If you were looking for the perfect song that summed up office-based banality, a track that should easily be in the running is Fountains of Wayne’s ‘Hey Julie’. Not only does it discuss the grim eventualities of working for men with soup-stained ties and bad tans, but there’s a glimmer of hope, one tiny slither that the song’s protagonist clings to in order to get him through the clock-punching drudgery. “I swear it, it’s so hard to bear it, and I’d never make it through without you around,” the chorus goes.
The song’s antithesis and message are handy, song-style counterpoints to The Office, a show that took that ethos and magnified it; within the show’s 14 episodes (we’re talking UK Office here, Steve Carell fans) are grimly accurate portrayals of mundanity and acceptance, but with a humane, hopeful tint permeating the misery. Each of the show’s characters had something, or someone, to keep them going and, rightly or wrongly, to keep them around.
Ricky Gervais has recently revived the show’s boss, David Brent, for a feature-length movie, but while Life on the Road cribbed ‘Hey Julie’’s song structure (for ‘Free Love Freeway’, surprisingly), it neglected the premise that made The Office perhaps the 21st century’s best comedy (sorry, BBC poll), and probably in the top five of all-time. The main reason Life on the Road faltered was because it made a crucial mistake – it focused on Brent.
While obviously a standout character, Brent wasn’t The Office’s most prominent or successful character. It wasn’t Tim and Dawn (despite how believable and heart-wrenching their rocky romance was). It was, to be blunt, the office itself. In Scrubs, another show that successfully blended comedy with bludgeoning bathos, JD compares Sacred Heart hospital to a “monster”, a cold, sterile being that saps individuals of their enthusiasm, but, in a cruel, perverse twist, renders them unable, or even unwilling, to leave it all behind. To conclude, The Office has a title character, and it’s one of the main reasons the show was, and is, so influentially funny.
All of the characters within those four walls (or the warehouse) need the office, whether they admit it or not. Just take the last two episodes of the show’s first series, where the zombie-esque droids are threatened with redundancy, should the Slough branch merge with Swindon. All of a sudden, they’re left feeling more rudderless than before, caught between grim optimism and stifled acceptance – the jobs and the office might be damn right detestable, but it’s a living, and without that comfortable income, the characters would be hopelessly adrift.
For Tim and Dawn, the show’s most ‘realistic’ characters, the office represents the taker and giver of life, respectively. Dawn’s ambitions of becoming an illustrator are slowly slinking out of view, while Tim’s lack of cultural drive and a successful love life result in him living a celibate, unsuccessful life at his parents’. Work should never define you; if a music fan works at Waterstone’s in the day, he can still rock out like a real star at night. And yet Dawn and Tim, on a barely conscious level, have allowed that to happen – work is all they have, and Tim won’t let it go because Dawn is there.
Not only that, but Tim almost begins to represent the office – there’s a particular tragicomedy presence regarding his 30th birthday present, a hat that plays the radio. At first, he despises it, but puts up with it cos his mum bought it. By the end of the episode, he’s incredibly protective, a neat representation of his office job; as long as Dawn is there, he needs that job to stay close to her. When she announces she’s going to America, taking the push that a perma-detached Tim would never take, he finally decides to act on his love of Dawn. But, of course, she repels him; by this point, Tim is the personification of the office – potential wasted, drudgery encapsulated, frustration obvious. It, like JD and Elliot in Scrubs, sucked the life from them both, even if they weren’t fully aware of it.
There’s no science behind why the funniest scenes of Life on the Road were when Brent was in his ‘normal’ environment – an office. While TV cameras would derail Brent’s successful managerial career (he’s surprisingly revered and efficient in the first series, head-butting employees aside), the office itself had already laid claim to Brent’s original personality. Within the office, he had a stage where his employees were his unwilling foils and were forced to take a break from looking at online holidays to listen to his mindless babbling. When, in one of the show’s – nay, one of telly’s – most bleakly sad moments he’s faced with the opportunity of having to leave the office behind, his initial enthusiasm comes crumbling down in devastating fashion as he begs for a second chance. New starts can lead to new failures; Brent needs the office, just as much as Tim does.
Gareth and Finchy also need the office. Outside of it, Gareth is a weird loser banging on about curry-flavoured condoms, but within it he enjoys his false sense of self-importance, while Finchy prides himself on being the top dog, the Visiting Lecturer that oozes machismo. Of course, by the end of the show’s run, there were little victories (Tim and Dawn got together, Brent had an explosion of catharsis by telling Finchy to fuck off), but none of them were ideal, and certainly not permanent.
The movie tried too hard to hammer home the humility within Brent, that of a confused dreamer, a lonely representation of middle-aged malaise. But that had already been done perfectly in the peerless Christmas specials. It wasn’t Brent so much that exuded the sympathy, it was the situation and location around him that did it. The Office, like many offices before and after it, was the beating black heart of a comedy genius.
Words by Sam Lambeth