As titles for pieces go, I'm aware this one fits all too snugly into the hyperbole driven world of internet opinion, but in order to make a point about how strongly I feel about Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office (incredibly now 12 years old) I'll play along and set my stall out; I genuinely believe it to be the finest example of television ever broadcast.
I know it's a comedy, and comedy series aren't supposed to vie with the likes of The Sopranos or The Wire or Band of Brothers for such glories. But the fact is that The Office struck such a chord with so many viewers, and encompassed so much in terms of tragedy, humour, pure storyline and pathos that it transcends such categorization and moves unquestionably into the world of the classics. Plus, of course, there's 'that dance'.
Now that Gervais is introducing a whole new audience to David Brent via his excellent YouTube-based guitar tutorials, I felt it proper to revisit the fourteen episodes of The Office on DVD to remind myself just how good it really is. Astonishingly good is the answer. It's perfect. Not a line is wasted, not a glance to camera from one of the characters seems out of place. The pace should be too slow, but it isn't, because that's how long the working day can seem. The beauty of interspersing scenes with five seconds of a photocopier whirring, or a telephone ringing cannot be overstated; so much thought must have gone into every detail of taking a light and shining it back on all of our lives - those of us that sit each day with the same people doing the same tasks in the same building that is.
It's surprising to think that it was originally broadcast in a world pre-9/11, but indeed it was, on BBC Two in July 2001. That September date is often referred to as the day the world changed forever, but watching The Office now feels just the same as it did then, so deeply rooted is it in everyday routine and the mundane. This of course is where its genius lies; so many of us work or have worked in offices; they pretty much make this and every other country in the western world function. And most of us can tick off the characters in the show as the counterparts to people we work with - every office cliché is present and correct. The likes of Brent himself, or his lackey Gareth Keenan, or the monotone giant Keith may be exaggerated, but the reason The Office was such a hit (eventually that is, the BBC very nearly cancelled it due to low early ratings) worldwide was that 99% of us would sit watching it, cringing through knitted fingers and thanking the lord that this was only a television programme and not our office, while knowing our offices were exactly the same.
It's difficult to gauge just how influential The Office has been in terms of comedy or writing, mainly because the excellent US version has only just come to an end after eight years and nine series - and legacies are hard to truly judge without the sufficient passing of time. But certainly you can see its fingerprints in other smashes like Modern Family with its talking heads or Peep Show's 'hands-over-the-eyes' brand of toe-curling scenario, and the original scripts are already being studied as examples in University courses all over the country. There is no doubt that it will be seen as a classic alongside the much-vaunted Seinfeld or Fawlty Towers in many years to come, perhaps it has already taken its place. In my mind it is actually superior to both.
At the centre of it all is David Brent, that towering, cuban-heeled, goateed comic creation in a Sergio Georgini faux leather jacket so brilliantly played and written by Gervais that it's sometimes hard to remember whether bosses were Brent-like before The Office aired or just after it. Gervais doesn't need an ego boost; tongue in cheek or not he is the master of self-promotion, but I'll say it anyway, I can't think of another character that has resonated with as many people as Brent, ever. Obviously the versions of the Wernham Hogg boss in different countries' versions vary greatly, but they all stem from Brent and his ideologies. The boss who wants to be seen as everyone's mate, and as a 'chilled out entertainer' but manages neither of these things. The motivational talking and toe-curling management-speak vignettes. The success only in his own mind.
Gervais himself once said he believed Brent's popularity stemmed from the fact that deep down he's a nice guy and that we root for him despite it all. Actually I don't feel this; much as I can't be as bold as to tell the creator differently, I find Brent to be entirely odious, and without many, if any redeeming qualities at all. He's entirely self-centered and narcissistic, and doesn't appear to care for anyone else whatsoever. And for all that I think it makes him an even better character - when we look at our own bosses that we hate, do we think 'Ah well, I'll root for him anyway, I bet deep down he's great'? No, we just hate him. Or her.
If there's one scene in particular that sums up the perfection of The Office in just three minutes, it is in the fourth episode of the second series, where Tim (Martin Freeman) arrives back at his desk to find it occupied by the firm's IT man (Matthew Holness) who is fixing his computer. What follows is one of the best-acted, most beautifully scripted scenes in TV comedy history. The frustration of the daily grind, and with technology, and with work colleagues, is dealt with in a back and forth ("What are you doing with my computer?" "It's not your computer is it, it's Wernham Hogg's computer...") that I'm yet to see rivalled anywhere, on TV or in films for that matter.
If the passing of time has dulled your memory as to just how groundbreaking and downright quotable The Office was, I urge you to re-watch the episodes as soon as you can. Tim and Dawn's love story is just another facet that underpins the whole thing; and it's a tribute to how invested we were in these characters that I would suggest the moment the two finally got together at the end of the whole thing while Yazoo's Only You played in the background caused just as many wet eyes as the celebrated 'over the top' ending to Blackadder goes Forth.
Gervais has seen his career explode into Hollywood since The Office finished, and rightly so. If he has been criticised since for his characters or performances being too 'Brent-like' then that is no failure on his part - put simply in the same way that Steve Coogan plateaued with Alan Partridge both men have already delivered their magnum opus. Brent and Partridge in my eyes are the two greatest and best performed comedy characters in television history, and where do you go from there?
One can't forget Stephen Merchant in this whole thing - as co-writer, co-director and co-producer but not a main character he may not have been the focal point for the show that Gervais enjoyed, but you can hear his voice in so many of the great moments, and while his ascent to Hollywood royalty is more behind the scenes than Gervais, it is no less deserved. He merits equal billing.
Together the two friends produced fourteen episodes of pure brilliance that will stand the test of time for many, many years to come. After all, when Brent himself was asked how he'd like to be remembered he answered, "Simply as the man who put a smile on the face of everyone he met."
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