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Throughout the Best Drama top ten series, the goal was to boil each show down to its most basic unit, thereby explaining what the “trick” was that made it work. In the case of comedy number nine, it’s extremely easy to illustrate the big thing, but in all cases, never forget that one thing is nothing without the sum of the little things that help round out the experience. If you missed last week’s first entry, this is a ranking of the past two decades of television hilarity. With that in mind, let’s talk about subversion.
NUMBER NINE: THE OFFICE (UK BBC 2001-2003, US NBC 2005-2013)
Ricky Gervais exists for one purpose, to subvert both authority and expectation. Even in his formative years, growing up in Whitley, Berkshire, England, Gervais and his family razzed each other on a regular basis, something he’s indicated in numerous interviews throughout his career. He doesn’t speak ill of his family and in fact is open about much of his life. It’s that openness, that honesty, that helped him become not just Ricky Gervais from England, but RICKY DAMN GERVAIS, Holy Sh** guy.
From the time of the carnival and back to Mardi Gras, subversion of hierarchy has been a key component in quelling unrest and serving as a release valve for the lower and middle class. The carnivalesque philosophy espoused and brought to life through the writings of Bakhtin pointed to the freedom created through the Feast of Fools and even through literature and culture. These are works that would routinely and blatantly portray royalty or money or class as agents of buffoonery. The rebellious party atmosphere now illustrated in some of the concepts of New Orleans’ biggest annual week, featuring every imaginable level of prurience and debauchery, from sex in the streets to alcohol consumption that would make Norm Peterson blush, were a way to reclaim the spirit.
The Office wasn’t a show full of sex references, but it did use flatulence and sophomoric humor that would fit some of the bullet points of carnival theory. Without getting into further detail about pop culture on a theoretical and academic level, though you can find volume after volume on the subject, Ricky Gervais and his writing and creative partner, Steven Merchant, created a world of subversion that they believed in, even if it was somewhat buried in the subconscious. The Office is the realization of that world.
The Office is about a place. The action happens in the Slough branch of Wernam Hogg or the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, but it’s not about the cities. It’s literally about the world within the walls of a mundane mid-level paper company. It feels intentionally dull from moment one, because while the respective office is the setting, as with most shows, the setting or even the perceived main idea is in fact secondary.
Is The Walking Dead, television’s biggest current hit, about zombies? No. Robert Kirkman created a reality that explored what lengths humanity would extend itself in order to survive. A famous ad for his comic many years ago showcases a tag line of “Zombies don’t” and included things like killing their own, lying to others, targeting from afar, etc. In fact, most zombie fiction throughout time has been about the humans, and about society in general, using the zombies as a catalyst.
The Wire isn’t about heroin, Sons of Anarchy isn’t about Harley Davidson motorcycles, Breaking Bad isn’t about meth, and Mad Men isn’t about advertising. Those things all exist to form the world and differentiate those particular product offerings from other dramas, but they’re in the background.
Gervais and Merchant, who would later move to Extras, another show best described as subversive satire, took the most basic cubicle job one could find and turned it into a party and a fraternity house. It was pure genius in the UK and, once the differences and early issues were ironed out, it was pure genius in America.
Ricky played David Brent, the general manager of the Slough branch, one of the great characters of our lifetime. He was the guy who joked all the time with those beneath him but never grasped the fact that he was the butt of every one of their barbs. He thought he was a comedian, a musician, an actor, basically perfect at everything, while in reality he was a parody of success or talent. His ultimate hope was simply to be loved and for everyone to enjoy his company.
For the American adaptation, a young Steve Carell, who had built his chops alongside Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, and others on Comedy Central’s brilliant Daily Show, was cast as Michael Scott. Scott, initially in Season 1, was David Brent with more of a jerk complex, something fans rejected. The ratings weren’t great and the audience thought Scott was a total prick of a character. Season 2 began with Scott, the general manager of Dunder Mifflin, no longer sporting the slicked back hair and the perfect suits and the frown of Season 1. Gervais and everyone associated with the project realized that Scott needed to be a loveable nuisance, not someone that ticked everybody off all the time.
Both Brent and the second incarnation of Carell as Michael Scott played their characters with precision and satiric skill. They weren’t the same guy by any means, but the similarities were undeniable. Brent was a bit harsher, far more sarcastic, and was more embarrassing than Scott, though as the localized American version progressed, Scott developed Homer Simpson syndrome and increasingly acted like a complete dolt. Both branch managers were arrogant nincompoops. They both desperately wanted to be respected and loved and usually thought they were much closer to that goal than was actually true. The subversion had begun.
