“New Girl”/”Judgment” (series 1, episodes 5 and 6; originally aired 8/13/2001 and 8/20/2001)
In which friendly bombs fall on Slough and David Brent gets an exciting new opportunity
You can feel a bad situation, a slow-motion death pact, in your bones. Situations where your life is in imminent danger? You’ll try and get out of those. There’s no way you’ll stick around if you’ve been kidnapped by terrorists or tossed into quicksand or devoured by a python. If you have the means to escape—a way to pick the locks on your handcuff, a rope, a small knife—you’ll utilize them, almost without thinking. Your will to live is instinctual. But situations where your life isn’t in any danger but the quality of it is downgraded simply by being in them? You’ll put up with a terrible job or a mediocre marriage or a bad living situation for longer than is probably “healthy,” simply because the alternative is that much worse. And you can only feel that sort of thing way down deep, in a place where it registers only as a dull ache, a sense that things are somehow not right. Somewhere, a part of you is screaming, “Run! Escape! You hate this job! You don’t really love this person! This house is a money pit!” That part’s headed for the door, away from the terrorists, the quicksand, the python. But the real, actual self? That part’s sitting there, smiling, pretending it’s happy.
And it’s no different for Wernham-Hogg. (Or is that Wernham-Hogg-Taylor-Clark?) Can we honestly say anybody in the main or supporting cast really looks forward to working there, really thinks they’re doing something life-affirming by going to work every morning? It’s possible we could say that about David Brent and maybe Gareth. But as “New Girl” shows us, even those guys are desperate for a way to distract themselves from the drudgery. Everybody else, though? They’re stuck at a job they hate but a job they need. When the prospect of that job being taken away strikes, they’re alternately struck by an intense fear of what the world would look like without gainful employment and a potential hopefulness at the sense that not being at Wernham-Hogg might cause them to get up and make something of their lives.
After spending the first four episodes of the series developing the characters and slowly building to the broader statement of their thesis, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant lay out everything they think about shitty jobs and the people of Wernham-Hogg (and Slough) in these two episodes. These are an attempt to make everything about the series unmistakable, so if no series two had ever existed, the show would have stood perfectly as a tiny statement of workplace drudgery. They also work splendidly at setting up series two, simply by dangling the carrot in front of us of Tim’s happiness. The show has so successfully gotten us to identify with Tim that we’re briefly thrilled at the prospect that he would escape a life he clearly hates (outside of Dawn, who’s more an infatuation of convenience than anything else). And yet this is television, and we don’t want to bear another season without Tim, so some small part of us roots against his escape. We want him trapped, so he can entertain us.
Of these two episodes, “New Girl” is the weaker one. It’s still a tremendously good episode, but it’s a step down from all of the other series one episodes, to my mind, even if it builds to a climax (the entire sequence at Chasers) that’s as good as anything the show ever did. The early stuff—particularly the long, early scene where Brent so obviously favors Karen for the new job over Stuart Foot—occasionally feels less like Brent performing bad comedy routines to get his workers through the day and more like actual bad comedy routines, dropped into the middle of a show that gains its greatest strengths from realism. This is one of the cringe-iest episodes of the entire show, because it shows us that Brent utilizes what he believes to be his skills of performance in seduction, as well as the workplace, and because it shows us that someone like Gareth doesn’t even have that. And being that cringe-y isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does require the show to do some things that bump a little too heavily against the idea of, “Hey, you’re watching a fictional TV show, not some inadvertently funny workplace documentary.” Many of the scenes in the office between Brent and Karen push all the right buttons, but they also ring a little false.
All of that is more than made up for by the sequence at Chasers. In the debut article of this series, I talked a little about how Brent wants to believe that he’s a good guy, the head of a convivial workplace family. Many of you in comments argued that this is more nuanced, that Brent wants other people to think he’s a good guy but has no real interest in trying to be a good guy himself. The performance he makes so much of his everyday life extends even to how he tries to present himself as the hero of this documentary. He’s willing to pretend to do the right thing and make himself seem like a genuine bloke, someone on the side of the angels when it comes to his underlings. But he’s only willing to pretend. He’d never actually make the tough call. And this episode and “Judgment” more than underline the idea that Brent is, at his core, a small, pathetic man who only does the right thing if it’s convenient for him. Otherwise, he’s all about the self-advancement.
It’s tempting to say that these two episodes are the absolute nadir of Brent’s behavior. In the Chasers sequence, drunkenness reveals him to be a cad who gets worse and worse in his pursuit of women, desperation driving him to do and say stupid things, even as someone like Finchy scores fairly easily. (Gareth hooks up with the married woman whose husband likes to watch, while Tim doesn’t seem bothered to try.) He spends the episode trying to act like a stern father toward Donna, upset that she didn’t come home and, instead, spent the night at Ricky’s. But when he runs into her at Chasers later on, he almost seems to be mad at her because she gets to be young and he’s condemned to keep getting older, to live in a world where he’s no longer hip (if he ever was). (And it’s worth mentioning here that Sally Bretton’s performance in this episode is just a terrific evocation of horrified incredulity.)
