“Christmas Special, Part One” (originally aired Dec. 26, 2003)
In which David Brent is famous, Dawn (doesn’t) have a baby, and Tim is just as miserable as ever
If you try and have a little empathy for David Brent, as I do, the first half of The Office’s two-part, series finale Christmas special may be the episode where it’s hardest to think of him as anything other than an awful person. You can make all sorts of excuses, to be certain. Sure, he’s someone who found a low level of his greatest dream and realized it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Sure, he’s been reduced to a traveling salesman. Sure, nobody recognizes him, and his first single absolutely bombed. But at the same time, there’s no excuse that would be strong enough to make up for the fact that he’s an absolute, raging asshole in this episode, someone who’s reached his lowest ebb and reacted by lashing out at the world that treated him poorly. The final scene—taking place at a celebrity version of The Dating Game where he plays bachelor number two—is the ultimate in Brent pettiness and childishness.
To start with, he comes dressed as Austin Powers, for no real reason and at a point where coming to something dressed as Austin Powers was tired, predictable, and insufferable. (Would dressing as Austin Powers have rolled back around to “ironic” by now? I’ll have to ask some of my friends who live in Brooklyn.) But he also launches into the shtick and grows increasingly annoyed when the audience and the contestant aren’t immediately amused by what he’s doing. It’s an interesting look into Brent’s humor psychology: Once a joke is funny, it should always be funny, and the mere sight of it should be guaranteed to inspire laughs. Since all of his humor is ripped off from other comedians, it makes sense that he would feel this way. As someone who’s not creative enough (or rarely creative enough) to come up with his own witty ripostes, he’s someone who relies on coasting off of something else, well past when all of the others copying have stopped breaking out that impression. There are plenty of funnier, cooler people who broke out Austin Powers impressions; Brent’s greatest failing (in all of his life, really) is that he never knows when to say enough is enough.
The game only gets worse from there. We fade from the beginning—where Brent gets angry with the contestant for “not knowing” who Austin Powers is—to the end, after the contestant has rejected him (and Bubble from Big Brother) in favor of a commercial pitchman. As he rounds the corner to show himself (after her enthusiastic reaction to Bubble), she frowns after an awkward hug. “Who the fuck are you?” she asks, clearly having been driven to it by whatever he did during the game. He immediately turns it on her. Who is she? Who is she to say this when she’s never gone on TV and made a fool of herself to an apparently very small audience? She’s no one. Just some girl pretty enough to be picked to play The Dating Game at a seedy little corporate pub in the middle of nowhere. Backstage, things get worse, as his insults and anger escalate (even as his agent, Peter, sits silently, watching him self-destruct). Finally, she throws a drink in his face, and when he heads over to throw a beer in her face, she instead dumps it in his. The joke’s on her, he says, since he was already wet! But even Peter can smell the desperation.
The first part of the special deals with a topic near and dear to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s hearts, one that they would expand into a full series on Extras: the desperate scrabbling for fame that’s arisen from a society where anybody can get famous just by being as ridiculous as possible. Brent is hardly famous—it seems that The Office (the show within the show) was only seen by a handful of people from the way that crowds seem more confused than excited by his arrival—but he’s just famous enough to once again be in the place he least likes to be: on the outside looking in. Others are comfortable with their level of minor fame. Bubble can use it to get closer to the girl who rejected him in the game, and the other guy is fine with everybody rattling his commercial slogan right back at him. But Brent expected something more. After a humiliating experience at Wernham Hogg, he expected the airing of the documentary—and the minor fame it would bring—to save him, to finally give him everything he’d ever hoped for. Instead, he’s stuck in a somehow even more demeaning version of where he was before.
