20 years ago, a little show debuted on BBC Two to minimal fanfare. Following the humdrum events of a paper company, Wernham Hogg, in Slough, a dreary part of England, The Office was always going to be a hard sell. Yet within two years, the genius of Ricky Gervais’s and Stephen Merchant’s creation would bring accolades and acclaim the likes of which a sitcom rarely receives. The Office was the first British show in 25 years to be nominated for a Golden Globe, becoming the first ever British show to win one in the process; 2003 also brought a prestigious Peabody Award.
As it celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first airing, no TV show in the last two decades has defined that period as much as The Office has. I’m sure you know the general gist by now: the mockumentary followed the day-to-day lives of Wernham Hogg, a British paper merchants, the office being led by the self-involved and delusional manager David Brent. Played by Gervais, he’s one of the most distinctive comedy creations of all time. The Office was at the forefront of cringe comedy, spearheaded by the irksome behaviour of Brent. Constantly overstepping boundaries, forever being socially awkward, he epitomised the desire to look away from a character but not being able to do so. When other characters looked into the cameras, they became surrogates for our second-hand embarrassment. Yet you never look away, such is the magnetism of Gervais’s performance.
Brent also precipitated the rise of the fame-hungry reality TV generation. American Idol and The X Factor both started just after The Office and Brent precedes the blind wannabes that would fill those shows. “I’ve got stuff to say if people listened but they won’t!” he cries after a ‘celebrity’ appearance at a nightclub goes wrong, and he truly believes it (such celebrity appearances have become ubiquitous in clubs across the U.K., with seemingly every person from Geordie Shore and Love Island doing them). Brent is the measly office manager that insists that he deserves to be a star: he’s always watching for the cameras, always waiting for another moment to create his narrative; in the era of Instagram influencers and omnipresent social media, there’s a little bit of David Brent in all of us.
The mockumentary format had been done before – including by one of Gervais’s idols, Garry Shandling, on The Larry Sanders Show – but none had utilised it on such a mainstream platform. Indeed, the realism of the documentary style was so strong that many viewers at the time thought it was a real documentary (lord have mercy on anyone who actually had Brent as their boss). The lack of laugh track had similarly been done before but The Office truly used those natural silences to capture the awkwardness and dullness of the office environment.
Check out the best of series 1:
Nothing sums up The Office’s immense influence on TV in the 21st century, though, than the long list of shows that it’s inspired. The power of cringe in The Thick of It, Veep and Peep Show; current British mockumentaries like People Just Do Nothing and the excellent This Country; the talking-directly-to-the-camera segments in Modern Family and Parks & Recreation; even in Australia, Chris Lilley’s comedies owe a huge debt of gratitude to Gervais and Merchant’s show.
Another behemoth of 21st century comedy also obviously came more directly from The Office: it’s more expensive and snazzier U.S. remake. With the wonderful Steve Carell playing Michael Scott, the David Brent equivalent, it’s become probably the biggest sitcom of the last few decades, beloved on Netflix. Debate always rages about which version is better but there can only be one winner and that’s the original (I promise I’m not just saying this because it’s the 20th anniversary).
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Read a few of our reasons below and decide for yourself!
Check out David Brent’s Life Philosophy:
Dawn and Tim > Pam and Jim
Look, I know you’re not going to be happy with this one. I know you’re probably going to be downright angry. Pam and Jim’s relationship has become the symbol of millennial romance in culture (how many times have you seen on Tinder someone ‘looking for the Jim to my Pam’ or vice versa?). Yet perhaps it took about a 12th rewatch of the U.S. series to realise just how awful their relationship is. We’ve previously espoused on how problematic Pam is but Jim is much worse. He treats his girlfriends with downright disdain, dumping poor Katy on the boat out of spite because Roy sets a wedding date with Pam. After convincing Karen to move from Connecticut to Scranton, he never fully commits to the relationship, asking her not to move into a house on the same road as him, and continuing to flirt and play with Pam.
