THE OFFICE, THE NEW BRITISH IMPORT ON BBC America (Thursdays, 7:20 & 10:20 p.m.), must be one of the most depressing comedies in the history of television. As in the case of People Like Us, another British examination of the Incredibly Boring Job that aired on BBC America last year, it's a subtle, understated mockumentary, and if you came across it by accident, it might take you a while to figure out it's a comedy at all. Not because it's not funny it is but because it's not the kind of comedy we're used to seeing.
The main character is David Brent (Ricky Gervais), manager of a small branch of the Wernham Hogg paper-supply company in a drab London suburb. Brent, who refers to himself as "the Brentmeister General" without a hint of irony, but is described as a "sad little man" by others, is a middle-aged, goatee-wearing ex-rock & roller who wants to make office life "fun" and suffers from a desperate, clinging need for attention. That most nightmarish of creatures, the boss who wants to be your friend, he thinks he's enormously funny but is in fact merely irritating. Possessed of all sorts of annoying mannerisms and tics he adjusts his tie so often you want to strangle him with it he is a complex, brilliant comic creation who will drive you half out of your mind.
More straightforwardly amusing is Brent's ambitious young assistant, Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), a bizarro military nut with appalled, staring eyes and an obsession with "covert" action. Unlike the stupefied slackers around him, Gareth believes he has a good job and wants to rise in the office hierarchy. (A running joke is that he keeps trying to change his job title from "assistant to the regional manager" to "assistant regional manager.") When he is asked to track down the originator of a pornographic e-mail attachment sent round the office, he launches a full-scale military investigation, complete with an interrogation room and dim "I may have to torture you" lighting. Needless to say, the "investigation" is incompetent from start to finish and ends with Gareth fingering an innocent party.
Brent and Gareth find their jobs rewarding, but then they're both severely deluded individuals. Tim (Martin Freeman), a moody sales rep so crushed with boredom it almost paralyzes him, and Dawn (Lucy Davis), the melancholy receptionist he's in love with, are the "normal" characters, all too aware that they're leading dead-end lives. One feels for them who wants to work in a rinky-dink paper-supply company, after all, especially when you're apt to get downsized for your pains? but The Office is perhaps a little too eager to dismiss such work as meaningless, almost beneath contempt. (I, for one, use paper quite a lot, and am happy someone's out there supplying it.) Ricky Gervais, who not only plays Brent but also co-writes and directs the show, told The New York Times recently that, minus the comedy, the show is about "missed opportunity" and "wasting your life."
Well, yes, no doubt it is at least when viewed from the giddy heights of television stardom. There are very few jobs that don't amount to a waste of time, if you want to look at it that way, as the movie About Schmidt recently reminded us. (Who can forget Jack Nicholson watching the minute hand crawl toward 5 o'clock on his last day?) But would working for a paper supplier be a mistake if it paid $1 million a year and landed you two fast cars and a house in the country? Or are "creative," "cultural" occupations, like working at the BBC, for instance, the only dignified ones left to us? There's an unexamined snobbery in The Office that leaves a bad aftertaste. In fact, it can't even be bothered to really show us what the jobs of the various characters amount to. We see them play pranks on each other, answer the phones and fiddle vaguely at their keyboards, but that's about it.
Still, there's no denying the show's unsettling brilliance and originality. It is also brave, in that it often forgoes comedy altogether and just gets downright honest and sad. The third episode, in which Brent teams up with his sinister, bullying pal, Chris Finch, for an after-work office quiz-show contest, is emotionally desolate in a way that no American sitcom would dare to be. And the fourth, in which a visiting speaker tries to give a series of pep talks to the employees, only to discover that Brent has no intention of relinquishing the stage to a mere outsider, is a stunning portrayal of egomania run riot that will leave you gaping at the screen in astonishment. The Office makes you laugh, but it also gets under your skin.
THERE'S ANOTHER LOOK AT CUBICLE LIFE on American TV screens at the moment, but it's only 60 seconds long, lacks even a word of dialogue and exists solely to advertise a car. "Bubble," as the ad for the new Volkswagen convertible is known, is also about wasting your life in a corporate setting. Set to the beat of "Mr. Blue Sky," a peppy song by the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), the ad leads us, in a series of quick syncopated flashes, through four days in the life of a young office worker a paralegal by the looks of it who labors in a startlingly ugly glass-tower corporate complex.
Really a 58-second art film with a two-second commercial tacked on the end, "Bubble" is one of the best things on TV. (It has shown theatrically as well.) I rarely find commercials moving, but this one packs so much information and emotion into its time frame that it leaves you touched and almost overwhelmed. Part of it is the music, of course "Mr. Blue Sky" is a great song but it's also the look and performance of Billy Briggs, the actor who plays the lost soul wandering through a wilderness of cubicles and corridors, as well as the ingenious use director Mike Mills makes of split screens and even quarter-screens, so that two or even four days in the protagonist's life can be shown simultaneously. Okay, it's just a commercial, but it evokes everything from Groundhog Day to Cindy Sherman photographs, and doesn't suffer in the comparison.
WITH ALL THESE NUMBED OFFICE WORKERS clogging the screen, Keith Richards' performance during the Rolling Stones concert at Madison Square Garden (carried live by HBO on January 18) stood out all the more. (That's what all those paper shufflers want to be: rock stars.) Only rarely do you get to see someone who really loves his job, but Richards, to paraphrase Hamlet, made love to his profession. His face may be ravaged, but his body remains wonderfully limber, and he is now, cruelly, far more graceful than the wince-inducing Mick Jagger.
Being the Rolling Stones, the band still managed to provide a bit of subversion, and they did it in a deliciously sly way. They (gasp!) smoked cigarettes onstage. No one blinks an eye when someone lights up in a movie or a TV drama, because we know it's only "acting." But the sight of someone enjoying a puff live on camera not because it's in the script, but because he enjoys it, has become weirdly startling. In fact, watching Richards light up his coffin nail with such evident pleasure taking drags off the thing, using it to gesture with his hands in time-honored artistic fashion as curlicues of smoke rose into the spotlit air above him was the most shocking thing I've seen on TV in ages.
New York's humorless Mayor Bloomberg, furious that his ban on smoking in public places was being so arrogantly flouted, threatened to close down the show and sent in the police to issue the Stones a summons. Too late: The wily rockers slipped away through a side door before the cops could reach them. A pity, since it might have made a glorious final entry in a police-blotter that spans the decades: Busted -- for smoking a Marlboro.
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