Why 'The Office' appeals to the Americans

Despite the notion that the US is only interested in winners, it has a respect too for the also-rans
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ricky Gervais has made history, with a double win at the Golden Globes, the US television and film awards ceremony which, until this little coup anyway, appeared to exist mainly as a dress rehearsal for the Oscars. Our hero picked up best actor, musical or comedy series, while The Office, which he co-wrote as well as starred in, won best musical or comedy series.

There was our boy - pudgy, beard a different colour to his hair, funny, squeaky voice - being handed trophies by the gorgeous lollipop women of Hollywood. Fantastic. Britain may claim that it resents being America's poodle. But an enthusiastic tickle on the tummy from any US institution sure feels swell.

Mr Gervais responded to his great honour in typically British style, with a reported comment that sounds not unlike something his comic creation David Brent might come up with. "I'm not from these parts," he explained to his glittering audience. "I'm from a little place called England. We used to run the world before you."

I'd like to hope that the audience laughed uproariously at this, recognising that these faux-modest, passive-aggressive clichés are much of a muchness with the rot lobbed at the unhappy team at Mr Brent's office. I certainly hope this was the spirit in which Mr Gervais intended his comments too, because any other explanation - like the guy being much more like his creation than is bearable - is hard to face.

Not, of course, that it really matters. David Brent is an amazing character, and The Office was a wonderful show. It's an interesting tribute to its brilliance as well, since one could be forgiven for imagining that it was somehow very English, that its appeal seems to cross the Atlantic so seamlessly. The Office may be set in a nondescript corner of Slough. But while we all knew that it could just as easily have been set in Motherwell, or in the City of London, it's a real tribute to the strengths of the show that the very same goes for Des Moines or Austin.

As far as the culture is concerned, these awards are no mean feat for Gervais. For years now, the US has been acknowledged as the world's richest source of quality television comedy. Shows from Cheers and Garry Shandling, through Frasier, Friends, Sex and the City and the incomparable Simpsons, have maintained America's position as the funniest country in the West.

All of these behemoths have run for many series, scripted by large and constantly replenished teams of writers. The Office, by contrast, was written by a two-man team who had the guts to pull the plug after only a comparatively tiny number of episodes. Such ruthless discipline certainly puts the wailing and gnashing of teeth accompanying the final series of Sex And The City and Friends into perspective, since both programmes in fact managed to flog scenarios about groups of young people into middle age. As for Frasier - will they still be making that programme when Kelsey Grammar's corpse has to be propped up in the penthouse? Who knows. No one, surely, is still watching.

But while it is almost breathtaking that The Office quit while it was still so very far ahead - although the Christmas special was terrific - it is also amazing that it made its mark so soon. Most of the US programmes feted so much, took a couple of series to really get into its stride. Sex And The City even took a while to get its much-celebrated wardrobe sorted out. The fact that The Office lasted such a brief time though, only adds to its allure. Modest as it is, the show really does stand up well to such dazzling competition.

It is, of course, that accuracy of the portrayal of the human interactions in The Office that makes it such blissful watching. From the very beginning, viewers recognised the peculiar infantilisation of office life, with deadly turf wars being fought over staplers or desk encroachment. We may have rooted for Tim, who always won, and despised Gareth, who always lost, as these deliciously pointless, gloriously petty wars raged. But Tim's ability to make realistic assessments of the people around him also meant that it would always be Gareth, not Tim, who advanced in The Office as long as Mr Brent was in charge. Tim just couldn't cosy up to a jerk like David Brent, so in the end his presence only perpetrated the advance of the prats.

Likewise, it was genius to make Tim an unwilling loser in love as well as a willing rejecter of promotion. In his finely drawn relationship with Dawn, Tim was innocently manipulated by a girl who enjoyed his attention, but who did not want to understand the seriousness of his feelings. This scenario is repeated in playgrounds and their grown-up equivalents, workplaces, thousands of times each day.

Finally, though, one of the astounding things about The Office was that awful as David Brent was, the pathos and the dreadfulness of his office behaviour was, if anything, understated. Far worse abuses of people and power go on in offices every hour, than Mr Brent was capable of. The character's realisation of this himself was one of the reasons why he was able to maintain his mildly deluded self-image as a politically correct and liberal guy.

And again, this subtlety was part of the brilliance of the programme. Nearly all successful sitcoms rely on a stupid person, really-stupid person, monumentally stupid person formula. David Brent wasn't that stupid. He was bright enough to have a certain amount of insight into his own delusions, and this made him a sympathetic as well as a pathetic character.

This, of course, is very American. Despite the idea that the US is interested only in winners, the nation has a marvellous propensity towards respecting life's also-rans. David Brent is probably closest to Homer Simpson in this respect - a loveable idiot whom we'd hate to see really suffering for his mistakes.

So it was a stroke of genius when Mr Gervais and his writing partner Stephen Merchant constructed their two-part Christmas special, documenting what had happened to the workers in the office after the documentary about their working lives had been screened.

David Brent, now redundant, had sunk his pay-off into making an embarrassingly banal - but not exaggeratedly bad - single and video. He also had launched himself onto the local celebrity circuit, with his failure there giving the strongest glimpse of his really nasty side. But he still managed, by the end of the show, to get himself a girlfriend, and the possibility of a happy ending for himself. The message is very American, in the nicest possible way - that even the little, sad guy can be big and happy in his own way.

At the same time though, The Office is a satire - although the satire is directed as much at the television industry itself as it is at office life. Certainly it is a good time for the US to be watching and enjoying satirical shows dissecting power relationships, and the unlikely people who can gain ascendancy over others. I guess that in an ideal world we'd all find it difficult to suspend disbelief in the idea that a man like David Brent could be running an office. In the real world though, we've all been to work and understand that some of the most unlikely creeps do manage somehow to get to be in charge. In the US, of course, you don't even have to do that. With Mr Bush around all the time to remind the country that truly anyone can be president, the idea that a man like David Brent might rise to run an office seems more like understatement than satire. Which, in fact, is exactly correct.