“Party”/“Motivation” (series 2, episodes 3 and 4; originally aired 10/14/2002 and 10/21/2002)
In which Trudy has a birthday party and David Brent gives a motivational speech.
Much of what makes The Office so good comes down to something that’s not praised about the show: good, solid sitcom construction. In many ways, a good sitcom is like a good piece of furniture. If it’s put together well enough, it doesn’t have to be beautiful. Functionality counts for a lot. When you walk up to a chair, you pretty much know what you’re going to get on some level, no matter how ornate the construction. You’ll find somewhere to sit, maybe somewhere to rest your arms, maybe a way to pop up a footrest as well. The decoration is secondary to the ability to sit, and because we’ve all grown up with chairs, we know exactly what to do when we see one.
The sitcom is similar. Take, for instance, a sequence in “Party,” which involves Rachel daring Tim to hide the dildo Trudy has just received for her birthday in Brent’s office. Tim is able to do so, and then for the rest of the episode, you’re waiting for that dildo to be revealed at the moment of maximum embarrassment for Brent. This is a situation as old as comedy itself, and outside of the fact that it’s a dildo as the embarrassing object, it’s a situation that could very easily have been utilized on something like I Love Lucy (though perhaps Lucy would have hidden a toupee or something in Desi’s office, making his guests think he’s bald—forgive me; it’s been a long time since I’ve written a ‘50s sitcom). And The Office doesn’t disappoint. The dildo is revealed while Brent takes a meeting with two people who wish to have him conduct motivational seminars. He takes offense. He heads out to confront the rest of the office. We’re satisfied and laugh.
Even though you probably recognize this as a classic sitcom setup, I doubt you hold it against the show. One of the pleasures of TV comedy is seeing traditional setups played out with new characters or new styles. Mistaken identities or lies that blossom out of control or someone being overheard saying something stupid are all still with us, and once we know the characters on our favorite shows well enough, the enjoyment comes from two kinds of predictability coming together. We know how a generic character would react to finding a dildo in their office. We know how David Brent reacts to being embarrassed. The pleasure comes from seeing these two ideas bounce off of each other, with the show perfectly playing just what it is that Brent does when he finds the dildo, with a wonderfully awkward scene where he questions the office on just where it came from and gives his helpful hints for how to not have your dildo wind up in his office.
So much is made of what was revolutionary about The Office that what’s lost is just what wasn’t, and that’s often the stuff that kept the show from being unwatchable. For all of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s innovations in the way the show was filmed or in the way that it takes away your safety nets, most of their storylines were bog-standard workplace sitcom stuff. (This week, we have a party that takes over the office and one of the characters giving a speech at another location and having something crazy happen at that speech.) Most of the comic setups were straight out of sketch comedy and classic sitcoms. The way these things were put together was completely new, but the ingredients themselves were there from the very foundation of the sitcom form. Much of the comedy on The Office stems from the comedy of delusion, in particular, the comedy of a character thinking something about themselves that their actions prove to be false. And, again, that’s something you can find back in I Love Lucy or in the radio and stage comedies that offered early sitcoms their basic DNA.
I don’t know if you’ve been reading my interviews with Michael Schur, co-creator and executive producer of Parks & Recreation, but I’m interested in his thoughts on the fact that the mockumentary format—which this version of The Office provided the basic elements for for most modern shows in the format—has as its most basic joke someone saying something about themselves that their actions later prove false. And in the second series of The Office, this type of comedy may be at its height. Brent’s delusions of his own grandeur and greatness have grown to such a huge pinnacle that there’s basically nowhere for him to go but down. At some point, reality’s going to have to show him just how stupid and venal he is, and it seems like that point is bearing down hard. (In “Motivation,” Neil even warns him that he’s skirting the edge of a “serious talk.”)
Brent’s motivational speech is one of the show’s comic highpoints, a moment when a man’s ideas of who he is and what he’s doing run so contrary to reality that it’s hard to do anything but sit agog at his sheer idiocy. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why Brent thinks this is such a great speech. He’s saying all the right things, after all, and he concludes it with some vintage Tina Turner as he runs out of the room. What he doesn’t get is that his words are empty and the way he presents them shows that emptiness. We don’t get to see much of what the other guys in the hour talk about, but the little glimpses we get suggest they’re offering the same sorts of boilerplate advice. Brent’s just much, much worse at it.
At the same time, though, look at the people sitting there in the room, listening to this speech. What are they doing here? Why do they think they’re going to find the answers for success that have apparently eluded them thus far by listening to local business leaders? The obvious butt of the joke in this scene is Brent, but Gervais and Merchant may as well be taking on the whole motivational speech industry. Any one of these people could be Brent, talking in empty platitudes and offering advice that doesn’t mean a damn thing. One of the major themes of The Office is that there are very, very few things that can break you out of the despairing, depressing patterns you might find yourself locked in. If you’re looking for any sort of easy answer, there isn’t one. An office romance? “Entertaining” your co-workers? Getting really invested in workplace minutiae? Any one of these will only provide a brief respite from the drudgery. True happiness requires seizing control of your own destiny, and modern life makes it incredibly hard to do that very thing.