But the Chasers sequence is also all about drawing distinctions between Tim—the noble audience identification figure who’s thinking about leaving his job to go back to school—and Brent—the guy who’s supposed to make us think of every bad boss ever and chuckle at how bad of a person he is. Tim’s the guy who goes out to Chasers and seems to regard it with the ironic detachment he does everything else, the guy who jokes about how Slough only has two nightclubs and once had a third that closed. Brent, meanwhile, really enjoys going out to Chasers (as does Gareth), but once the night draws on and he hasn’t hooked up with anyone, he turns a little desperate. He also defends Slough from the slurs of great poet John Betjemen by reading his poem about friendly bombs falling on Slough and completely missing the point. The implication could not be more clear: Slough is a fucking hole, just as much as Wernham-Hogg is a depressing bore, and the sooner these characters take off their blinders and allow themselves to realize that, the better everybody else will be.
But we’re not very good at taking off our blinders, are we? At least, that’s what the next episode, “Judgment,” would argue. There’s an episode where many of the characters essentially admit that they’re only stuck at Wernham-Hogg out of outright terror at what would happen without their shitty, shitty jobs. And yet the prospect of having the Slough branch closed down—a prospect that actually seems to be reality for a short, terrifying while—is also welcomed with a kind of strange excitement. If Wernham-Hogg’s Slough branch closed down, well, maybe people like Tim and Dawn would be forced to get up off their asses and do something with themselves. The moment at the end of “Judgment” where Tim reveals to Dawn that he’s taken Brent’s offer to take the next step up the Wernham-Hogg ladder isn’t played for humor, bleak or otherwise. It’s played for complete and utter desolation and tragedy. This is a man who knew what he wanted a few days ago and knew it with a kind of conviction we could feel through the screen. And now, he can be tempted to stick around for 500 extra quid? I think it’s telling that in this sequence, Tim changes his very clear life philosophy—it’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up one you don’t—and starts babbling about pies and transitioning between ladders like he’s suddenly the second coming of Brent. Something about this place makes you lie to yourself, would eventually change you into Brent if you stuck around long enough and rose high enough.
But, again, it’s Brent’s arc that defines this episode, as Jennifer reveals to him that she’s been made a partner in the entire company, leaving her job open, with the board voting 5-2 (an astounding percentage, Brent would remind you) to have Brent step into her spot. (This episode, in particular, is filled with little moments that suggest Brent is pretty good at his job when the cameras aren’t paying attention. The board likes him, and while Tim is clearly buttering him up in the early scene where he says Brent’s a great boss, he seems genuine about the idea that Brent has some “hilarious” paper stories.) It’s up to him whether he wants to or not. If he does, he’ll get a better salary and plenty of perks. But the Slough branch will also be incorporated into Swindon, and most of the people working there will lose their jobs. Brent, too, starts babbling about pies as a way to excuse what he’s about to do and to excuse this betrayal of what Jennifer describes as his “family,” but he takes the job anyway and without hesitation.
After this follows what might be the essential David Brent scene, the scene that lays out everything that makes him who he is. It’s as hard-to-watch of a scene as anything in “New Girl” but for completely different reasons. Brent tells the staff he’s got good news and bad news: The branch is being incorporated into Swindon, but he’s been promoted. (Malcolm, who’s one of my favorite background characters, accurately points out that this is “bad news and irrelevant news.”) And he’s actually surprised when people aren’t thrilled for him, so surprised that he goes and turns down the job offer and comes back to the staff’s dour party to announce that they’re all keeping their jobs, something that perks up the party but somehow doesn’t make it any less dour. But a moment of redemption like that wouldn’t fit in this universe, so we learn that what actually happened is that Brent failed his physical, leading to the board having to go with Neil by default. He tried to play it off as some sort of giant moral victory, but if not for his blood pressure, most of these people would be on the dole.
And that ties back in to everything “New Girl” and “Judgment” are trying to do. Moments of redemption don’t exist in this world. “New Girl” makes this implicit by showing how Gareth, Brent, and Tim all fail horribly at their various workplace flirtations, as we see that the sweet little romance we’ve seen developing between Tim and Dawn has seedier alternatives in Brent and Karen (check out his pose when she comes in to interview) and much, much more unaware alternatives in Gareth and Donna. (To be fair, he’s been keen on Donna from the first, but this is the episode where he most hopes to impress her with what appears to be his belief that women find nothing sexier than workplace diligence.) But Tim’s just as deluded, as is Dawn, who will never realize that Lee is a slouch who’s not a good match for her. No, redemption or some sort of tiny, humanizing element can’t exist at Wernham-Hogg or in Slough because those two places choke all that’s good out. The best thing anybody can hope for is a moment of clarity, a moment when someone grabs the rope and pulls themselves out of the quicksand or bolts for the door, a moment when they realize they are unhappy, desperately so, and ride that all the way to a new and better life that does make them happy.
