The Office

It’s like—last period on Fridays in junior high, I’m sitting in social-studies class, and I’m trying not think about it. The bell is going to ring in 10 minutes, the weekend is ahead of me, and that’s good, but during the weekend, I won’t see her for two whole days, and if I don’t try and do something now, I’ll spend all my time off feeling like a coward. The teacher is explaining about checks and balances, and every part of me is squeezing in this crooked, miserable way, like I’m getting ready to vomit organs, muscles, bones. Not good, thinking about vomit right now, really not helping. Five minutes. I can’t breathe so great anymore, and I can actually taste my tongue in my mouth like some rotting toad. She’s wearing jeans today. She’s smiling at something, and later on, when I remember this, I’ll try and pretend she was smiling at me. The bell rings, my feet forget my shoes aren’t glued to the floor, but finally I make it out of my chair, through the door, there are the lockers. Be, y’know, casual. Say something cool. Say something a real person would say. My locker is on the right, I don’t forget the combination, the hallway is the last chance because then it’s the busses and the ride home and the jocks who kick the seat behind me and the shame of chickening out one more time. But I go up to her, and she’s saying something to a friend, and I wait, I actually manage to stand there and not die. Finally, she looks at me. I had dialogue planned. There was a script. I manage, “Hiwouldyouliketogooutsometime?” Not good. Not good.

And she gets that… look. If a door had an expression when you shut it, that’s the look she’s wearing. The handful of seconds between her features shifting 30 degrees politer and her opening her mouth aren’t long, exactly. They just never stop happening. Simple as that.

That’s how I feel when I try to watch Freaks And Geeks. That’s how I feel when I try to watch Seinfeld. Or Three’s Company. Or Meet The Parents. Or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or, naturally, The Office. It isn’t a rational reaction, it’s got nothing to do with taste or critical insight, and it’s nothing I can control. There’s something about farce and awkward comedy that goes right through me, that speaks to whatever cringing animal part of my brain still holds on to every humiliation and ill-timed gesture. If I wanted to be nice to myself, I’d say it’s a question of empathy: I can’t laugh at another person’s embarrassment, no matter how well-deserved or fictional, because I can’t stop thinking of how miserable embarrassment makes me feel. But maybe it’s just that I’d give anything to never have to feel that way again.

Still, I really hate the thought of missing out on something good. I’ve seen a couple episodes of the American version of The Office, (I was even part of a test audience for the pilot, which I was completely convinced would bomb) and while I liked the cast, I knew it wasn’t something I’d easily be able to get through, especially not six seasons. But the original UK version? Oh man, piece of cake. Twelve episodes of the show proper, plus a two-part Christmas special. Plus, everybody’s British, so it’s got to be a lot more polite than the American version. I watched the first episode, I survived it, and there were a few rough spots, but I never had to cover my eyes and make loud singing noises. I decided to shove my way through the whole collection, prove to myself I wasn’t a complete wimp, and maybe find some way to get over this, let’s face it, really annoying handicap. In college, I said to a professor, “Man, am I the only person who doesn’t like Seinfeld?” The professor said, “Yes.” That’s a tough load to bear.

And here I am, roughly seven and half hours later, and I can say that I survived, that the UK Office is a terrific show, and my issues with humiliation-based entertainment have not been eased in the slightest. If anything, I’m worse off now than I was. I’ve looked into the abyss, and not only did the abyss look back, it was wearing an Austin Powers costume and it kept reassuring me it wasn’t racist. 

Here’s the premise of the original UK show The Office: a documentary film crew spends time with the day-to-day operations and employees of a paper company in Slough. If there’s a hell, it probably looks like Slough. Gray skies, squat shoebox cars circling endlessly on the roundabout, dull concrete buildings with windows that don’t so much let light in as choke on it. And, of course, there’s the job. Over the series, we get to know a handful of employees, and none of them look exactly healthy. Pale, sallow, half-circles gouged under their eyes, and when the camera catches them unaware, it’s like a room full of zombies without the courtesy to admit they’re dead. 