The other big thread—in addition to Brent’s new side-career—is the fact that Tim and Rachel have finally consummated their flirtation and are now a couple, something that sends out reverberations throughout the office. Dawn, of course, is unhappy about this, though she’d never say quite why. (And Lee’s a real prize in these episodes, suggesting that she’ll take off her top for 10 pounds to the other guys in the warehouse. Every time I think he’s reached the nadir of his terribleness, he does something even worse.) But Gareth, too, is unhappy, and he finds himself trying to prove that he’s better than Tim, more sexually desirable, in particular. There’s a lot of casual sexual harassment on Gareth’s part in these episodes, but no one seems all that bothered by it, simply because harassment presupposes a kind of power on the part of the one doing the harassing, and there are few people more powerless in these situations than Gareth is. When he tells Trudy that he’d be happy to have anal sex with her if it was just a one-time thing, she just jokingly tells him to put it in an e-mail. Gareth’s delusions of his sexual desirability have been around since the first episodes of the show, but in this series, they’re even more pronounced and ridiculous.
But Tim and Dawn are just as deluded as anybody else about their own happiness. Dawn, of course, is trapped in a relationship with a man who has absolutely no interest in her as anything beyond a fairly attractive woman he sometimes gets to have sex with. (Tim’s relationship is still in the rosy honeymoon period, and it’s in these episodes that Rachel comes off best, as a kind of more forward version of Dawn, equally good at joking around but also very forthcoming about what she wants. She’s almost someone Dawn could aspire to be in these episodes.) But the two have also given up on everything they might have wanted a few years ago. In something I think is probably key, these two episodes feature brief monologues from Dawn and Tim about how far their lives are from the ones they thought they would be leading a few years ago. Tim talks about how he’s had little in the way of love in his life, thanks largely to the fact that he still lives with his parents, while Dawn discusses her school reunion and how a girl whom she wouldn’t have expected to has become a millionaire and is married to a marine biologist.
I talked briefly last week about how Brent reminds me of one of my other favorite antiheroes in Tony Soprano. What’s interesting to me is just how similar The Office and The Sopranos are on a thematic level. Both shows are about change and how it’s the only way to truly be happy. If you change your life, you can try to minimize the things that make you unhappy and take a stab at what you think would make you happy. But it’s usually much easier to not do something than to actually do it. On The Sopranos, of course, Tony can’t break out of his patterns because he refuses to admit that a lot of what makes him unhappy is the life he was born into and the life he’s chosen to perpetuate. (The later seasons are particularly pointed in this regard.) On The Office, the reasons no one can grasp at happiness are far more mundane—no one wants to be on the dole or have to look for a new job—but they’re just as powerful and much more understandable to the audience. Everybody’s had a job they hate or been in a relationship they can’t escape. And everybody knows just how hard making that change can be.
All of which brings us, in rather circuitous fashion, right back to where we started. Part of the fun of sitcoms is their predictability, yes, of knowing the basic situations and wondering how these characters will react to those situations (and laughing in pleasure when they react exactly as we predicted they might). But where The Office uses this kind of construction to its great advantage, it also uses it to play up the hollowness in its characters’ lives, the fact that all of them are deluded, whether it’s about how attractive they are or how happy they are or how beloved they are. At the bottom of every one of these comedic scenes or sketches is the suggestion that these people are trapped in the same kinds of cycles the sitcom form itself is. When Dawn and Tim wind up Gareth (after he’s just spent plenty of time doing so with Rachel), it feels like something that’s played out thousands of times before (even if we’ve only seen a handful of them), but when Rachel comes over to celebrate in the success of the prank with Tim, it does feel new. And in a way, threatening. Just as much as these characters are scared to leave and change, we don’t want them to. In series two, there’s a nice tension between the idea of what probably should happen and what we would like to happen, and that’s what makes it so much more than your typical sitcom.
- The bit where Brent suggests that everybody should start by calling Keith Fatty, Fatty Toad Boy before they call Brent himself Mr. Toad never fails to make me laugh. (I also like how Brent obviously can’t handle the single insult Gareth tosses at him, and that snowballs into this scene.)
- OK, you’re all right about Rachel. I was harder on her last week than I probably needed to be. She’s not a great character, but she’s more than just a plot point.
- It’s interesting how the show keeps tossing Brent and Dawn together in situations this season, as if it’s trying to forcibly shake her out of her complacency and get her to leave.
- No further Stray Observations or pictures this week, as I’m at the Television Critics Association press tour and pressed for time. But you guys have been so good at sharing your thoughts that I’m sure you’ll come up with some good ideas in comments.
- No Office write-up next week, due to the above. We’ll be back August 9 with the final two episodes of series two.
- "They know I'm rock 'n' roll through and through."
- "Die young? Die old."
- "Mine's not that size. It's very, very tiny, but it is made of plastic." "Mine's massive, and it ain't made of plastic!"
- "Tell Taffy that I said it was OK, and that Neil agrees with me."
- "Cockles. Cocky. The Big Cock."
- "What's that?" "It's a dildo."
- "What am I doing in there with a dildo?"
- "What have we learnt from this?" "Not to leave your dildo laying around?"
- "You should wear tighter trousers." "Can I give you a call back?"
- "I'll do you from behind if you want, if it's just a quick in and out, no strings attached." "That's really sweet. Why don't you put that in an e-mail to me?"
- "You're an embarrassment, love."
- "Your fault. Putting filth in people's minds."
- "That's an earring." "Whatever, get over it."
- "He's weird little bloke. Look at his cartoon face and his hair! He looks like a Fisher Price man!"
- "Yet in my head, I'd still do you, so I'm confused."
- "Hand job? Don't answer. Think about it."
- "It's not your computer, is it? It's Wernham-Hogg's."
- "He faked his own death so he could work undercover for the Hong Kong police."
- "I'm not gonna be wearing the shoes!"
- "The toad is the ugliest of all the amphibians."
- "Why don't we call him Fatty Fatty Toad Boy?"
- "It's a good performance. Let's agree to disagree."
- "I'm not saying people like that should be put down."
- "She used to eat chalk."