“Downsize” and “Work Experience” (series 1, episodes 1 and 2; originally aired 7/9/2001 and 7/16/2001)
In which David gets some bad news and Gareth Keenan investigates
The Office is the most influential TV comedy of the last 10 years and probably the most influential TV comedy since Seinfeld. You could make an argument for Friends or Arrested Development or the U.S. remake of the show or even Everybody Loves Raymond, but most of those shows were reacting to Seinfeld or trying to ape what made this show so great. In just 14 episodes, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant took the standard workplace sitcom—full of will-they/won’t-they romances and wacky hijinks—and brought it slightly more down to Earth. They brought cringe humor into the TV mainstream in a big way. They invented a set of characters that resonated from the very first episode, and they create a full story that leaves at just the right point in time—twice. The Office is a very funny show and it’s a very cringe-inducing show, but for me, what resonates about the series is its ultimately humane nature. It would be so easy for the show to be a cruel exercise in asking us to laugh at the pathetic man at its center, but it never loses sight of the fact that he’s desperate for attention and affection. And it does all this without ever blatantly pointing that fact out.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m something of a fan of this show. Of all of the shows ever made, this one, The Simpsons’ first eight years, and Deadwood are the shows I return to time and again when I just need something to put on that’s going to make me believe in the medium’s potential again. To me, they’re all comfort food TV, and if you make a criticism of any of them, I’ll usually be able to acknowledge that, yes, that criticism exists and is valid, but Jesus Christ. Have you seen these shows? And what’s even more interesting to me is that all three of these shows are about communities. Deadwood and The Simpsons are in, of course, a very literal sense, but The Office is both about a community that’s created out of necessity and boredom, as well as a community that’s a very specific reaction to the kinds of TV families we’ve seen before. Taxi or Cheers would argue that the people you work with can become your real family; The Office knows the people you work with are the people you fuck around with until it’s time to quit.
Looking back at the first two episodes of the series, it’s fairly easy to pinpoint all of the things Gervais and Merchant were doing to break with the form as it was, but it’s also amazing just how much of this is predicated on comic devices that are older than the television sitcom. There are plenty of examples of things TV writers call a “Stan Daniels turn” (after a writer who was supposedly so great at this kind of joke that it was named after him), where one character says something, and then the camera immediately cuts to the exact opposite of that thing happening. (The classic example is a character saying, “You’ll never get me up on a horse!” and then cutting to them sitting on a horse in full cowboy regalia, looking glum, to the howls of audience laughter.) But many, many of the jokes in The Office are variations on this basic form. And it doesn't stop there. You’ve seen flirtations like the one between Tim and Dawn before, of course, and you’ve seen storylines about someone given a special assignment and letting it go to their head. Not a single thing about this show is new; it’s all build on old skeletons.
That extends to many of the elements I outlined above. There had been workplace sitcoms before and great ones. Even if we limit ourselves to British comedies, we can still come up with reliable old Fawlty Towers and dozens of others. There had been cringe humor worked into sitcoms before as well, even as this show is often cited as the first show to really utilize it. (Seinfeld, in particular, was fond of scenes where a character would find themselves in a hole and then just keep digging, to our embarrassed delight.) Both of the plots that form the hidden spine of the series, as opposed to individual episodes, are old ones, with one threatening the office itself with closure and the other involving a bored flirtation that might evolve into something more if not for outside obstacles constantly thrown in its way. As mentioned, the individual stories were sitcom staples (albeit ones drawn from real life), and it wasn’t like Gervais and Merchant’s talent for finding the humanity in every single character, even in those characters’ worst moments, was something unprecedented in the usually warm and squishy sitcom genre.
What The Office did that was so revolutionary was take away your safety net.
Let’s take a look at the scene that’s regularly cited as the best in the pilot: the practical joke played on Dawn. The basis of the scene is pretty simple, really, and it’s the kind of thing you could have seen, say, Louie do to an underling (Elaine, maybe) on Taxi. Dawn comes in with a fax. David has already told the new temp, Ricky, that he’s going to play a practical joke, and Ricky shouldn’t let on. So as Dawn enters, David asks her to sit down, then announces that she’s going to be the first “redundancy,” since the company needs him to cut back in the face of the branch possibly being merged with the branch in Swindon. Why is he doing this? He claims Dawn stole Post-It notes, and because of her theft of company property, he’s able to let her go without any sort of severance. Dawn bursts into tears, and when he lets her know it’s a joke, somewhat embarrassed, she lays into him and calls him a “sad little man.” He tries to brush it off and grin to Ricky, but the blow has landed, as registered by the almost imperceptible shift in Gervais’ face from David the Joker to David the Wounded.