What’s interesting is that this is also the episode that most advances the two arguments that we David Brent empathizers always advance to excuse his behavior. In the very beginning, he talks about how the editing of the documentary was consciously done to make him look like the worst boss ever, like someone who’d never done anything competent in his life. And later, we actually do get to see him be good at something, largely because it’s something he’s not trying too hard to impress people with. When he sells the guy in the office on buying some of the cleaning wipes he’s pitching, he actually does a good job of the usual pitchman routine, running through the spiel about how he’s cleaning a stain with only tap water and the like. He’s not the greatest ever at it, but you can see where there’s a base level of competence that he has when he’s not trying too hard to entertain his employees or mug for the cameras. (These two scenes seem almost designed to respond to one of the main criticisms of the original series: Just how would Brent have remained employed by Wernham Hogg when he was so self-evidently awful? Well, we didn’t see his moments of competence, and here’s one to show that when he doesn’t try too hard, he can be a decent salesman.)
The Christmas specials, of course, are often criticized by some fans because they allow all of the characters at least a moment of grace or an outright happy ending. (We’ll get to this next week, of course, but it’s not really a spoiler, even at this point, since you can see the show setting up the classic “hero at his lowest ebb finds a moment of redemption” arc already.) But to a real degree, that’s because Gervais and Merchant left themselves nowhere else to go. One of the things I’ve always liked about the two men’s work is that they understand that a reflexive turn toward pessimism is just as unrealistic as being reflexively sentimental and optimistic. (Extras is perhaps an even better example of this, particularly in its second series and special.) Life is full of terrible things, yes, and it often seems as if misery crowds out joy. But joy is present too. Even the most miserable life in existence has a moment or two of joy mixed in there, and the frequent cultural fetishization of misery as somehow more “authentic” than joy is just as false as, say, one of those old musicals where everybody’s so happy they’re singing all of the time.
But to get to those joyful moments, we need to send the characters on a journey through their absolute lowest point. The airing of The Office didn’t help Brent get what he wanted, while moving to the United States didn’t fix any of the problems in Dawn’s life either. She made her escape from Wernham Hogg, but that didn’t lead to her beginning a career as an illustrator. Instead, she’s made a lateral move, where she’s caring for Lee’s sister’s child and laying out in the backyard of her Tampa home, slowly watching her life slip away from her. Dawn’s not in this episode a lot—probably because her entire situation is so perfectly expressed by that first scene where she explains her living situation—but the scene where the documentary crew offers to fly her back to Slough for the Christmas party is a great one. The conflict plays across Lucy Davis’ face exquisitely, even as Lee’s readily agreeing that, yeah, going back to Slough for the holidays would be something they’d like. It’s natural when you find yourself in a horrible situation to wonder what would have changed if you’d made a different choice (in this case, going off with Tim instead of staying with Lee), but I’m impressed by how Davis and the script choose to play this moment entirely internally, even as the documentary crew tries to get Dawn to say, “Yes, I’m miserable, and I wonder what it would have been like to leave Lee for Tim.”
Tim, meanwhile, is still back at Wernham Hogg, dealing with a pregnant co-worker, who’s constantly explaining to him such things as the conception of her child (in a scene that could seem too far but somehow doesn’t) and how she skipped a long line at EuroDisney. Gareth is essentially the manager—even if the title and duties are slightly different to preserve the rationale for Brent’s redundancy—and he uses his power to create an office environment where things run rigidly, even when they probably shouldn’t (as in the meeting Tim tries to insert a bit of new business into). He can’t even get pleasure out of winding up Gareth because no one will go along with it, and Gareth seems less perturbed by it than he has been in the past. Gareth, who reflexively assumes everybody thinks he’s the best, turns out to be a better boss than Brent was on the level of getting people to work and do things diligently. And Brent’s arrival to disrupt daily business in the office (something he does frequently, if that scene where Gareth tries to tell him to phone ahead is any indication) doesn’t make things any better. Only Tim seems at all relieved to see him—finally, a break from the monotony—but that relief is short-lived because, well, he’s the same old David Brent. Gareth’s irritated by him (though he hides it well), and the other co-workers are kept from any work by his blathering. Really, it’s a wonder Neil didn’t have him barred from the grounds somehow long ago.
