Notes on The Office and TV in general
Over the years, I've gone from watching practically no TV at all (I didn't even have one for a couple of years in college) to following a bunch of television series at once and back to watching very little television programming. Right now, I've been following Desperate Housewives, which isn't bad, although my wife is more of a fan, and Boston Legal, which has many of the flaws typical of David Kelley shows, but has the substantial virtues of James Spader and William Shatner. It may only be a matter of time, however, before I tire of the same legal shenanigans and sexual histrionics paraded out again and again and drop that show, especially if Shatner's appearances continue to be little more than glorified cameos. In truth, I find it hard to commit to a drama since The X-Files, a show I loved dearly that abused my affection. To alienate any X-Files fans, my biggest problem with the show wasn't the marginalization and departure of Mulder and Scully, but that those things didn't happen earlier.
Now, and for a couple of years, all my favorite shows are comedies: Chappelle's Show, the Adult Swim lineup on Cartoon Network, The Office, and I've been watching BBC America's reruns of The Young Ones, the Blackadder series and The Avengers with much more enthusiasm than any new series. Actually, in recent weeks I've bought the first seasons of Chappelle, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (my favorite of the Adult Swim shows) and Sealab 2021 on DVD. Just last week, I also picked up the four disc set of The Office, series 1 and 2 plus the special and I'd like to thank them for putting the series together like that, rather than stretching out one six episode series into three discs on its own, as MI-5 did.
I saw an article awhile ago about The Office in the New Yorker, but declined to read it until now. Nancy Franklin, risking hyperbole, calls the series "perfect" and I can't actually disagree with her on that. I do dispute that it doesn't make you laugh, because I've hurt myself watching it. I start laughing just thinking about certain scenes. Alternatively, several scenes documenting the unfulfilled "relationship" between Tim and Dawn, the most sympathetic characters on the show, are so devastating that they're almost unbearable. I actually watched all 12 episodes and the special within a couple of days of buying the discs. I'd seen them all before, not too long ago, but I couldn't help myself.
Franklin's review points out the opportunities taken and lost by the special, which does a good job of building on David Brent's character, showing his reactions to minor reality-TV fame along with a dedication and energy that might just explain how such an ineffectual person became office manager at Wernham Hogg in the first place. The resolution of the Tim-Dawn situation is a concession, but it isn't the outcome that seems so off-key as it is the undisguised artifice that achieves it. The ending of the special, more than the ending of the series, has the contrived neatness that up until then Gervais and Merchant had avoided.
I do not think that comedies are necessarily "less serious" than dramas, if by that one means frivolous. In fact, many comedies are more consequential than a lot of dramas, if only because most dramas nowadays strike me as amazingly thoughtless. I find it easy to scorn a drama for shallowness, but a shallow comedy I'll likely dismiss. Unless I like it, of course. With The Office, I'm inclined to credit my taste. I love the show, but I also think it's excellent. The Office engages me in a way that even some of my other favorite comedies don't.
The New Yorker piece notes that an American version of The Office, with Steve Carell, is on its way. Although I like Carell (of The Daily Show) and wish him success, I hope the American Office is a failure. Not because I relish the catastrophes of American producers' feeble attempts to mimic successful, intelligent product from overseas (well, not this time) but because I doubt that a truly interesting American take on the Office that I would like would be successful. If this new show takes off, it'll probably be because it sucks. Of course, it might suck and be cancelled quickly (see Coupling) which is also good fortune. If, by some chance, The American Office is good or great and is cancelled quickly, then a DVD set will appear in short order that I can buy.
Actually, I predict that Steve Carell's approach to David Brent (or whatever they call Mr. Toad) will be unsatisfying. Gervais' Brent was funny, ie. he did funny things, but what really made that character effective was that Gervais never gave a hint that Brent was aware of how he was perceived, something I don't think Carell is capable of. Despite his painful efforts to engineer his own reputation, Brent was defined by his unselfconsciousness. In fact, self-consciousness is one of the few things separating me (I hope) from David Brent.
Will I ever be able to commit to a dramatic series again? I don't know. I've tried several, but I always find something that irritates me about them. The flaws that found their way into The X-Files, especially the creators' willingness to indulge their primary characters and thereby condescend to an audience who had overinvested in them, pervades prime-time drama. I also need to find the courage to risk being hurt again, as I was by The X-Files. What's the formula for the amount of time it takes to get over a relationship, half the length of the relationship itself? This could take a long time.