With The Office US ended this year, Ricky Gervais’s original is still the holy grail of TV mockumentaries.
As we all know, if you want the rainbow, you have to put up with the rain. And if you want the most definitive snapshot of modern corporate life, then The Office UK is still the holy grail. Reviving mockumentaries from their post-Spinal Tap comatose, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s nuanced portrayal of a paper company in Slough is still the most accurate representation of the pomp and politics of day-to-day life in an office.
The subtle, sincere UK Office is less a mockumentary and more a watercolour version of reality
The original series was fearless, proving an accurate portrayal of the banalities of office-life and the subtle, sincere and sad hilarity that lies within it. There aren’t intricately sculpted pranks or Hollywood hairstyles in real offices, but there is laughter. This is the type of laughter that the UK version garnered as it brought achingly honest situations, interactions and desperations to the screen. When you work in an office for a couple of years you become intimately acquainted with people in a completely unprecedented way. The great thing about this is you get to know, and sort of love, the ridiculous things they do. The UK Office recalls this mindset so well that it is less a mockumentary and more a dreary watercolour version of reality.
Everyone has Gareth in their office, that guy with such naive and unadulterated admiration for the boss that he’d allow him to win a quiz based on his team-mates’ shoe-throwing abilities. And everyone has a David Brent, the chilled-out entertainer who emits morale like an overflowing faucet. Then there’s Tim and Dawn, who together are a wonderfully honest portrayal of an office non-romance in achingly minute detail. The characters are relatable and the environment is familiar, and this is what makes the Office UK not just a TV show, but a portrait of contemporary office culture.
When the Office USA started, it mirrored almost exactly its overseas counterpart in scripting, but it just didn’t work as well. It had this garish edge to it, as if the mirror had been cleaned with processed cheese. It was too bright, too full of personality. The grey sheen of reality had been lifted to reveal a slimmer and more slapstick David Brent (now Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell), and a full cast of interesting characters.
The Office USA was a great, complex comedy that all the while left you very aware of its artificial nature
The Office USA was never going to have the lacklustre quality of its UK sibling, but it nevertheless delivered some great comedy in the end. When it tore away from the UK scripting and came into its own, it was a hilarious almost-sitcom. Jim and Pam had the same arduous crawl towards romance that Tim and Dawn had, and it was great to see them go on to get married and have kids. There were plenty of supporting characters and storylines too, like Dwight and Angela’s undulating amour, and Stanley Hudson’s multiple affairs. All of this made it a great, complex comedy that all the while left you very aware of its artificial nature.
The Office UK was a petite affair that didn’t have time or space for many characters, but every moment of it was magic, from the Freelove Freeway to that nervous, loaded kiss at the very end of the Christmas special. At times, we completely forgot that it was a scripted, carefully formulated TV comedy and cringed as if we were actually there, because, really, we were. And, when it finished, we were all still there, in our office chairs. Just as Tim says, right at the end of the last episode, “Life isn’t about endings, is it? It’s a series of moments. And umm… it’s not if, you know, if you turn the camera off it’s not an ending, is it. I’m still here, my life’s not over… Life just goes on.”
All images: BBC