But it’s funny, right? It’s supposed to be funny, and I’ll be honest, even with my particular affliction, I laughed a lot. The point of awkward comedy is that you have to laugh—there’s no other reaction besides cringing—and I spent a lot of time doing both. The first series had some painful bits, but the second series nearly did me in; I would’ve quit watching, I think, if it hadn’t been for my professional obligations. The Christmas special was sort of a split between the two. I managed never to mute the television, although at some moments, I was extremely tempted. It makes no logical sense. There’s no personal danger to me, and it doesn’t physically hurt. But my God, watching this show is like having all conscious thought reduced to fighting off the flight response.

The most uncomfortable element of The Office is also, unsurprisingly, its leading man, David Brent, played by show creator Ricky Gervais. (This is the role that made him famous and let him make out with Jennifer Garner in movies.) Brent is the worst boss in the world. He thinks he’s hilarious, even though he has no comic timing, no knack for jokes, no wit, and no real empathy for his audience. He’s oblivious, weaseling, needy, whiny, show-offy, arrogant, and deeply self-loathing. He doesn’t know when to stop, he can’t bear for anyone else to be the center of attention, he can be cruel and childish, and he never seems to learn from his mistakes. It’s a wonderful performance from Gervais, because there’s no winking in it. Gervais makes Brent’s ugliness consistent with every ratty smile, every Rodney Dangerfield-esque tie-fiddle, every desperate blank stare. Watching him enter a scene is like seeing a monster fade into view behind a group of potential victims: Something horrible is about to happen, but it’s impossible to know what, and it’s impossible to look away.

While Brent is undeniably the show’s star, The Office wouldn’t work without at least a few likeable heroes. So there’s Martin Freeman as Tim, a university dropout who’s just a little too intelligent to not suffer during every minute of his job, and Lucy Davis as Dawn, a secretary who gave up her dreams of fulfillment and personal identity when she got engaged to a creep named Lee. Tim and Dawn like each other, and there’s a lot of drama in that, and it’s all very effective. It gives viewers something to hold on to, because without them, the stakes would be lacking. Tim wants to get out and go back to school. Dawn misses illustrating work. They flirt and are basically the only two people in the whole place it would be bearable to have a drink with. The looks Freeman gives the camera from time to time are a lifeline. I’ve heard some people complain that the American show over-uses that gimmick, but here, it’s like getting to breathe a little easier for a few seconds, because at least somebody is having the same reaction you are. (Davis gets her own share of terrific reaction shots, but those tend to be a lot sadder.)

There are other characters: Tim gets a love interest in the second series. There’s Finch, Brent’s asshole friend. Brent’s bosses. A large man named Keith who ensures orgasms, should the lady require one. But the standout is Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), Tim’s arch-nemesis and Brent’s nominal second-in-command. I went to high school and college with guys like Gareth, and let’s be honest, the Internet is full of them. But like Brent, Gareth is a rare figure in fiction, a nerd who isn’t endearingly shy or hiding a heart of gold under his lack of charm and social graces. Gareth is a military-obsessive, anal-retentive twerp. A running gag on the show has Tim and Dawn winding Gareth up by getting him to agree to all sorts of army-related double-entendres, and it’s hard to feel sorry for him, because he’s just such an utter prat. It’s possible to have the occasional moment of pity for David Brent, because deep down inside, a part of him realizes just how big a fool he really is, and the only reason he keeps going is because if he were to stop, even for a moment, he’d probably break down completely. There’s no such danger with Gareth. He’s a single, undeviating mechanism. 

There’s a story, sort of, and fortunes rise and fall, love is lost, gained, and so on. The Office has a lot of depressing things to say about the temporary compromises people make to stay safe, and how “temporary” can last a long time if you aren’t careful. I’d happily recommend the series, I’m glad I watched it, and I think it’s great, but I’m not sure I can honestly say I enjoyed it. I don’t have enough detachment, I guess. Really, shameful associations aside, I’ve never understood why I get so worked up about this kind of comedy. Maybe it’s because, ridiculous as Brent is, it’s not that hard to relate to him. He’s a jackass who deserves every piece of humiliation coming to him, but there’s an honesty to what Gervais and series co-creator Stephen Merchant made that keeps it impossible to walk away unscarred. Because that could be who I am, you know? Maybe not quite so insensitive, maybe not quite so oblivious, but when I leave the room, who knows what people are saying? Connecting with the world means risking that shutting door every time I open my mouth.