The Office: The Complete First Series
By now, you'd think that filmmakers would have exhausted every permutation of the "office comedy" format. Certainly, the workplace as dramatic setting is nothing new: It made an early splash as a venue for fast-talking screwball action (His Girl Friday), and in recent years it's served as a backdrop for studies of quiet desperation (Clockwatchers), heroic farce (Office Space), extreme sexual dynamics (Secretary), Richard Lester-esque absurdity (Schizopolis), and Jacobean moral satire (In the Company of Men) and that's not counting TV's abuse of the workplace as a hat-rack for crappy sitcom gags. So what a wonderful surprise that, in the early years of the 21st century, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant actually found a new way to goof on office politics. The two first met at the British radio station XFM, where Merchant worked as an assistant to Gervais and where Gervais (by the duo's own account) worked as an inept Head of Speech, wearing "sweatpants" to work and generally behaving cluelessly. Gervais later recalled telling Merchant, "I don't know what I'm doing, but if you do all the work you can get away with murder." He then proceeded to fob off most of his duties to Merchant and spent much of his time golfing, sailing, and rolling around the office on his chair. Merchant left a few months later. But soon, the two were reunited, when Merchant filmed (as part of a BBC producers'-course project) a pseudo-documentary featuring Gervais playing "Seedy Boss" a "sketch character" that Gervais would improvise at work. The short caught the attention of BBC bigwigs, and Merchant's class project was expanded into the hit comedy The Office.
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The show's built around the brilliant improvisational antics of co-writer and star Gervais, who plays David Brent, the office manager at a paper merchant in Slough, England. Despite being a complete novice in the craft of acting (if the show's own publicity materials are to be believed), Gervais has created in Mr. Brent one of the all-time funniest Bosses from Hell a nuanced, pathetic portrait that lays bare the tics and sublimated base instincts behind all the worst middle-managers you've ever known. David Brent is, in the parlance of the Isle, a total prat; he's not explicitly evil, but rather a half-witted engine of malignance, leaving behind a wake of awkwardness and mortification everywhere he goes the anti-Midas. Because of his position (and because everyone under him is too defeated to file a harassment lawsuit), Brent is shielded from the consequences of his relentless hypocrisy. He'll walk up to his lunching secretary and put her off her sandwich talking about his testicular-cancer scare. He'll inspire a round of leering comments about a new female employee in a "team meeting," then kick out the last person to make a wisecrack so he can deliver a pompous speech about how he won't tolerate harassment. He'll force a new employee to sit in on a "practical joke" where he reduces his secretary to tears by pretending to fire her for stealing Post-It notes. He'll tell his most skeptical underling, with a straight face, that he faked having high blood pressure to avoid a promotion that would have led to staff cutbacks. And, in Series One's funniest episode, he'll take over a team-building workshop to play the muddled pop songs he composed in his 20s, driving the workshop coordinator out of the room (and possibly into another career) in disgust. Pop psychology often suggests that monsters are created by low self-esteem, but the genius of "The Office" is that it understands that monsters are usually clueless people with too much self-esteem. With his endless jargon, bad jokes, badly disguised lechery, forced sanctimony, and desperate one-upsmanship, Gervais' Brent lends The Office a surprising satirical depth. The joke's not just on the workplace it's on humanity itself.
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The show's format a pseudo-documentary style that's more observational than joke-driven, as if Christopher Guest had shot Office Space provides the perfect backdrop for Gervais and his talented cast of underlings. Actors glance awkwardly at the camera, which intrudes on all their worst moments, and the filmmakers linger hilariously on the deadly silences not just on the aftermath of David Brent's idiocy, but also on people typing quietly at their keyboards, clacking in muffled desperation. Another strength is that the show eschews obvious choices with its characters for example, a flirtation between secretary Dawn (Lucy Davis) and well-educated smart-ass Tim (Martin Freeman) never takes off, and Tim, who says he dreams of studying psychology, never quite gets around to leaving, even after he quits in disgust. (Another one of the sad truths captured by The Office entropy always wins.) Throw in a sharply observed supporting cast that includes naïve, creepy "Team Leader" Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), as well as pitch-perfect satire of a million small moments (the workplace training video, the awkward conversations with disposable friends, the consultants and team meetings and patently false sense of "family") and the result is the most biting "office comedy" in recent memory.
The Office: The Complete First Series collects the show's first six episodes on a single disc. Disc Two features six deleted scenes, plus the 39-minute documentary "How I Made the Office." The doc weaves interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, trivia, and scenes from the two series pilots in a way that (jokingly?) suggests that Gervais is very nearly as obnoxious in real life as David Brent is in the show. If the documentary's to be believed, much of the show's genius is due to an accidental, almost magical convergence of great writing, superb casting, improvisatory talent, and lightning-in-a-bottle moments, all captured despite a series of scene-wrecking crack-ups. (The set also comes with a wonderful booklet that translates all the show's British slang and contains a fake "office newsletter" that mentions departed employee "Pete Gibbons," a reference that should tickle any fan of Office Space.)