“We are all trying to be good people, even if all of us are failing”

by zunguzungu

I wrote a series of posts about the American The Office that I am still quite fond of; you can read them, in order, here, here, and here, if you like. I treated the American version of the show as a standalone entity for the simple reason that, as an American, I had nothing to say about the BBC version, having neither seen it nor felt its absence.

I’ve since seen the BBC original and have periodically hacked away at a piece on the show and Freud, but haven’t quite finished it, for several reasons I don’t need to go into now. This comment from Rory Marinich on metafilter (via), however, opened doors and rang bells for me that I was as unaware of as I was of the BBC original when I wrote those posts. In short — and he’s completely right — the BBC office is always, implicitly, about the conditions of its own production in a way the American office simply isn’t: Steve Carell’s character is essentially himself all the time, and the show is essentially a sitcom in an office, but the Gervais version is something darker and more horrible, a show in which his character’s tragic decline is not only charted by the show but actually produced by the fact that he’s being filmed for it. He becomes the person we see only because the cameras are on, in other words, and gives us a show only because we are watching. Which actually turns out to mean, in a weird sort of way, that the BBC show can have a sliver of redemption: the cameras, eventually have to turn off, and David Brent will eventually recover. But the American Office is a whole other beast, No Exit-like shuffling away into eternity forever…

Here’s the comment in its entirety, though the discussion following it are well worth reading as well:

The difference is that Michael Scott is an idiot who’s trying to be a good boss. David Brent is a camwhore, in a sense. He’s not just a narcissist, he’s a celebrity hound.

Gervais talks about his in an interview I couldn’t find online. The Office isn’t just about the workplace, it’s about the idea of celebrity and how it’s affected society. That’s its genius, which I think is looked over by most people that see it. If you watch Extras, Gervais’s next show, and then go back to The Office, it’s a little more noticeable.

The horrible thing about David Brent is that there are subtle indicators that he is a good boss before the show begins. People seem to like him, until he fucks things over, shiftily staring at the camera all the while. Jennifer thinks he’s competent. The board thinks he’s a good man. He goes out drinking with the people he works with and they’re affectionate for him. But he’s so determined to become somebody famous that he’s willing to lose everything, and he does.

That’s why the original Office is leagues beyond the American Office, which is really not a mockumentary anymore. It’s a sitcom. The camera crew shouldn’t still be there, people shouldn’t still be forgiving Michael. In the original, David is not forgiven. As soon as he starts pulling these stunts, he’s reprimanded, he loses power, but he keeps going. He wants to make this false celebrity David, that the world will remember.

And there’re still hints of the good boss throughout. David is funny, fleetingly, until he crushes everything with his camera panderings. He’s got a good rapport with people when he’s not trying to be this false persona. We don’t hate him because he tells racist jokes. We hate him because after he tells the jokes, he tries to justify to BBC that he’s not actually being racist. Remove all those justifications and he’s a pretty cool guy.

That’s what crushed me when I saw the series. Tim and Dawn were tragic, and the scene where Tim unplugs his microphone is one of the greatest moments in television history, but what kills me is the slow, slow decline of Brent. In the American Office, people let Michael get away with everything. In the original, Brent is fired, loses his consulting job — which was yet another indicator that he was truly held in high regards — and, in the climax to the second series, has to drop his character and beg for his job back. Which is denied.

The Christmas finale sees the conclusion to his character arc. After being fired, he blows all his money trying to become a famous singer, and then to appear on microcelebrity shows. He’s trying to milk the fame he doesn’t have. The only person who recognizes him realizes what a fool he was. His redemption, at the very end, comes when he realizes he cares more about this terrific new woman he’s met, tells Chris and Neil to fuck off, and goes on his way. That’s the final scene in the entire show, as the final credits roll: David asking if the crew needs anything more, saying “Cheers,” standing up, and finally leaving the camera.

With all respect to people who love the American Office, which is a moderately good sitcom, the original is a masterpiece, both in its writing, its acting, and its direction. The writing is what grabs me, though. The way the show manages to be about these two things at once, about office life and about celebrity culture, and how it tucks the one so subtly into the other, blows my mind. It leads to some brilliant sight gags, too: The janitor who, when he’s on camera, can do nothing but stare at the screen, is the one I’m fondest of. Comparing the one to the other is like comparing Cheaper By The Dozen to The Royal Tenenbaums. There’re vague similarities in concept and plot, but the one is infinitely warmer, funnier, and fonder.

The Office managed to celebrate the small glimpses of compassion and humanity we get out of these people in an infinitely shitty situation. Tim’s passing up on the job offer to Gareth, who never realizes who he’s in debt to; Lee’s buying Tim a beer as apology for shoving him against the wall; Tim’s hands in Dawn’s hair; Neil and Rachel’s dance. One moral I drew from the show was never to work in an officeplace, yes; but the more important thing I took from it was this: We are all trying to be good people, even if all of us are failing