Again, this is a scene you can imagine in any other number of sitcoms. But The Office, more than any show before it, took away the cue to laugh. All TV sitcoms (save one or two) have featured a cue to laugh. In a classic sitcom, it’s the audience laughing or the sound of the laugh track. In a mockumentary like this one, it’s the talking head interview (and we’ll get to how this works in a second). In a show like 30 Rock or Community, it’s a lot of rapid cutting, a lot of musical cues, a lot of sound effects, and a lot of goofy situations that are obviously comic on their face. (One of the reasons Louie often seems so revolutionary is because the show uses cues to laugh so rarely.) One of the arguments made in favor of non-audience-laughter sitcoms has always been that they don’t “tell you when to laugh.” But all sitcoms tell you when to laugh, and in mockumentaries and single-camera sitcoms, the cue to laugh usually comes from the edit, the cut from one thing happening to another thing that’s diametrically opposed happening. The juxtaposition of the two spurs a laugh, and that keeps you rolling through witty dialogue or crazy sight gags. (Think of how, for instance, Parks & Recreation sets up jokes about Ron, where he talks directly to the camera about his lack of desire to sit in the main office and be accessible to the people, followed immediately by a short scene of him having to do just that and avoiding a constituent.)
And, yes, The Office has these cues. Particularly in the second episode, “Work Experience,” the talking heads are used as ways to create these inherently funny juxtapositions. And in both episodes, David will have a talking head where he discusses his own vision of himself, and as the episode goes on, we see more and more how his vision of himself is very different from the actual experience of working with him. But it’s such a heavily character-based kind of joke that it can take a while to roll with the show’s sense of humor the first time you see it. (I believe I didn’t laugh until episode two the very first time I watched this series.) There are few hard jokes here. (The few times the characters joke around, they mostly make simple puns or play off pop culture.) Instead, David’s vision of himself as the consummate entertainer and greatest boss in the world is, in a sense, the whole show or at least its entire comic engine. The central question is whether he’ll ever realize that he’s not that (with the question of whether Tim and Dawn will hook up for the romantics). And that’s how the show cues us to laugh. David says something that offers a high opinion of himself. Immediate cut to him acting like a buffoon or being unable to win over his horrified staff. Laughter. It’s the oldest joke in the book, and it’s deployed tremendously. In a very real way, The Office is a comedy built entirely out of self-seriousness. The only one who realizes how unintentionally funny all of this is is Tim.
Which returns us to how this show yanks away the safety net. Again, you can imagine that scene with the practical joke on Dawn playing out in another sitcom. But every time you think of it, it’s a scene that keeps giving you pressure release valves, either through audience laughter or goofy one-liners or something designed to make you stop realizing this woman thinks her life is being destroyed. The Office, instead, makes Dawn cry, and then it keeps making her cry. And when David tells her that, ha ha, it was all a joke, and it’s time to be a happy family and laugh, we don’t see Dawn’s relief. We see her vengeance, as she lashes out the only way she knows how. This is not the happy family David wants it to be. He’s not the avuncular and wacky sitcom boss of a thousand other shows (as he might desire). He’s a sad little man who’s trying to make his officemates into his best pals and people who look up to him in delight and maybe even awe.
And yet through all of this, he is a weirdly good boss in some aspects. What I love about this series is that it never lets you forget that what David is doing is a performance. This isn’t how he acts all the time. (In the second episode, we cut into a scene where he’s told a joke about a turtle that’s legitimately made everybody laugh, even if it’s just the bored laughter of people in an office conference who want to escape via any method.) The series doesn’t forget that this is all selective editing, performed by an offscreen camera crew we’ll never see. Indeed, the show fits into a rich tradition of British workplace documentaries, so it’s easy to see in every scene where David starts up some mischief the moment where he realizes the camera is there and if he acts amusingly enough, he can make the whole nation laugh, instead of just the office. Sure, he’s painfully bad at it, but the show gives a sense that when he’s not switched “on,” he’s enjoyably approachable (Jennifer talks about how much he hates “management speak”) and goofy. When he tries to be the sitcom boss, he fails, but when he doesn’t try, his devotion to these people means that he won’t make any of them redundant, even as Neil over in Swindon does just that. It’s his loyalty to them, not the company, that marks him as the kind of boss most people would want to have, even as he’s the worst boss in the world. He wants the workplace to be a family so much he’ll tell Dawn about his cancer of the ol’ testicles, but he also wants it so much he’ll save everybody’s job for no real reason.
