Does anyone work anymore? I'm not talking about the people steering buses down Nicollet Avenue, and trimming offal in South St. Paul, and tending after toddlers who've wet themselves--again. No, the greatest shirking in the post-industrial world takes place in our temples of reluctant leisure: the office. Seriously now: How many of you couldn't complete your job in three-quarters of the allotted time? Two-thirds? Do I hear half? As I write this, the diligent scribes of this paper are debating at length over e-mail which would be a more insulting act for the company talent show: reading the entirety of The Great Gatsby aloud, or wrestling an elderly woman into submission. And so the hours come and go. We don't particularly like to sit at our desks--but it sure beats working for a living.
The work sequences in the BBC's brutally funny program The Office capture the numbing hum of the computer fan and the catatonia-triggering flicker of the fluorescents. The show ticks along in mockumentary style, but this is nothing like the antic faux-vérité of American satires like Reno 911! or A Mighty Wind. Instead, the high drama of a paper products firm in England's rust belt yields to footage of an almost narcotic boringness--phones chirping listlessly, copiers squeezing out collated pages. It's possible that no other program in television history has devoted as much time to the wormlike contortions of a screen saver.
This setting sounds about as funny as, say, a paper products firm in England's rust belt. And yet humans have somehow adapted to this least hospitable of environments. David Brent, the regional manager for Wernham Hogg, is the king of this cubicle jungle and he's a terror to behold. Goateed and porcine, his pointy eye teeth showing when he smiles at one of his own jokes, David thinks of himself as a buddy, a cutup, a non-boss boss. As played by series co-creator and writer Ricky Gervais, he is a bottomless font of feigned empathy and empty platitudes ("I call it team individuality"), inconsiderateness and self-regard. David's nearest kin might be the smug, umm-hmmm-ing Lumbergh of Mike Judge's Office Space--but by comparison, that man is a mere trainee in the corporate culture of cruelty.
So what does it take to be the worst boss in the world? David likes to inform his only black employee, out of the blue, that Denzel Washington is a talented actor. And, lest this conversation seem clumsy, he'll return moments later to declare Sidney Poitier his absolute favorite. As a practical joke, he'll inform the receptionist (Lucy Davis) that she's being laid off. During her performance review, he'll listen distractedly to the soul-starving abandonment of her plans to be a children's book illustrator and encourage her to "keep on doodling." And then later, in a confessional moment, he'll keep her after work on a Friday to hear an original poem about his manhood called "Excalibur" ("take this cold dark steeléd blade/steal it, sheath it, in your lake"). During the rare moments when he's not blabbing, his body language does the talking. Observe the way he casually grabs the wheelchair of an employee from the Swindon branch, jerking her away from the pub table.
If watching someone manhandle the handicapped doesn't sound like your idea of a giggle, you'll be comforted to learn there's no laugh track here. In fact, to my eye, three of the series' twelve episodes are too painful to be considered comedy, filled as they are with rejections and humiliations that would send a normal man running to Anthony Robbins for self-esteem. Every day on the job forces wry everyman Tim (Martin Freeman) to admit that his sales position isn't a "temporary" way station on the life path to something better. His flirtations with receptionist Dawn in the first season crested in a public romantic overture. Which was rejected, of course. In the newest episodes, he's been promoted and now assigns make-work to his former love interest. It's Tim's deadpan glances at the camera that suggest how far this situation is from anything that should have to be endured.
There's a distinctive Britishness to the program's air of muted desperation. (Stateside, only Chris Smith's American Job has come close to capturing the kind of dead-end workplace that might be hell's waiting room.) The references to retired football legends may prove elusive to BBC America viewers--that is, when you can figure out what these working stiffs are saying in the first place. As Christopher Hitchens recently wrote in the Atlantic, "there are areas of the nation in which I can barely make out a word that is uttered, and the class and regional aspects of Englishness ensure that England's sons and daughters are 'branded on the tongue,' to make them more readily classifiable by their betters." Though The Office takes place in a thoroughly modern and global England, the caste of this cast is probably more complicated than we can appreciate.
And yet the misery at the root of this situation is as universal as Microsoft's Outlook: These people want to be loved and respected; they want to express themselves. Gareth Keenan (a hilariously deranged Mackenzie Crook) fancies himself David's first mate--but his claims to be "assistant manager" elicit the blunt correction that he's only "assistant to the manager." Tim puts in his notice, announcing his plans to return to university--but he's pulled back to his desk by his crush on Dawn and an extra 30 quid a week. Even David Brent is most monstrous in his craving for attention, affection, someone to laugh at his jokes. As the second season does its business of crushing spirits and laying people low, David finds his comeuppance in the person of his newly promoted boss--a former peer who is more handsome, more charming, more respected. A better boss.
It's when you notice yourself feeling sorry for David, this most terrible man, that you realize you're going to need to take a sick day. Maybe two or three of them. Compared to The Office, Dilbert has a dream job.