People hate their jobs. Almost everybody hates some facet of what they do to earn a living, but only a select few love what they do, who they do it for, and the result of their labor. Merely the word “work” sucks. It just sounds like something worthy of an eye roll. Put it in a boring office and put it on television, comedy doesn’t seem like a natural fit, but that’s both Merchant and Gervais’ true calling.
It’s nearly impossible not to find yourself offended at something Ricky Gervais has done or said throughout his life. He openly mocks religion, particularly Christianity, pokes fun at the dead, the crippled, the handicapped, and uses race as a punch line. He’s what some would call a mean comic, with that “some” including many Hollywood celebrities who couldn’t believe how biting he was as the host of the Golden Globes.
However, again remembering the openness Ricky Gervais has displayed since he was a child, there’s a method to his madness. Past that method, there’s a decent guy who knows how to entertain and a smart man who has surrounded himself with like-minded people who feel nothing is off limits in order to tell a joke to make a day better or at least more interesting.
The Office is a “mockumentary,” with a fictional film crew we never see, holding the camera throughout the run of the show. Some of the camera movements are done to enhance the feeling of a hand held camera and to add realism. The style also allowed characters to sit in front of the camera and talk about their lives, co-workers, the pranks, the jokes, the occasional heartbreak, and talk to the audience without the tackiness of breaking the fourth wall and literally talking to us. It also allowed a second, much more subtle level of humor, where sarcasm could be much more elaborate, because the writers knew and wanted the audience to know that the viewers are FAR more clever than most of the characters on screen. It’s the style that allows the hierarchy to fall apart both before and after it actually takes place in scene. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch.
In the same way an intelligent Gervais and Merchant surrounded themselves with Pilkington and a team of funny people with plenty to offer, they made sure their fictional office was full of life. That life came in the characters that worked underneath the branch manager. In the UK, Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Fargo) played Tim Canterbury, a good salesman and an all around likable guy. In the US, John Krasinski played Jim Halpert, a good salesman and an all around likable guy. Both were smart and extremely sarcastic toward coworkers who deserved it, including the bonehead running the joint. It was clear. The audience was Tim. The audience was Jim.
Neither show would have made it, particularly not the American version, without the antagonist. The great Mackenzie Crook played Gareth Keenan, who was the know-it-all who had to be the best and who hated Canterbury, the guy everybody liked who didn’t treat everything so seriously. In America, a fairly unknown talent from Seattle, Rainn Wilson (Six Feet Under), took the role of Dwight Schrute, whose nemesis was Jim Halpert and whose sole purpose was to follow in the footsteps of and then supplant Michael Scott and eventually run the entire world.
The reason Gareth and Dwight were so good and so necessary was because, once again, these are shows of subversion. The two brown nosers who thought they were in the upper crust when they weren’t, who couldn’t take a joke, were the epitome of what the carnival philosophy raged against. The idea is fairly simple. You may have more money than me and more power on paper than me, but you cannot take my individuality, my passion, my sense of humor, and my soul.
Jenna Fischer’s work as Pam Beesly, later Pam Beesly-Halpert, was incredibly important. Here you had the lowest person on the totem pole in the Dunder Mifflin world. However, despite her professional standing, she was a budding artist and the focus of Jim Halpert’s love. She was the one we were all supposed to like, regardless of our own standing or own job. It was impossible not to love her, so we did. Without even trying, a secretary was arguably the show’s most important character respective to her relationships with the rest of the characters on the show. She married Jim, but she helped humanize Dwight, who saw her as a true friend as the show moved into its later years. She could talk to anybody, though she was far from perfect, particularly in past romances. She was real.
Just like The Office itself and its creators at the time, Pam Beesly and her UK counterpart, Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), were nothing in hierarchy but everything in truth. She had no idea she mattered, which is precisely why she did.
V for Vendetta was Alan Moore’s way to rebel and make a point. While I’m uncertain whether Gervais and Merchant were trying to make a point, they succeeded just the same.
It makes the list because it was original and it was just so well done most of the time. The UK series ran twelve episodes in two series and of course the US version, adapted by Greg Daniels, ran for 201 episodes and was nominated for 42 Emmy Awards. Daniels, just to keep the theme alive, was a veteran of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, potentially the two biggest examples…ever…of subversion through pop culture and satire. He would move on to join Michael Schur in creating Parks and Recreation. We’ll talk about that show in a few weeks.
