The first time I saw the British The Office, it was with an audience, a group of seemingly normal people I became convinced were sociopaths. I was at a screening of The Office Christmas Special, the series’ finale. I was barely familiar with David Brent, Gareth, Tim, Dawn and the other employees of Wernham Hogg, and even less familiar with the show’s cringey tone. I was amazed by the episode—I found it to be amazingly realistic, amazingly awkward, amazingly embarrassing, everything but amazingly funny. And yet each time David Brent let loose one of his nerve-shearing giggles, I sucked in my breath, and everyone around me laughed hysterically.
In time, I too became one of these sociopaths, but it took extended exposure. As with tragedies, so with David Brent: There is such a thing as laughing too soon. The Office was a scathing, furious sendup of the hollow desires undergirding reality TV, still a relatively new phenomenon when the show premiered in 2001, and it did not go gentle on those involved. Ricky Gervais’s David was a buffoon longing to be a big man. Gervais’ performance was so exact that David was instantly recognizable as a quasi-unbearable bully and occasionally pitiable loser who doesn’t understand that his only chance of acceptance is hiding out in the banality of nice. His desperation to be cool, to be seen, to be recognized, to be famous perverted a basically decent idiot into an engine of humiliation, unleashed daily on underlings whose only defense against their excruciating boss was a deadpan stare. David was a despot: Laughing at him was what he deserved.
Fourteen years later, David Brent is back in David Brent: Life on the Road, which premieres on Netflix this Friday. Following the events of The Office, David suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, and went on Prozac but is now more or less on stable ground; he’s a salesman at Lavichem, a toiletry supply company, where he sells tampons and is barely put up with by his colleagues. David has decided to raid his pension to pursue his dreams of becoming a rock star, and the financially and emotionally disastrous tour he embarks upon constitutes the movie’s plot. Gone is the well-calibrated balance of The Office, wherein laughing at David was simultaneously punching up and punching down, replaced by a David so down on his luck that chuckling at him is akin to scoffing at a really irritating version of Job.
David Brent: Life on the Road begins relatively gently, which is to say, with a David so puffed up on himself and the prospect of another shot at fame that he almost seems to deserve the failures coming his way. Laughter seems like it could be on the horizon. There he is, making racially insensitive jokes with the one colleague who really likes him, and then bringing the rapper Dom Johnson (Doc Brown) by the office just to prove to human resources he has black friends. There David is telling the studio producer whom he uses for his “demos” (really Dom’s) that he’ll pay him double whatever he makes to go on tour, only to discover double is way more than he can afford. (He’s too abashed to change his mind.) He visits the therapist he’s been seeing since his breakdown, and when she asks him what happens if the tour doesn’t go as planned, if it fails, he’s too embarrassed in front of the cameras to reckon with this honestly, only digging himself deeper into his fantasy.
And then it all really goes downhill. The tour is an abject failure. No one comes; when they do, they leave. David goes on a radio station to promote the tour and is ridiculed for having been famous and forgotten as one of the original docu-soap stars. A stop at a college campus has him playing on “shite night.” He gets a tattoo to be cool but faints in the middle and so is stuck with the half-word “Berk” on his bicep. He’s paying for a tour bus he can’t ride in, because the band hates him so much. He’s going broke to pay their salaries, and they’ll only have a drink with him if he pays them by the hour. He’s singing mortifying if well-intentioned songs (“Please don’t make fun of the disabled” and “Black people aren’t lazy/ black people aren’t crazy/ and dwarves aren’t babies” are two sample lyrics), while refusing to let Dom Johnson play any of his own stuff but making him dress up like a Native American to cameo on a song David wrote about their nobility. Worst of all, underneath his bluster, David knows it’s going badly: He calls his one friend and explains what an abject failure the tour is, before making him promise not to tell anyone, even though the call is already on speakerphone. Is it funny to watch a wounded kitten get pounded on because it has a strange meow?
In an interview with the New York Times last weekend, Gervais said of David Brent, “He wants validation. He wants to be famous. He’s a narcissist, but we see that, actually, he’s an old-fashioned narcissist. He can’t compete with today’s narcissists. He was the ordinary guy on the cusp of getting his 15 minutes of fame. But now fame is different. Now it’s insatiable.” I was expecting, then, for David Brent to encounter some of today’s narcissists. (I was thinking particularly of the episode of Atlanta where Paper Boi runs into Snapchatting, Instagramming brand whirlwind Zan), but he never does. Social media is never mentioned, and we never see any young performers out-faming the fame-hungry David. His old-fashioned stabs at relevance—radio, battle of the bands, a publicist—almost seem to be the show’s idea of reasonable gambits.
While all of this is excruciating, it does feel real enough: David would be an abject failure on the road, despised by everyone he encountered, even though he’s just a loser, not an evildoer. But after going through David’s cringe-inducing, failure of a journey, David Brent: Life on the Road soft-pedals the ending. Since The Office aired, Gervais has made Extras and the saccharine-fest Derek, the vibe of which takes over this series at its rushed ending, in which David’s journey is given sentimental meaning. His female colleagues rally around him: One tells the camera, tearing up, that she worries about him doing another reality show. He’s no longer the boss, and now “the world is worse.” She chastises David’s nemesis for being such a bully. Soon after, another female colleague tosses a cup of water in the bully’s face. The band realizes they’ve overstated what a jerk David is, and besides, they’ve got some good stories: They have a drink with him for free. The tour manager begs David to stop spending money and tells him they’re friends, just to make him feel better. David caps it all off with a fortune-cookie lesson: “I can live without being a success, but I couldn’t have lived without trying.” Shortly thereafter one of his nice female colleagues expresses interest in David and he walks off frame with a date. Maudlin and unrealistic, it’s also a lot less funny than what came before.