The Office is one of the greatest ever works of British comedy.
Those are big words, but they’re easy to substantiate. For the sheer number of exports to other countries, for the way it unleashed it’s cast on the world, for the influence it had on the preceding programmes; it’s a phenomenon. The final episode aired in 2003, and my friends and I still quote it on a daily basis. It’s that good.
In fact, I’d go as far as arguing The Office was the peak of British comedy, and we may never reach those heights again.
Why, then, am I not more excited for the return of Ricky Gervais’ iconic character in David Brent: Life on the Road?
I’d been nervous about this coming out ever since I saw it announced. Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but something felt off to me. Why now? What could they possibly have to say that they didn’t already 15 years ago? And why wouldn’t Stephen Merchant be attached to it?
I think the concern is to do with logic. Every film or TV show has to follow its own. It doesn’t matter if that logic is a bit out there or whacky, but it has to be consistent. If it falls foul of its own internal logic, it stops working.
The UK version of The Office worked because it stayed true to the documentary format. The logic dictated these were real people being filmed for a real docmentary. It made sense the boss would let it go to his head. It made sense why there would be two seasons, plus a follow up later. The logic was consistent throughout. They committed so hard to the idea of it being a documentary that the first time I flicked on to BBC2 during the initial run it took me a few minutes to realise it was fictional.
But why would a camera crew return 15 years later? The Office was framed as an Airport style documentary. You don’t see Jeremy Spake getting his own feature film, do you?
By breaking out of the realms of possibility the audience is lost. The old series worked because we could relate to what was going on. We know people like Brent, Gareth and Tim. Sure, they might have bordered on caricatures, but their motivations were true. Brent was the star, but we suffered along with Tim. Hell, we suffered with Gareth and David when they hit their lowest ebbs as well. It was an everyday office with slightly eccentric people. It was real.
But now, who can possibly relate to a minor TV star still trying to hang on to the limelight 15 years later? The Brent character worked because he was a bit of an idiot who thought he was a genius. He got shown up on TV, and then tried to prove himself in the Christmas special to mixed results.
But for him to still be saying stupid, inappropriate things to a camera 15 years later takes him out of the everyday world. To be a 54 year old (presuming Brent and Gervais are the same age) travelling salesman who still thinks he can make it as a pop star is actually pretty sad. And to have not changed whatsoever in the 15 years following his first burst of minor, insignificant fame, well, that’s actually kind of tragic.
But all of this would be fine if the story of David Brent hadn’t already been told in full.
That’s the biggest problem here. The Office was amazing. It’s a contender for my favourite thing, not just TV programme. But they told the story 15 years ago. There’s nowhere left to go.
Brent had his moment. He was the bumbling office idiot, the guy with aspirations of grandeur but rooted in mediocrity. He was a laughing stock to those around him, with even his own best friend looking down on him. By the end of the first half of the Christmas special he’d lost all dignity as he struck rock bottom, having people throwing pants at him on stage with Marmite smeared in the gusset (you have to say that word in the Brent voice for it to truly work).
But by the end of the Christmas special he grew as a person. He was able to show Neil for the spiteful (if charming) man that he was, and Finch for the colossal bell*nd everyone knew he was anyway. He completed his arc having learned from his mistakes and changing for the better, giving him the chance to have a normal life like a real person. The story is over. Finished. Done.
To return to him all this time later presumably having not actually changed at all doesn’t make any sense. When the character grows and completes their arc there’s nowhere left to go. And the result will be that, when he gets his obvious happy-ever-after moment in Life on the Road, it’s going to feel hollow. He had it once, and it meant nothing. Why should we care when he gets another a decade and a half later, having learned nothing from the first time?
I’ll still go to see it, and I’ll probably find it funny. It’s unlikely it will be a bad film, but that’s not the point. With The Office’s place in British culture, with the history behind the character and the programme and the influence it had on the following decade of British humour, being bad isn’t the worst thing it can be. Being pointless is.
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