The Dwight and Jim rivalry is iconic but the more you watch their battles, the clearer it becomes that Jim was a true bully. It’s that moment when Michael reads out the list of Jim’s pranks that you realise just how demeaning and oppressive Jim is, all because Dwight has the temerity to be himself. Yes, Dwight is a sociopath in later seasons, but he doesn’t start out that way; Jim’s treatment of him drives him to act like this.
As a couple, Jim and Pam are just exceptionally mediocre. They think that they’re better than the rest of their workmates, but their sense of superiority is unearned (remember when Jim’s old school mate, who he abandoned to play with kids at the same reading level as him, turns up at Dunder Mifflin and asks him ‘where’s your jetpack Zuckerberg?’). When Jim decides to pursue his sport marketing company behind Pam’s back, we’re supposed to accept this as just him pursuing his dream, but it’s terrible behaviour.
Dawn and Tim, meanwhile, have a genuinely romantic storyline. We see stolen glances and frustrated moments, as they come to realise that they’re comfortable with each other in a way that they’ve not found with anyone else. Tim never cheats on a partner, instead waiting until he believes that Dawn and Lee are split up to ask her out. When they do finally get together in the final episode, it’s the perfect ending: maybe they won’t stay together, maybe they won’t last, but two people finding happiness together in such a dreary place is all that matters.
Watch Dawn and Tim’s kiss:
It never devolves into caricature
There’s many moments when the U.S. version ‘jumps the shark’, but one particularly ridiculous one is when Kevin starts shortening his sentences to ‘save time’. After starting off slightly dim, by the end of the series Kevin essentially has a learning disability. He was always meant to be a the loveable big man character but the writing treats him terribly, making him devolve too far into dumbness. And his character is not alone: the rest of the Dunder Mifflin staff are increasingly pigeonholed into their stereotypes, whether it be Meredith as a lurid drunkard or Stanley as a grumpy curmudgeon. Dwight, as aforementioned, becomes a genuine sociopath, and never belongs in such an office environment.
By sticking to the naturalism of its realistic setting, the U.K. version remains realistic and assured in its storytelling. David Brent is the only character that comes close to caricature but his performative disposition can clearly be correlated to the presence of the cameras. Consider his character’s reprieve at the end of his story arc: after bringing a genuinely nice woman to the Christmas party as his date, Finchy compares her to a dog, but instead of taking it as usual, Brent tells him – using his first name ‘Chris’ tellingly for the first time – to “f*ck off”. It’s such a human reaction after all the bravado that came before and it’s thrilling to watch.
Check out David Brent’s redemption:
There’s no decrease in quality
Have you ever had the displeasure of watching the final two seasons of the U.S. version? There’s a reason they live in TV infamy. The departure of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was the perfect moment to finish the entire show but money and popularity dictated that it continue. Good lord, how that was a mistake. New characters arrived and were unbelievably unbefitting of the show, most notably James Spader as Robert California, a tyrannical intellectual who creeps on women, and Catherine Tate as Nellie Bertram, a cartoonish character that bounces around the show in various roles but always feels like Tate performing a Ricky Gervais impersonation.
After adhering to the more realistic documentary style in its first few seasons, by the midway point of the series, its Americanisation was complete. Episodes like when the entire office went to Gabe’s apartment for a Glee watch party were truly ridiculous premises (interestingly Michael Schur, who played the delightfully weird Mose, was also a writer in the show, and he would go on to create Parks & Rec, Brooklyn Nine Nine, and The Good Place: these shows, particularly the first two, have pushed the jarring mawkishness of the communal ensemble to its sentimental limit and you can see the style beginning to develop in the later seasons of The U.S. Office. It essentially comes down to a cultural divide: British cynicism versus American optimism).
American shows always run longer, never knowing when to stop, and the 14 episodes of The U.K. Office, including two Christmas specials, was exactly what was required. The show is so perfectly packaged, so intricately composed, that it feels like a carefully-planned miniseries. There are redemptions – Brent possibly meeting a nice and normal partner, Dawn leaving the boorish Lee for Tim – but they’re left open-ended, as they should be. Life in an office in the 21st century is mundane, it is an enervating place; to sanitise or to glorify it is to betray its truth. It’s a very hard thing to go out on top in TV and The U.K. Office is one of the very few to manage it.
Check out unused footage and deleted scenes:
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