This drive for reality informs every single aspect of the show, where it takes the elements you’re familiar with—that workplace romance, say—and re-grounds them, reminds you why they became cliché in the first place. Tim and Dawn flirt, yes, but they do so in a way that seems achingly, honestly real, as when Dawn asks him to play with her hair in “Work Experience,” and the two are close, technically touching, but are also miles apart because she’s engaged, and he’s too proper to do anything about it, and, hey, they probably wouldn’t admit to themselves they had a crush on each other in the first place. Or look at Gareth, who’s the obsequious toady every single workplace sitcom has had but seems so much more real because his desire both for respect and fear is so grounded in his own misplaced ideas of his abilities. Gareth is the most obviously “sitcom” character here, a former Territorial Army member who’s convinced of, among other things, his own survival prowess and his own greatness, yet he doesn’t overstep his bounds. He’s believably deluded, even as he’s in a rich tradition of workplace sitcom doofuses.
And it’s that dichotomy—between the workplace sitcoms of the past that David sees his office in the tradition of and the actuality of the slog of working at Wernham Hogg—that drives The Office, that took it from a modest cult hit to a show that everybody interested in TV just had to see (something helped greatly by the show debuting in a time when sitcoms were in the dumps). It’s a show that took a chance on rewriting the sitcom formula, but it’s also a show that was constantly aware of the tradition it existed in and featured characters who strove to make it more like workplace sitcoms they’d seen in the past. The big conflict here isn’t between the characters or even between the characters and themselves; it’s between the show itself and everything that came before.
- I mention that the sitcom was in the dumps when this show premiered, and to give you an idea of just how poorly it was doing (driven down by the rise of reality TV and darker dramas on cable), I present to you the five nominees for Best Comedy that competed at the Emmys the summer of 2001, when The Office debuted: Everybody Loves Raymond (still in its prime and fifth season), Frasier (in its eighth season and wheezing along), Malcolm In The Middle (just off its second and best season), Will & Grace (in its third year and showing the signs of wear and tear that marked most of its run), and the winner Sex & The City. Not all of those shows are bad, but none of them was in the cultural zeitgeist in the way shows like Seinfeld or Friends had been just a few years earlier.
- And, hey, I realized when writing this piece that the show debuted almost exactly 10 years ago. Indeed, the anniversary of these episodes is in less than a month.
- I suppose comparisons to the American Office are inevitable in comments, but I’m going to try to keep the content of these articles free of those comparisons, at least until a special article I’m planning for near the end of this series’ run.
I had forgotten just how many classic bits are already in the show in these first two episodes. Tim playing the “jelly” prank on Gareth, of course, is something that people think of when thinking of the show, but the “Gareth Keenan investigates” subplot is one of my favorites in the series’ whole run, with just the right blend of Gareth’s pomposity and Tim and Dawn’s ability to poke holes in it. I also like the way it resolves by tying into the main plot at the end.
- Another very old “sitcom” type joke: Gareth asks us to imagine a little person forklift operator, then describes him in immense detail, then reveals he actually exists. Still, incredibly funny and another good way to cue us that the talking heads are all about a discrepancy between reality and perception.
I had totally forgotten about Jennifer since watching this show the last time (probably in the mid-2000s somewhere), and I do really enjoy just how horrified she is by everything she sees down in Slough.
- If the above weren’t obvious, I’m going to aim to discuss some different stuff in these pieces than just straight recaps. We’ve all seen this show, right? What are some particular topics of discussion you’d like me to tackle in the weeks ahead? I'm already pretty sure next week will be about how the show depicts workplace life.
- I’m sort of obsessed with the theme song for the show. I wish someone had recorded a full version I could download.
- I’m using the more descriptive U.S. episode titles, instead of the generic “Episode One” and so forth from the U.K. Other than that, I’ll aim to keep to U.K. traditions, such as listing “series” instead of “season.”
- Finally, here’s how this is going to work. I’ll be watching the whole series over the course of nine weeks, with two episodes per week for the two series, then one special per week, with a week inserted (probably between series two and the specials) for a special installment that I haven’t quite decided the parameters of just yet. I may have to take a week or two off for TCA in July, but otherwise, these will run on a weekly basis (and I’ll give you plenty of warning before taking that week or two off). In the meantime, you can follow along with me at both Netflix and Hulu. Or I’m sure you can find most of the series on YouTube.
- Finally, I like the show so much that grading it seems kind of silly. They’d all be A’s, for the most part.
- "You do not punish anyone, Dutch or otherwise, for having big boobs." "If anything, they should be rewarded."
- "Different frogs, different times."
- "Efficiency. Turnover. Profitability."
- "Isn't Schindler's List a brilliant film?"
- "I'm not homophobic. Come around. Look at my CD collection."
- "You lied." "It's a form of acting."
- "Was it one of you two?" "Yes. Christ, you're good."
- "Let's have a laugh at work with women at us."