone else is playing their own character.
Which takes us back to the theatre of comedy and how, in the final two episodes, billed as a Christmas Special in 2003, The Office moves even deeper into meta-commentary about presentation and performance. The documentarian aspects baked into how the show looks, sounds and is written become a narrative device, as the office workers are revisited by the BBC after the original two series debuted on television. This innovates what The Office is trying to do on an even deeper level, as Brent actually does become the well-known entertainer he always dreamed of, just rather for the wrong reasons. He isn’t known to the assumed fairly limited documentary audience who watched The Office within the show’s continuity as the fun, chilled out boss he saw himself as, but rather the “boss from Hell”, which is appropriate given the purgatorial undercurrent of Wernham Hogg. Brent’s perception of himself is coloured by the perception given by the documentary, which he blames for subsequent poor treatment by the press and public, calling it a “stitch up”.
Here, The Office confirms itself entirely as a show that was all about perception and how entertainment is born from our misguided conception of how we exist to others. Everyone, in whatever workplace, plays a character, a version of themselves either more polite or more professional or even more charming or comical or working or middle class. We play a part around colleagues we don’t know like close friends or family because we seek to be perceived in a certain way, and this underscores everything we see in The Office, with the only difference being these people know they are being filmed. The unwritten contract with the unseen documentary crew is key because it changes behaviour. Brent plays up to it. Gareth tries to present himself as worldly wise. Tim becomes acutely aware of how his feelings toward Dawn are being presented to the public.
The show purports to portray a ‘slice of life’, and no doubt the producers would have told these characters to “be themselves”, but that isn’t what happens, particularly with Brent. He sees this as his opportunity for the limelight, stardom and crucially validation he has, to date, failed to achieve.
The series would have been markedly different if there had been no documentary crew, if the characters had been unaware they were being filmed, and Gervais & Merchant had simply shot the series in that style.
Early on in making the show, they feared too often they were playing to traditional sitcom formats they were desperate to avoid, and included clearer practical gags as a result. In time, they learned that the nuance came from the space between interactions, and allowing the naturalism within the performance of these characters to come through. In the final two episodes, the dynamic changes as the documentary crew gain voices, gain a stake in the drama, and Brent, Tim, Dawn etc… have to deal with the aftermath of their presentation. Gervais & Merchant then build on these ideas, more directly interacting with the basis of comedy production, in Extras, but the grounding of it is here. Brent’s obsession with celebrity descends into a painful realisation of cruel truth – cheesy cash in pop songs that don’t sell, autographs for people who mistake him for someone else, and soul-sucking personal appearances in clubs filled with drunken revellers who just want him off stage.
Yet the tragedy of The Office refuses to be all pervading as in many of the other comedy examples cited here. Basil Fawlty will never escape that Torquay hotel. Del Boy will always lose whatever step up the ladder he achieves. Alan Partridge will eternally be hamstrung by his own crippling lack of awareness and fundamental talent. David Brent is one of the few tragic British comedy creations offered a way out of the office. He is given the opportunity to start again and find what he truly always wanted in the first place – to be loved by someone. Whether he takes it is left up to the audience to decide, in much the same way as whether Tim & Dawn will make it, and indeed sequel movie David Brent: Life on the Road suggests Brent will probably never quite give up on the dream of stardom, even if again Gervais offers him an olive branch.
The Office differs in that regard, perhaps reflecting a less nihilistic and punishing approach to comedy and tragedy. Cleese & Coogan revel in their characters’ misery but Gervais wants him to be ok, and we see this repeated in the sentimentality he brings to future, lesser projects such as Derek or After Life.
Again, this suggests the strange intersection The Office inhabits between reality, comedy and metafiction.
Gervais is playing himself as well as David Brent in places. The show has a slight sense of autobiography, though not to the extent of Extras or later After Life in some respects. It positions itself as striking and original as a comedic piece while maintaining a level of reality and awareness that mimics the rise, around the same time, of incumbent ‘reality TV’ with Big Brother in 2000, outside of the already successful ‘fly on the wall’ documentary series that The Office takes a cue from. It hybridises these aspects into a series which takes a very specific approach to office work, and comedic presentation, rejecting many of the established tropes and forms of British comedy series, while ultimately being quite traditional in terms of story, narrative and character.
This is one major reason why The Office broke out into the mainstream, the final two episodes airing on BBC1 as opposed to BBC2 in a prime time Christmas slot, and spawning not just a hugely successful, long-running US remake but a litany of series which adapted and downright copied the show’s stylistics, often to lesser effect. The Office makes you laugh in the spaces most comedy series never even think to inhabit, and therein lies its unique genius.
To paraphrase David Brent, “you will never watch a sitcom like this again. Fact”.
Check out more detailed reviews episode by episode of the series:
Series 1 (2001)
Season 2 (2002-2003)
Christmas Special (2003)
- Part 1
- Part 2