But there’s something else on the horizon. Before we get to Brent’s lowest moment, we have a few scenes that suggest that there could be something more just around the corner. The first is the wonderful scene where Gareth convinces Brent to try to find a date for the Christmas party online, the better to show up Neil, who’s bringing his fiancée. What I like about this scene is that the now-even-more-no-nonsense Gareth finally forces Brent to confront who he actually is and be realistic about his prospects and potential. Brent, who assumes he should be dating a 25-year-old, is finally set up to find someone more within his actual bracket. Brent’s always been a victim of his own self-delusions, and the rawest scene of the original series involved him abruptly acknowledging that, no, he wasn’t who he said he was, as he begged for his job back. It didn’t work then, but maybe being realistic will allow him a chance at no longer being as desperately lonely as he sometimes seems. (Notice how many scenes in this episode frame Brent as being entirely alone, even when he’s surrounded by people.)
And Tim, of course, learns that Dawn and Lee are coming back. And he immediately admits that, no, he’s not as over Dawn as he said he was. It’s easy to pretend when she’s across an ocean, but when she’s right back in the same office building as him, that might be a little harder to do. We’re perfectly primed for a happy ending here; indeed, the arc is suggesting there’s no real other way for this to end without all of the characters ending up dead, Hamlet-style. Life in the office is awful; life in Tampa is awful; life on the road is awful. Surely there’s something better out there, if these people will finally drop their illusions and just start being honest with themselves and each other. Maybe after all these years of drudgery, it will be enough to once again grasp at happiness when it swings into view.
- I don’t know exactly when Gervais and Merchant realized what they had in the character of Keith, but he’s got some priceless moments here, particularly when he suggests that there should be girls at the Christmas party.
- Really, that whole party planning scene is the funniest in the whole episode, with Gareth rotely writing down everyone’s suggestions, including “something for the old people,” though he doesn’t really think critically about them.
- I haven’t touched much on Brent’s single, a cover of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” but the music video for it is pitch perfect, from the way that he’s dressed all in white to the way that the actress playing his girlfriend stands, back turned to the camera, angrily gesticulating about whatever it is that he’s done wrong this time.
- I’m not well-versed enough in British pop culture to know if either of the other two Dating Game bachelors is an actual figure of minor fame in the United Kingdom. I assume at least one of you will fill me in.
- Every time I watch this, there’s some sadistic part of me that really does want that baby to be Dawn’s, as we’re clearly led to worry it is at first. Of course, that would almost be a step too far in trapping these characters in desperate, awful situations, but would anyone not buy that this might happen to weak-willed Dawn? (That said, I rather suspect she’s good about her birth control.)
- It’s good to see that some things never change: Neil’s just as much a smarmy bastard as ever. And Finchy’s just as reprehensible as ever as well.
- Another very funny scene: Peter and Brent discuss all of the services that Peter’s agency offers, right before Brent goes onstage to wave hello to everyone at Mumbo Jumbos.
- “You headbutt a girl on telly, and you’re labeled a prat, and that’s the game.”
- “Who do you think it is? Father Christmas?…” “Don’t believe in you.”
- “Although fruit is very versatile.”
- “You beardy twat. Pug-nosed gimp. Lard boy.”
- “Please come with me, lads. I’ll tell you a joke.”
- “Yes. He’s got good leadership skills. Let’s all go with him to our certain death.”
- “If you’re laughing in the jungle, you’re gonna give away your position to the enemy.”
- “That big Keith. He’s grotesque, isn’t he?”
- “Dr. Dre. Ice-T. They’re the equivalent of Wordsworth.”
- “Luckily, I have no mates.”
- “Lee, if you’re watching and you ever get bored of being with someone with her own teeth, Nana’s up for it.”
- “See you there… with a lady.”
- “I’ve got Kirk Douglas…” “Michael Douglas.” “Michael Douglas, his son.”
- “He’ll just wander around, looking like Michael Douglas.”
- “A lot of people don’t realize who he is. They think he’s just some old bloke at a party.”
- “You can’t put very attractive. It looks like arrogance.”
- “Where have you been traveling?” “Hull.”
- “I thought ’cuz of the… jowls.”
- “Werther’s Originals? A phone call from their son?”
- “Just need a bucket and a T-shirt.”
- “Austin Powers. That’s what I was doing before you ruined it. Austin Powers.”
Next week: We come to the end of the series as everybody gathers for a big Christmas party.