The ecstasy of The Office.

What you're watching.
March 7 2003 7:00 PM

Got a Case of the Mondays?

The healing powers of BBC America's The Office.

The Office puts American TV comedy to shame
The Office puts American TV comedy to shame

Television was making me queasy. It started during the final bacchanal of The Bachelorette (ABC) and Joe Millionaire (FOX), during which the two shows climaxed almost simultaneously. That light intoxication seemed harmless. But then I turned to new shows for more of the sweet stuff—and Are You Hot? (ABC) and Married by America (FOX) were nauseating. Lorenzo Lamas' boner jokes on Hot came off as grinding, studied lechery, and Married by America narrowed down its contenders so hastily that the network seemed to be hustling everyone into bad marriages, as if racing to get to the inevitably miserable he-said/she-said aftermath special.

The honeymoon of the romance game shows is over; the latest are dreadful human experiments, possibly actionable. At the same time, important shows—say, Mohamed ElBaradei's exhaustive discussion of Iraq's 81-millimeter aluminum tubes and the U.N. hearings on Friday morning—are homework. Today's lesson: War is nigh. Got it? So until I feel completely better, I'm going to stay cautiously with Dragnet (ABC) and Six Feet Under (HBO).

But I still have one cure-all: The Office (BBC America), England's documentary-style parody of office life. On Thursday, BBC America reran the pilot, and I went through it very slowly, rewinding and pausing to get every last bit of pleasure from it. I still think there's more to get.

An English friend told me about The Office in 2001, saying flatly that it made America's TV comedy seem moribund, but I didn't glimpse its glory firsthand until it premiered here on Jan. 23. I was instantly won over. The first season's rendering of a complex variety of stasis—the kind endured by intelligent, loveless, undereducated people for whom television and movies alone take the edge off life's claustrophobia—makes it an unlikely comedy, but it is never not funny. The low-ambition office workers go through standard office rituals—a harsh practical joke, a grim-reaper visit from the head office, the hiring of a hot girl—and struggle to find ways to react within the limited range of emotions permitted from 9 to 5 in the workplace. Then, on the fourth episode, I found myself in tears. The show had gotten to me entirely. These days (though the second season isn't on yet), a half-hour of the first season still works like an anti-emetic after the all-you-can-eat binge-fest of the recent sweeps week. After the full 40 minutes, I'm as good as new.

Thursday's episode introduced the lead characters: David Brent (Ricky Gervais), the regional manager of the Slough branch of a paper supply company; Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook), Brent's assistant and a former lieutenant in England's Territorial Army; the lazy heartthrob Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), a sales rep; and Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), a pretty, blasé receptionist. David, the Brentmeister General and the star of the show, is a seedy, self-regarding manager who is meretricious but not hateful. His staff thinks he's pathetic. Gareth, a cadaverous sycophant who wishes for three-ways and violent combat, doesn't understand his jokes. Tim, a romantic, is above his crassness. And Dawn finds David—who is short, fat-faced, leering—physically repellent. As viewers, because of the incalculable talents of the actor Gervais, who also helped create the show, we must choose to humor David or to loathe him—and that choice is exciting, somehow, and challenging.

The anodyne look of the office throws miniature class tensions into relief. In its naturalism, the set design seems like oatmeal—a rough, nourishing alternative to the Froot Loops on other channels. In every kind of weather, the air in the office is fog-toned, fluorescent, its dullness broken up only by dry plants and orange wood panels. The blowing sound of collating machines dominates the sound mix. The characters seem exhausted and gray, except David, who is sometimes flushed with a hangover, and Dawn, who appears to have spent time in a tanning bed. The prime mover of the show is an impending downsizing: The office seems fated to be folded into another division, all the employees laid off. Tim's and Dawn's flirtation—a sane, clear-eyed alternative to the cyclical logic of David, who talks and showboats nonsensically—also creates suspense. But The Office is a comedy, and the layered tense, pinched exchanges with their phony easiness—often about how one should or shouldn't be funny—never fail.

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Where movies induce rapture, television can bring on stupor. This state can be calming, if morally indifferent; you are relaxed, sated, disarmed. But sometimes watching television on its own terms—not sampling only the movies or the movielike dramas—requires stamina. The hedonism begins to seem sick. The screen, streaked by bars of spring sunlight, looks better off. So why turn it on? For evocative archival video (PBS, the History Channel), collisions of sensibilities (Evan's and Zora's, Robert Blake's and Barbara Walters'), fragments of jokes, and the occasional simple, sad story that is also uproariously funny, like the one told on The Office.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.

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