Another Day at The Office

The BBC series returns for a melancholy farewell.

The return of the BBC comedy series The Office for a two-hour series finale last night made me think about how being an Office aficionado (and there are many of us out there) is a little bit like being a Red Sox fan: If you can be patient, your investment will pay off big. Not only do Office fans have to be patient about waiting for the next installment—it’s been over two years since the end of the second season—they have to exercise patient attention in each individual episode, each individual scene. The Office specializes in the depiction, very unusual in the sitcom world, of uncomfortable pauses, social tension, and plain old tedium—as co-creator and star Ricky Gervais says in the one-hour “making-of” documentary that follows the special, “We wanted to dwell on a bad joke, a nothingness.”

The show’s fictional conceit is that a BBC film crew has decided, for some unfathomable reason, to make a verite-style documentary about the decidedly ordinary crew at the Wernham Hogg paper company in dreary Slough, England. But somehow in the course of the show’s two six-episode seasons (both of which are now available on DVD), the everyday nothingness of The Office transforms into a moving and hilarious everything.

Last night’s so-called “Office Special” on BBC America was not really a reunion show but a kind of coda to the second season, which ended with all the major story arcs unhappily resolved, leaving an aching void in the hearts of fans. Now, two years later, David Brent (Gervais), the clueless buffoon of a boss, has been fired from the Wernham Hogg paper company and is unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a B-list celebrity. Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), his once-servile assistant, has taken over David’s job and enjoys officiously pointing out that painful fact every time they meet. David spends a lot of time hanging around his former workplace, still telling the same excruciatingly unfunny jokes and barely concealing his resentment about his ouster. Meanwhile, middle manager Tim (Martin Freeman) is still pining for former receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis), who rejected him to move to Florida with her dud of a boyfriend. When the BBC returns to film a two-years-later follow-up to its original series, Dawn agrees to return to Slough for an office Christmas party, and the whole gang gets together for some awkward socializing under a disco ball.

Even though The Office specializes in what a friend of mine likes to call “cringe theater,” and in almost unbearably melancholic tableaux of office life, the show is also ultimately very generous toward its characters and toward life. It’s a rare combination of genres: a scathing satire that’s also deeply moving without being sentimental. The slow accretion of detail from episode to episode  is very subtle, almost novelistic; for example, an ongoing subplot about Secret Santas in last night’s special bears close watching, as one exchange of gifts becomes the catalyst for the emotional climax of the show.

At one point in the show’s final moments, as Tim is being interviewed about his dubious future with Dawn, he says, “I don’t know what a happy ending is. Life just goes on. When you turn that camera off, it’s not the end, is it?” Actually, unfortunately, this is the end for The Office; Ricky Gervais and his co-creator Stephen Merchant have said that they won’t return to these characters in the future for any amount of money, simply because they’re satisfied with the work they’ve created. Right now NBC’s developing its own Americanized version of The Office. Though it’s promising that the show, which is scheduled for a midseason premiere this fall, is written by Greg Daniels (who co-wrote the workplace satire film Office Space and co-created television’s King of the Hill), it’s hard to imagine how the American version could re-create the magic of the original, which, with its pitch-perfect cast and almost Kafkaesque insight into the bleakness of the modern workplace, will have to go down as one of the great situation comedies of all time.

Monday, October 18 , 2004

Boy, I’m telling you. You spend one weekend in the boonies, visiting some crunchy friends with no TV set, and you miss out on the biggest television story in months: something actually happens on a political talk show! Moral of story: never go anywhere, and watch as much TV as possible. But meme time be damned: I just have to say a few words about Jon Stewart’s live freakout  on Crossfire last Friday. Well, perhaps not so much “freakout” as “searing moment of lucidity.”

Hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala had invited Stewart on the show to “take a break from campaign politics” (Carlson’s words), have a few laughs, and promote his new book, America (The Book). Too bad for them that the host of The Daily Show had another agenda in mind. Within less than a minute, the interview degenerated (or ascended, depending on your point of view) into an encounter of the sort not often—OK, never—seen on the talk-show circuit. Stewart was like the cool college roommate you bring home for Thanksgiving only to spend the evening squirming as he savages your parents’ bourgeois values. “Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations,” he told the dueling pundits. “You’re part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks.”

Things quickly escalated into a full-scale food-fight. Carlson accused Stewart of being John Kerry’s “butt boy” and “sniffing his throne.” Stewart parried by making fun of Carlson’s signature bow tie and calling him a “dick.” (Think I’m kidding? Watch the clip  yourself.) When Carlson goaded Stewart to “be funny. Come on, be funny,” Stewart responded, “I’m not going to be your monkey.” The audience laughed uncomfortably. Begala hung back in either shame or fear, popping up hopefully every few minutes with another opening for a joke or a plug. “Let me change the subject,” he begged as Stewart railed, “Where’s your moral outrage on this?”

A trot through the blogosphere suggests that Stewart’s hyper-sincere Crossfire turn may have cost him a few fans, even as it solidified his diehard base. I wouldn’t be surprised if the news media’s recent crush on Stewart —the rave reviews of America, the high-profile journalists appearing on his show—turned a corner after this. As America: The Book makes clear, nobody likes a civics lecture. But you’d be hard-pressed to ask for more entertaining television than Friday’s live smackdown. Stewart’s naked appeal to his hosts to “please stop, stop, stop. Stop hurting America,” had a loopy, apocalyptic power. It burned a hole in the screen, like Peter Finch as the crazed anchorman in Network, bellowing, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

A while back, I called Jon Stewart the “court jester” of this election. But he may be more like the fool in King Lear, speaking brutal truth to a king who is already too far gone to hear it. Sure, Stewart’s job is to make us laugh, not to lecture us. But as Lear’s fool asked, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?” … 11:40 a.m.