Sunday, January 16, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #6

6. The Office (U.K.) Season 2 - When I first heard reports about a British comedy show that was supposedly funnier than anything on television at the time in the U.S., I assumed that it was just another sitcom that wouldn't be worth my time.  I enjoy the likes of Monty Python, Black Adder, and Mr. Bean, but I never found them as funny as similar shows on this side of the Atlantic.  Yet, the early 2000s was a dry period for American comedies so I caught up with The Office on DVD and my mind was thereafter blown.  This was not a sitcom - not in the traditional sense anyway.  It is shot in the style of a documentary, but I am hesitant to call it a "mockumentary."  The Office attains a level of realism that Christopher Guest would kill for and that makes it ten times more brilliant.  This is not embarrassment humor.  This is can't-watch-because-it's-so-fucking-awful humor.  There is no winking to the audience.  There is nothing to let us know that they can relax, that everything will be OK for the characters.  It won't be OK.  The employees of Wernham-Hogg paper company are doomed to suffer just like the rest of us.  But the writing and acting on display here milks as many laughs and, surprisingly, as much pathos from the material as humanly possible.  Choosing a favorite season of The Office is a bit silly because there were only twelve (amazingly consistent) half-hour episodes in the entire run of the series, capped off by an outstanding two-part Christmas special.  Yet, with my back against the wall, I chose the second season because of the dynamic between ineffectual manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) and the new members of his sales team.

Key Episodes:

Appraisals - Whereas many modern shows have become more and more complex with their jokes and premises, The Office takes a turn towards the simple.  Case in point: in the second season's third episode "Appraisals," there really only one plot line: David performs staff appraisals and grows jealous of the fact that the staff seems to like his new supervisor Neil better than him.  That's it.  It boggles the mind how funny this is, not to mention fresh and original, when this is the type of material that old-fashioned sitcoms like Taxi or Cheers would have tackled.  The difference is that The Office has found a way to take universal humor and bring it out of the artificial three-camera structure of other comedies.  The key is the performances.  I could watch Ricky Gervais and Ewen Macintosh, as office dimwit Keith, go back and forth all day.  Anyone could turn this episode on and laugh because everyone has a clueless supervisor and a dim coworker.  They just aren't quite this damn funny.

Motivation - David finally gets to deliver the motivational seminar that he has been looking forward to all season and Ricky Gervais brings his A-game.  From the abhorrent treatment of his temporary assistant, Dawn (Lucy Davis), to the painfully awkward speech complete with comments about how David would rather be dead than quadriplegic, the episode's climax is The Office at its best: it is laugh-out-loud funny, but it doesn't shy away from the sadness that always seems to be lingering near the surface of these characters' lives.  Back at the office, Tim and Gareth (well-played by the show's two secret ingredients: Martin Freeman and Mackenzie Crook, respectively) get a visit from the office IT guy who manages to steal the show with only two brief scenes.  He condescends to the employees while one-upping sycophantic Gareth with tales of his go-kart exploits and intimate knowledge of Bruce Lee.

Charity - It's "Charity Day" at Wernham-Hogg, which means everyone raises money for a good cause by doing something silly in the office like dressing up in costume or hopping on one leg for the whole day.  This, of course, brings out the best/worst in David because there is nothing he likes better than having a laugh at work.  When it turns out that new boss Neil has a silly side as well, David attempts to one-up him with a display of his dancing talents.  This may be the funniest scene of the entire series as Gervais gyrates and struts while his coworkers watch in a state of amusement, quickly turning to embarrassment, and finally something akin to horror.  Then, after spending the entire day completely neglecting his job, David is unceremoniously fired in a scene that builds to a beautiful climax that I wouldn't dream of ruining for you.  Once again, The Office goes to from hilarious to heartbreaking and back to hilarious in a way that no other comedy before or since has dared.

The List So Far:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 2
7. Deadwood - Season 1
6. The Office (U.K.) - Season 2

1 comment:

  1. Andy! Another great post. The Office UK has been a longtime fave . -Jessie