Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Welcome to the sixth installment of Recurring Episodes. This week, the groundbreaking British sitcom The Office gets the Fully Reconditioned treatment.
The Show: The Office, which ran for two seasons (or, in British terms, “series”) of six episodes, followed by a two-part holiday special to bring the show to its conclusion, debuted in 2001 and quickly became a huge success both in Britain and abroad. Co-created, written, and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and filmed in documentary style, The Office follows the workers of a paper mill’s sales office in Slough, a depressing English industrial town. The main characters in focus are the inept boss, David Brent (Gervais, in a career-making role); his secretary, Dawn (Lucy Davis), engaged to a warehouse worker but seemingly unhappy; Tim (Martin Freeman), an associate in the office who pines for Dawn and flirts with her to make the days go by, and the audience’s surrogate; and Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), the office suck-up.
Why The Office? As fellow Reconditioner Nathan wrote in his piece on The Exploding Girl, though he cites the American version of the show, The Office helped to set the tone for TV (and, to a certain extent, film) comedy in the 2000s by focusing not on big, punchline laughs—though there are some of those—but on the humor of awkward, human moments. Its single-camera, mockumentary style has been taken on almost predominantly in TV sitcoms, with the laugh-track, soundstage style of the past all but gone. The Office is also a comedy that isn’t afraid to sit back and not be funny, for long periods of time, and never suffers for it. It’s an often depressing, often painful show, and the fact that so many people embraced it says something about how well made it truly is.
Beyond that, The Office is really, really funny. Those long pauses between laughs only serve to illustrate how funny the show can be. The painful awkwardness of the characters never becomes tedious—as it can in many of the show’s successors, which seem only to serve to try and top the humor of awkwardness of whatever show came just before—and makes the few moments of triumph the show offers even more joyous. The Office is profoundly British in its setting and execution, but universal in its embrace of human comedy, and for that it is one of the most important, consistent, and enjoyable TV shows ever made.
The Episode: “Training” is the fourth episode of the first “series,” and as such the characters have been established and the season’s main arcs—whether or not the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg Paper Company will be closed (and its employees subject to “redundancies,” or layoffs); the will-they-or-won’t-they potential office romance between Dawn and Tim; Tim’s pranks on Gareth; and David Brent’s general ineptitude and pitiful repeated attempts at office comedy—have all been established. While the first three episodes provide plenty of laughs while setting the story in motion, “Training” is where The Office truly becomes great, topping itself both in heartbreaking emotion and over-the-top humor.
The episode opens and sets up its two main premises quickly: first, that Dawn and her fiance Lee are having arguments and on the verge of a breakup, and that everyone in the office will be attending an all-day in-service training seminar. Tim comforts Dawn while awkwardly flirting with her at the same time—“Everything will work out […] if not, I’ll marry you.” Awkward silence—as David Brent sets up the training room with Rowan, the guest trainer. Rowan, played by Vincent Franklin, seems a very typical middle-aged business type, the kind of guy everyone’s had to listen to drone on for hours at a day-long training like this, no matter where they’ve worked. While it seems early on, as the employees all file in, alternately dead-eyed, easily distracted, or snickering at the training as it begins, it seems Rowan will be the butt of the jokes about how boring and useless these trainings are (and, if anyone out there runs a business and subjects people to these things, they are. No one likes them, no one learns from them, and they are a waste of everyone’s time and money).
Instead, though, Franklin ends up playing straight man to Gervais as David begins to take the training over, first insisting on taking a different character in the first role-playing exercise (“If it’s a Basil Fawlty type character, well, maybe I should do it, just for the comedy”) then interrupting Rowan over and over again, making incorrect observations about the workplace, until it seems Rowan is about to burst. To this point, the laughs have been building, but it is at the point when one of the minor characters from the office reveals he’d like to be in a rock band that it begins to become one of the funniest episodes of television of all time.
As always, David has an answer for that. He’d been in a band, Foregone Conclusion, that had once played with the Scottish rock band Texas (a fairly big act, though never big in America). Though it seems inevitable what will come next, it’s still funny when, back from the commercial break, Gervais is sitting there, guitar on his lap, going through some of his old “hit songs,” the first a really bad imitation of Space Oddity-era Bowie about an alien coming down to teach humans about being color-blind—“Racial,” David says, self-satisfied.
For some reason, this video is reversed; Gervais doesn’t actually rock his axe southpaw. Otherwise, enjoy.
The house comes down, though, with his faux-Springsteen number “Free Love on the Freelove Freeway,” at which point Rowan can’t believe this is how his life has ended up, Gareth over-enthusiastically sings along, and Tim is able to cheer Dawn a bit from her troubles by singing along, mockingly, as well.
“That’s lunch!” Rowan says, and the constant build of comedic moments comes to an end, if only for a few minutes of screen time. The plot advances further, with Lee and Dawn eventually making up before everyone returns to the training room for team-building, where Tim is forced to team up with Gareth to solve problems, and as the training session continues, can see his own youth, the rest of his life slowly fading away before his eyes. Eventually, fed up, he walks out in a moment of triumphant catharsis. Many shows would have chosen to end there, the most likeable character having made his point, but The Office won’t give us that slightly-happy ending. Instead, Tim returns, asks Dawn out, and learns, in front of everyone, that she’s reconciled with Lee. Tail between his legs, he retreats, and the awkwardness of the moment is more painful than it is funny. But that’s what made The Office work so well, what helped to spawn it’s versions in different cultures and languages. It could be painful one minute and funny the next, and at its best, it was often both.
Odds & Ends: A real comparison between the British original and the American version deserves its own article, and wouldn’t fit here. Let it just be said, though, that there’s something to only running for two very short seasons. Creator Ricky Gervais agrees.
There’s so much even from this short episode that couldn’t truly be covered in depth, so here, instead, are some memorable lines from this half-hour comedic masterpiece:
- Gareth (just returning to the room, answering a question about his ultimate fantasy): Two lesbians, probably. Sisters. I’m just watching.
- Tim (when answered the same question): I’d never thought I’d say this, but can I hear more from Gareth, please?
- David (explaining why he never pursued his supposedly successful rock career): We’re both good in our own fields. I’m sure Texas couldn’t run and manage a successful paper merchant’s. I couldn’t do—well, I could do what they do, and I think they knew that, even back then. Probably what spurred them on.
- Gareth (singing): She’s deeaaaaaaaaad!
- David (stops song): She’s not dead!
Next Thursday, June 2 – South Park, Season 9, Episode 4: “Best Friends Forever”