Arts

Rated or dated: The Office

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom first aired this week in 2001. Gabby Hutchinson-Crouch takes a look to see if, 15 years later, it still measures up.

The Office cast

Photo: BBC

Let me start this off with a couple of bits of context:

1: I used to love The Office when it was on telly. Really loved it. I yearned for the Tim/Dawn romance almost as much as I had for Niles/Daphne in Frasier (and that was a LOT) and I delighted in Brent’s final episode redemption.
2: I really don’t like what Ricky Gervais has become since then, as a personality as well as a creator. I find him so off-putting that I took a lot of persuading to start watching the US Office – a sitcom I only really started to enjoy when it stopped following the UK version’s model and allowed itself to be much sillier and sweeter. I’ve found that cringe comedy tends to put me off nowadays – perhaps my taste has changed, or perhaps the comedy of humiliation has become crueller over time.

Rated or dated

The first thing The Office suffers from in 2016 is that its style has been copied so much the original now feels like a worn-out pastiche. The washed-out colour, bland office and naturalistic style shares the aesthetic of a thousand uninspired adverts from the past 15 years.

But, at the end of the first scene, comes the moment that distinguishes it – Brent gives a little look to the camera. Not a knowing look – an anxious one. He’s a boring little man who’s incredibly excited and nervous about being filmed. It’s actually a really great bit of acting, writing and directing, setting out the character and the rules of the world incredibly succinctly.

I’m torn between being astonished Gervais was this good and this subtle (before reverting to crude caricatures and basically playing himself), and suspecting this was just a really well-done version of The Ricky Gervais Character, with a well-roundedness to it he’s never quite been able to recapture.

“The Tim and Dawn romance is the only dash of sweetness, every longing gaze and flirtatious moment is a much-needed sprinkling of sugar among the quiet, stagnant despair and loathing at Wernham-Hogg.”

The fact that very soon into the first episode Brent brags about his drinking and after Dawn mutters a negative comment he starts wheedling her all, “Ooh, does it OFFEND you?” really does make you wonder if Gervais ever really stopped playing David Brent.

The deliberately bad office banter feels like a lovely stroll through the meadow of Pop Culture References Past. The cries of ‘Wassuuuuup’ and toys of Flat Eric make me feel almost as old as Martin Freeman’s baby face does. I can’t watch Brent making Dawn cry at the end of episode one. It’s just nasty, and it feels more that we’re supposed to empathise with him for being embarrassed at taking a bad practical joke too far than with his humiliated receptionist, who’s stuck in her job and can’t walk away or, due to the power dynamic, take revenge.

It’s difficult to rewatch The Office having binged on the whole of its lengthy US counterpart all the way through to its series nine ‘Whole Core Cast Is Off Making Movies’ end, and not compare the characters. Brent feels more real but is far less engaging than Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott, the brilliant salesman promoted above his abilities, whose friendships and romances you actually care about, as well as laughing at them, and for whom a redemption comes once an episode rather than Brent’s once in two series.

The teasing of Gareth feels sadder and coming more from desperate boredom than the US series’ wacky prank wars between Jim and Dwight.

Conversely, in the UK original, the Tim and Dawn romance is the only dash of sweetness, every longing gaze and flirtatious moment is a much-needed sprinkling of sugar among the quiet, stagnant despair and loathing at Wernham-Hogg, so you care about it all the more. In the US version, Jim and Pam are one of many romances – one that’s very drawn out and not as interesting as, say, Dwight and Angela or Michael and Holly. I did not care for Jim and Pam. I care desperately about Tim and Dawn.

Dawn is really the only woman of note in the UK Office. While the female characters in the US series get to have funny flaws, in the UK version they’re not fleshed out really, they are mainly foils to look embarrassed by the men.

I have listed some other Brit-to-American character versions, and which is better in this scientific list here, for science.

Gareth: Very good but not as good as Dwight (If you’ve not seen the final series of the US Office, basically the Gareth character becomes the protagonist and has a fraught yet heart-warming conclusion to a long-running romance. Yes. I KNOW.)
Finchy: Better than Packer. That character’s nastiness just doesn’t fit in the US version.
Keith: Ties with Kevin. Don’t make me choose.
The Olly Chris Character (Ricky): Hard to compare with the BJ Novak character (Ryan), but the two versions of the New Guy Character are a good example of the two different tones of the shows. The British version is smaller and more contained – an office mostly filled with quiet, ordinary people despairing at the antics of a few ridiculous characters. The US version has more time and space to expand, and develop foibles and ridiculous elements for everybody. Ricky Howard spends the series quietly judging Brent, like a normal person. Ryan Howard spends the series quietly and then not-so-quietly judging everyone, as it turns out he’s a terrible entrepreneur and wannabe megalomaniac intent on taking over the company.

Tim and Dawn from the Office

Tim and Dawn: much-needed sugar amid the stagnant despair.
Photo: BBC

I can’t really put any female characters in this list because besides a couple of characters we don’t get to see much of, Dawn is really the only woman of note in the UK Office. While the female characters in the US series get to have funny flaws, in the UK version they’re not fleshed out really, they are mainly foils to look embarrassed by the men. Pregnant Lady in the Christmas Special gets to be flawed and unpleasant, but her comeuppance comes through a gang of blokes being misogynistic to her. That’s not satisfying, it’s just bleak. The Welsh Lady is a bit of a proto Meredith, but that’s it. There’s no version of the wonderful Angela or Phyllis or Kelly.

Jennifer’s just an attractive boss, she doesn’t have any of the brilliant psychotic narcissism of her American counterpart Jan. Similarly, PoC have hardly anything to do in the UK version – just get embarrassed by white characters’ racism. There’s no version of Stanley, or Oscar, and the Darryl character is a white guy and horrible. I’m not saying having a show where almost all the developed characters are white and male necessarily makes it bad, just that when you get used to shows such as, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine where that’s not the case, it becomes noticeable and grating.

“They’re people with nothing in common, no emotional connections, who are shoved together into a grim office for eight hours a day.”

I watched the last episode, remembering it as a lovely, satisfying finale to the series, but the majority of it was much bleaker than I remembered. Maybe my taste in comedy has gone sweeter and sillier over the past 15-odd years. Ironically, it might be American sitcoms such as Angie Tribeca and Parks & Recreation, springing from The US Office, that have shaped that change in taste.

Tim’s speech at the end of the UK Office sums up the differences in tone. They’re people with nothing in common, no emotional connections, who are shoved together into a grim office for eight hours a day. In the US Office, they’re very much a family.

In the end we get two tiny moments of joy and redemption – Brent telling Finchy to fuck off and Dawn going back to Tim. They’re such small, ordinary events but they feel huge.

So, do I rate it or do I date it? It’s hard to say. It was groundbreaking, so many shows owe so much to it, it’s still very subtle, great victories in the tiniest minutiae of everyday life. But I don’t enjoy watching it any more. The cringe comedy just makes me cringe, I don’t really want to spend time with the characters. Perhaps it’s just a shift in personal taste, or perhaps it’s a change in the tone of narrative comedy over the past 15 years. I suppose that’s what the definition of Dated is.

Sorry, guys. I have put your stapler in jelly by way of recompense.

@Scriblit

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Written by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

Gabby Hutchinson Crouch is a comedy writer, mum & nerd. She writes for BBC Radio Comedy and Huffington Post UK, and once saw Dawn French coming out of a toilet.