a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Can we stop talking about my dead mother's breasts?

It's not enough to loathe -- or cackle at, or even half-heartingly love -- David Brent, the ever-combustible centerpiece of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office. It's that we each have a part -- or sometimes more than that -- of this monstrous, reverse-Basil Fawlty concoction inside us. Of course, seeing how far we can admit to such is one of the secret joys of watching the show, which ran a scant two seasons before someone had the brilliant (no, really) idea to pull the plug while things were going good. We don't care to see how we take too much stock in the petty things we do, nor that our idea of entertaining others can often times run opposite of what those we entertain have in mind. He's us at our most pathetic.

But even if that's not the case (but c'mon: admit it), by the twelfth and final episode, which aired stateside almost a year ago, we wound up caring about him, perhaps more than anyone on television. In the first season, there was nothing that could burst David's grand delusional bubble; he got off scott-free when his deplorable decision to take a promotion -- meaning most of his branch would be, in that frighteningly passive-agressive parlance, "made redundant" -- was reneged after he tested positive for high blood pressure.

But the second (and debatably better) season found him whiddled away from within and without, needlessly competing with the actually "cool and laid-back" managerial authority of Neil (Patrick Baladi), his onetime equivalent and now his boss. The new staff members greeted him not with the blank stares he often misinterpreted as adoration from his regulars, but with impatience and occasional outright hostility. By the breathless final scene, he was reduced to a pleading, weeping mess, having been made redundant himself. Suddenly he wasn't so loathsome: here was a fully-formed man, not simply a deployer of yuks (or, rather, non-yuks that are yuks in themselves). We hoped, as it was left tantalizingly unanswered, that whether or not he got his job back, he'd be turning a corner in this too-real fictitious universe.

So much for ambiguity. (And those who've yet to watch the show: spoilers are strewn about like landmines.) The Office Special is the next best thing to another season -- a 90-minute reunion (of sorts) in which three years have passed and David, who did get canned, has improved upon absolutely nothing. The fairly brilliant hook is that The Office has, in this fictitious world, aired as a reality show, making David a 15-minute star -- predictably enough, the single worst thing that could have happened to him. Of course, this being three years after the fact, those minutes have been long used up, though they did manage to re-fuel his rampaging egomania. Whether David made it only past ten minutes is never revealed -- though surely his self-released single (a dire cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and its accompanying video) must have put a damper on things but quick. You never know when David's telling the story.

The biggest -- and at least on paper, the most acerbic -- alteration is the one to the outside. For the show's run, we rarely saw the outside world, and when we did it was overcast, grim or in a bar almost as claustrophobic as the antiseptic set. Furthermore, we only saw David in David's world: he needs an audience, and they need not recipricate that desire for him to achieve fulfillment. For the first half or so, much of the Special -- which, yes, also catches up with Martin Freeman's Tim, Mackenzie Crook's Gareth (now the boss, who sees "faults" in David's system and prefers one with more "discipline"), and Lucy Davis' Dawn (she went to Florida after all!) -- plays like David Visits The Real World. See! David pester an innocent bystander at a fruit merchants for his (David's) autograph. See! David take part in nth-rate celebrity functions at bars! See! David go on a series of predictably disastrous blind dates!

This would all be well and good -- a kind of bonus feature, a treat for the fans. But the situations, much (okay, not quite, but almost) like David's deranged belief that he's a recognizable upon first sight, seem overly-milked, too familiar. The blind dates, while characteristically unnerving, pale in comparison to, say, his interview sessions from Season 1, Episode 5.* And the same goes for his bar appearances: nothing in them makes you want to bury your head into the couch, screaming in agony, as when David blasted "Simply the Best" out of a boom box, while lip-synching, during Season 2, Episode 4's motivational speech.

Then again, you could always read this as all part of the fabric: David, like the first half of the Special, is floundering. In fact, so is everybody. (Excepting Gareth, who's far too comfortable in his new digs, and, as it turns out, far easier to ignore than David. That might not have been the case had he whipped out more Spencers-style novelties, though there's a subtly eerie, telling moment when he's given one as part of a Secret Santa deal -- I told you this was an Xmas Special, right? -- and grows incensed. Has he grown past smutty jokes? Or is he trying to convince his underlings of same? Discuss.) Tim seems roughly the same, only without the daily dose of relief that is Dawn. (His new cubicle buddy, a middle-aged, pregnant bubblemouth, squeezes in some excellent material, by the way.) Dawn, meanwhile, has vocally given up drawing and has drawn a three-month free house in Florida out to three years, her neglectful fiancé Lee still ignoring her. In the grand tradition of reunion shows, Dawn and Lee are given a fairly leftfield chance to come back to Slough (for a Christmas party?!), which means that the two -- he claiming she's "out of his system"; she refusing to talk about it, so as not to hurt his feelings -- might...well, you know.

But then, somewhere during the second half, everything comes into place, turning into one of the most glorious sections of TV in years: a perpetual wish-fulfillment fantasy for the in-limbo characters and, by extension, those invested in them. For The Office's true genius isn't in the non-jokes and realistic sense of living death. It's that as the show trekked on, there was actual care devoted to these characters, who seem fully formed after only a couple episodes. Some of it's a bit too pat, and I so wish that we could've gotten to the bottom of that haughty, suspiciously snobby concoction of working class evilness that is Lee. (What did Dawn see in him? Really? There's gotta be something.) But if the Special never even tries to mimic the show's delectable blend of hilarity and horror, it's one of the most gracious things ever imparted by creators on long-time fans. What's more, you leave feeling David, while not cured, might have finally found a reason to get out of his rut. Screw ambiguity: do you really just up and leave those you love and care for? Stop by in another three years, will you?

* The author has an almost Trekkie-like obsession and knowledge of The Office. In fact, most Trekkies would wince at the number of times he's watched each episode, all under the pretense of "studying them." For what, it is not clear.


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