If there's an environment uniquely suited to the television format, it's the workplace. Unlike shows centered around the nuclear family, which must ultimately uphold the honor of that institution to ensure their own survival, sitcoms set in offices can be as fluid, unpredictable, and casually savage as office culture itself. In fact, working at an office can be like watching a TV series: the immutable return to a neutral space that offers us the sight of familiar (if dreaded) faces and the comfort of ritual, all the while holding out the possibility that something might actually happen.
The BBC comedy The Office recently completed its second six-episode season. Meanwhile, the first season has been released on DVD, which is great news for those who have, sensibly enough, rejected the oft-deceptive lure of cable television. This innovative and hilarious series takes the tradition of the workplace sitcom to a place it's never been before: reality. As the melancholy theme music begins, we find ourselves trapped in the bleak confines of the Wernham Hogg paper company, located in an industrial office park somewhere on the periphery of Slough. Before we've even had our coffee, we're forced to interact with David Brent (Ricky Gervais, who also co-writes the series with Stephen Merchant), the vain, self-deluding, mortifyingly unfunny boss, and his numb and alienated crew. There's slacker sales clerk Tim (Martin Freeman), an underachieving dreamer who still lives with his parents; skeletal and humorless Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), "team leader" and general suck-up; and cute but taciturn receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis), the object of Tim's unrequited affection. The faux-documentary conceit that loosely structures the show allows us to move between observing the characters' workaday interactions and getting up close and personal (often way too personal) in one-on-one interviews. Though days may drag by slowly at Wernham Hogg headquarters, time flies on The Office; when the show's brief 40 minutes are up, you find yourself jonesing for more (another reason to rent a season's worth on DVD).
The Office's first season ended with a radical shakeup at Wernham Hogg, when company downsizing led to a merger between Slough and its competing Swindon branch. The driving tension of the first season derived from the officewide fear of impending "redundancy"—the company euphemism for "you're about to be fired." Now that the main characters' jobs are safe, most of this season's plotlines spring from the difficulties of incorporating the uptight "Swindon lot" into the existing office culture. The second season's central gag is that, loveless and backstabbing as life at Wernham Hogg might have been before the merger, the arrival of the outsiders from Swindon forces the Sloughies to bond into one big dysfunctional family. It appears that back in Swindon, people were actually expected to work, which not only leads to interoffice battles and endless torrents of nonsensical management-speak, but poses the shocking question: Has David Brent himself become "redundant"?
The Office is perhaps television's finest achievement in what my friends and I call "cringe theater"—comedy based on characters humiliating not each other (as is the rule on American workplace sitcoms) but themselves. Ricky Gervais' David Brent is a true comic creation, one of those characters who seems to exist beyond the context in which he appears, like Austin Powers or Edward Scissorhands; after a couple of episodes, you start to giggle before he even speaks. Certain individual scenes—a motivational seminar in which Brent encourages a roomful of poker-faced trainees to engage in an excruciating "laughter exercise," or the episode in which he first hears of his possible redundancy while decked out in an elaborate chicken costume—may push his character ever so slightly too far into the realm of pathos.
But going too far is what Gervais' endlessly inventive humor is all about. Sexual harassment and offensive racist jokes are just part of the dreary décor, like the fluorescent lighting and the sad plush monkey mounted on the office coat rack. The Office's real laughs come from the awkward silences between the jokes, just as its truly moving dramatic moments (and there are many) come from the patient accretion of emotional detail. For example, the painfully slow burn of Tim and Dawn's near-romance, the narrative heart of the first season, finally pays off in an extraordinary moment in the second-season finale. When Tim confronts Dawn about his true feelings, he rips off the body mic he's been wearing for the filming of the "documentary," and the two share an inaudible exchange in a glassed-in room. Suddenly, the viewer realizes how high the emotional stakes have become: We're at once desperate to know what they're saying and ashamed at our own voyeurism.
I won't give away the spine-tingling season cliffhanger involving David Brent's professional fate. In fact, there's little point in talking about The Office in terms of plot. As David might say in one of the talking-head interviews on his own "management style," this is character comedy, mate; there are no punchlines. Or rather, there are—endless, unbearable ones that hang in the air like Damocles' sword—but if I quoted you one, I'd risk becoming as unpopular as David Brent himself.