It makes the list at nine because the American version did indeed run too long. I wrote at the time, and stand by it, that the final scene of the show should have been Michael Scott taking off the microphone he had worn as part of the “documentary” and speaking to Pam in the airport where the audience couldn’t hear a word. When he embraces her, the show ends. It isn’t the end of subversion; it’s the coalescence of class in one final perfect second. The lowly secretary, who rose to salesman and then the much more important job of mother, embracing her good friend Michael Scott, a man who shed everything about himself to win the hand of the blonde that stole his own heart, Holly Flax (Amy Ryan).
When the boss character humanized himself, kept the qualities we all liked, it came full circle for Michael Scott. In fact, the proposal episode is one of the greatest single episodes of comedy in history. It’s not possible to watch it without tearing up, because the set up and execution are absolutely flawless.
Virtually everyone in a supervisory role in The Office, even outside of Dunder Mifflin or Slough, is a buffoon. Those that end up promoted or stepping on others to get to the top, as in the case of Ryan Howard (BJ Novak), fall apart. Howard shows up in the pilot episode as an intern, a very down to earth guy who in many ways is like a clueless Jim. When he finds his get-famous quick idea and when his business degree leads to a promotion, he turns into a total jackass. David Wallace (Andy Buckley) ends up a total loser trying to invent something once his job as Dunder Mifflin CFO and CEO goes up in smoke. Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate) is about as terrible as a person can be for much of her short tenure in the last seasons of the show, but those few times when she isn’t, it’s because she isn’t trying to take someone’s job or take credit for their idea.
The Office, especially the Daniels adaptation, had an enormous ensemble cast, and boy was it awesome. Craig Robinson, BJ Novak (also a writer and producer), Angela Kinsey, Mindy Kaling (also a writer), Ed Helms, Oscar Nunez, Ellie Kemper, Paul Lieberstein (also a producer and writer), Phylllis Smith, Leslie David Baker, Melora Hardin, Creed Bratton, Kate Flannery…thousands of words could be written on them and those not mentioned here for time’s sake, because they were all THAT good.
It lasted too long in America, probably could have gone twice as long overseas, started a bit slow, became cringe-worthy (think Curb Your Enthusiasm) in some of its mid to late seasons respective to “foot in mouth” moments, and was inconsistent once it passed its unofficial prime, but The Office was undeniably important and when it was at its best, it was and is in very rare air. It’s iconic. In many respects, it was the Seinfeld of the Aughts.
The Office transcended television and even pop culture itself, becoming a marketable brand and launching the careers of many of its stars, including Freeman, Kaling, Krasinski, Carell, Helms, Kemper, Robinson, Gervais, and tons more. It was a job for Will Ferrell, Idris Elba, James Spader, Jim Carrey, and many other big name actors. All appeared in at least one episode, none as themselves.
In fifty years, The Office will still be there. It survives and thrives in international syndication and set the stage for Parks and Recreation, Community, 30 Rock, and many other single-camera comedies and mockumentaries.
Michael Scott sums the entire show up perfectly:
“Sometimes I start a sentence and I don’t even know where it’s going. I just hope I find it along the way.”
It’s possible the end game of The Office was always a mystery even to the inner circle, but in the way Scott found himself when he allowed himself to drop the charade, Daniels found his true conclusion. He won over his employees, later better termed his friends, and he found Holly. He was still the dork, still the dude who had an irrational and uproarious hatred of human resources rep, Toby Flenderson, still the guy who once said “I love inside jokes. Love to be a part of one someday” and still the guy that elicits an eye roll. But, in his final moments, he also became the guy everybody rooted for and the character that became a friend to millions on Thursday nights for nearly a decade. It’s because when stripped down, he was one of us. The hierarchy continued, but with new faces to despise or use as comic fodder. Just as in life and in every aspect of society, the tenets don’t change, just the tenants.
The writing that made that transformation and the early hilarity of failures possible, the work by Carell and Gervais and those around them, and the entirety of the finished product where those individuals did their thing is remarkable. The subversion we all watched and so many overlooked while living vicariously through the employees and their constant attempts to entertain each other irrespective of supervision was immensely enjoyable. As a direct and quantifiable result, The Office wasn’t just a television show and certainly wasn’t just a situation comedy.
It was an achievement. They found the end of the sentence along the way and gloriously chose to share it with us.
World’s Best Boss…indeed.
(All nine seasons of The Office (US) and both UK seasons are available on NETFLIX, as is Ricky Gervais’ new project, Derek, another fan favorite. Gervais announced earlier this year a David Brent spinoff movie set to film in early 2015 that would feature most of the original cast of the UK series.)
Follow me @GuyNamedJason and subvert my own private hierarchy (not located in Idaho), in which I am supreme ruler, for the remainder of eternity.
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