Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #15 - The Office (BBC)

2 Seasons (2001-2003)

British humor is an acquired taste.  I freely admit that most sitcoms from across the pond go over my head.  Except for the occasional Monty Python episode or Mr. Bean skit, something tends to be lost in translation.

That is why Ricky Gervais' The Office is so groundbreaking.  It imports so very well because it is universal in its appeal.  It is also a confident comedy that trusts its audience to follow the humor.  I remember watching Gervais' semi-autobiographical follow up series Extras in which Gervais pitches his idea for The Office to the BBC, who then contort it to fit into the typical laugh-track style, broad, pointless sitcom that The Office could have been.  Maybe this was just Gervais trying to show how brilliant his show was compared to others, but it worked.  The Office is brilliant.

First of all, going with the mockumentary style required a level of fake drama that I always find hysterical.  I think that in comedy, when characters treat the situations deadly serious even when they are ridiculous it adds more layers of humor.

Second, the show gave us something unique with its awkward humor.  Rather than mostly going for set up and punchlines, the show would let the uncomfortable moments play out to the point of hilarity.  Moments would go from shocking, to awkward, to absurd, to annoying, to hysterical.

Third, the unrequited romance between Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) was set up in such a heartfelt, heartbreaking way that it made such a wonderful juxtaposition to the workaday foibles of the Wernem Hogg Paper Company.

Fourth, the four main characters, David (Gervais), Tim, Dawn, and Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) were able to grow.  Or rather, it was that they grew but they deepened.  What I mean is that as they became more of who they were you came to love them more despite their foibles.

Finally, the cast was fantastic.  Gervais himself created a character who was annoying but never worthy of hatred.  Crook's outlandish lines as Gareth were mitigated by a strange innoncence.  He seemed like a grade school boy who was trying to impress older boys with dirty jokes.  Freeman and Davis also were top notch.  Unlike the US version of The Office which captures a lot more of the character's personal lives.  Almost all of the BBC show takes place at office events.  So much is left unsaid and both actors have to play the subtext to the point of strain.  Freeman particularly breaks your heart.  In fact, the series' biggest emotional moment is one that has all of the dialogue and most of the visuals hidden.  The actors have to pierce your heart with their gestures.  And it works.

"Training" 1x04
The Office is a hard show to watch in the beginning.  It is a challenge because it intentionally makes you uncomfortable.  I can very much understand why people have tried the show and stopped.  But I always encourage anyone who is making the an attempt at the show to stick it out through the 4th episode.

What makes this episode work so well is that it brings someone normal from outside the office to train these weirdos in customer service.  David's ego is so vulnerable that he constantly needs to jump in and show off.  But the best parts are the reactions.  Freeman shines as he just plays off of the ridiculousness of what occurs.  It summed up when David decides to play an original song for the group.

There is something about this episode that makes everything click.  Suddenly, David's personality, Gareth's awkwardness, Tim's frustrated humor, and Dawn's long-suffering heartbreak all come to a head and bring forth big laughs.  And at this point, you begin to really connect to the characters.  It is the one thing the show Glee got right: music can be a shortcut to character connection.

The BBC's solution to avoid shark jumping tends to be keeping the series short in their run.  12 episodes and a Christmas special keep the odds of shark jumping down.

"Christmas Special pt. 2"
One of the great things that the series gets right is that the final part should be the best.  You should always end on a high note.

I can't write much without giving anything away, but the important thing is that the original series finale is so gut wrenching and heart breaking, that you hold on to the hope that something better will happen here to cap everything off, feeling like it probably won't.  But you hold on through to the very and and it holds the entire time reminding you how great the series has been.

The Office is an odd experiment in TV comedy that took a lot of risks but pays off great dividends.  It is a little jewel of serialized art that is worth checking out.

And while the people on the show never grow to a saintly level, I am reminded of something GK Chesterton said (I'm paraphrasing) that God doesn't love "men" but "man."  He doesn't love the concept or ideal of humanity but the individual rough, working, swearing, pipe-smoking, beer-drinking man.  What I love about this show is that you come to love these characters by looking past their out aspects and seeing the person they are underneath.

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