But you know what? Clarity is fleeting. It comes, and it goes, and a notion that keeps you up with just how bracing it is won’t seem as smart when the alarm goes off as it did at 4 in the morning. The world and the workplace are structured to keep you bubbling along right where you are for 50 years, until you get that gold watch Brent talks about. And because of that, you grab at any distractions you can find. (This episode would step right up to the edge of arguing that Brent’s desire to perform comedy for his underlings is just a grotesque evolution of Tim’s infatuation with Dawn: workplace distractions, designed to keep from acknowledging that both men sell paper.) But the ultimate worth of “Judgment” is that it finally turns this question back out at us. How many times have you been stuck in a situation like Tim’s? And how many times have you wanted to make a break, only to end up right back where you were, tapping away at your desk or sitting across from someone you don’t love or patching up another hole in the drywall, the python wrapping its mouth around your foot. It’s called “being an adult,” but it has a tendency to curdle and turn sour, to pass up bitterness and depression and anger and eventually leave you feeling blank.
- These episodes feature one of my favorite Office recurring characters ever in Stare-at-the-Cameras-in-Horror guy. He’s Stephen Merchant’s dad, and I love every single time he pops up in the series. (Indeed, I laugh giddily.)
- They also feature the single greatest gag with one of the background characters the show ever did (though I think the series two version of the gag tops the series one version), which is pictured above. Keith and Tim have a long talk about how Keith is quite content with a small life, even if Tim is not (and Keith is weirdly aggressive about this), then Keith takes a long bite of a Scotch egg. Perfection.
- These episodes are positively filled with hilarious Gareth moments, particularly in the talking heads, which are all wonderful. I also really like his safety seminar and how he encourages Donna to “shout out” the words “safe” or “dangerous.” The bit where he shows her how to lift a box might go on a bit long, however.
- Another bit I love: Jennifer comes in to the office and is confused by who Karen is. Brent says he has no idea. Then, when the two leave their meeting, Jennifer looks shocked again. “She’s still here!”
- Brent’s talking head in which he attempts to justify hiring a new secretary when the company is falling apart around him is one of my favorite talking heads in the show. I just like the way he clearly has some idea how to make this sound palatable to upper management (and us) but also has absolutely no clue.
- The scene that opens “Judgment,” with Brent firing one of the forklift operators (and being chastised for not firing Anton), seems like another pretty solid evocation of the show’s basic ideas and principles. I like how we gradually realize just how many people are in the room, with the computer guy leaning up from where he’s working, then the camera panning over to reveal Gareth off to the side. And I like how the guy getting fired is distracted from his righteous anger by a completely irrelevant discussion about dwarves, midgets, and elves. Not getting distracted so you can pursue what you really want is a big theme of this episode, and it’s being laid out for us right here.
- Possibly obscure Britishism of the week: Do hoary comics in the U.K. really say “as the actress said to the bishop” (or vice versa)? Or is that a Brent-ism?
- Brief moment of comparison with the American version for the week: Didn’t Dwight also have a genius at work sign like Gareth does?
- “Judgment” has probably the best cut to credits in the entire series, with Brent’s self-boosting little speech about making the workplace great abruptly cut by the sadness of the closing tune.
- I like how skillfully the show has built up Neil into an antagonist without once showing him onscreen. It does them wonders for series two.
- Karen Fowler takes a new job in one episode and apparently loses it in the very next. You'd think that'd be all the clarity she'd need.
- The establishing shots of Chasers are very reality show-y. "Oh, hey, we're at a bar! People are dancing!" Nice work.
- "I was just wondering: Will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark?"
- "I could stay at Dawn's." "No you couldn't!"
- "Is that a philosopher?" "Desree."
- "I'm taking these guys into battle, and I'm doing my own stapling."
- "When cherries are red, they're ripe for plucking. When girls are 16..."
- "Condoms come in different flavors now don't they? Like strawberry and curry and that. Do you like curry?"
- "And my only problem with that is venereal disease, which is disabilitating."
- "'Who's used all the penicillin?' 'Oh, Mark Paxton, sir. He's got knob rot off some tart.'"
- "They call it the nightclub that never sleeps. That closes at 1."
- "You could do worse than Gareth. He hasn't missed one day from ill health."
- "I don't think you solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place."
- "What's he on about? What's he never burped?"
- "A dwarf is someone who has disproportionately short arms and legs."
- "So, what's an elf?" "An elf is a supernatural being. Sometimes, they're invisible like fairies."
- "I just wanna know how come he knows so much about midgets."
- "Although he also said, 'I am the walrus; I am the eggman,' so I don't know what to believe."
- "I don't have time for the pie thing, David."
- "On a more positive note, the good news is, I've been promoted. So... every cloud..."
- "It's not good news, David. It's only bad news and irrelevant news."
- "Thanks for the opportunity and the great jokes!"
- "You faked high blood pressure in order to fail a medical test?"
- "If I do a bit of networking, then there's every chance I could be in David's chair within three years."
- "There goes David Brent. I must remember to thank him."
Next week: Series two begins, as Brent meets his new boss Neil in “Merger” and staff interviews are held in “Appraisals.”