“Charity” and “Interview” (series 2, episodes 5 and 6; originally aired 10/28/2002 and 11/4/2002)
In which David raises money for a good cause and she says no
Before my current job, I worked for a mid-level newspaper in a medium-sized Californian city that was meant to cover a massive area sprawled across two large counties, from the edges of suburbia out into the desert. The newspaper was on the edge of having to either massively cut down on its size and ambition or die entirely, and everyone working there was trying to ignore that fact. The real-estate boom, which was keeping so much of California alive at that time, was also keeping us alive, and we were hopeful that as long as the houses kept selling, we’d keep bringing in the advertising dollars and the new subscribers. Where other newspapers were seeing subscription numbers go down and down and down, ours were rising slowly and steadily, buoyed by people newly moved into the area. It was 2005. The bottom was never going to fall out.
The building we worked in was a relic of an earlier era, passageways carved, maze-like, throughout the building, twisting and curving, as though giant moles with poor navigational skills had been set upon drywall and plaster. There were no windows, and the office chairs were ancient, squat things, more like sitting on tiny stools than anything else. The newsroom lay on two levels, with dingy carpet and strange, musty smells the order of the day (particularly in the basement), and we used pneumatic tubes, for God's sake, to pass printouts of pages between the floors. As the years blended into each other, we all started to realize we weren’t quite… happy. You say so much to someone else with your eyes, and when we looked across the room, after layoffs, after circulation numbers started to droop, after management came up with yet another random overhaul of the paper or yet another cost-cutting measure, looks of desperation became all the more apparent. We weren’t happy. We were being sucked out to sea and paid handsomely for it.
At the same time, the paper’s corporate masters had decided to put up a new building out in the parking lot, and this became our mantra. “It will all be better in the new building.” And when we moved there, it was, for a while. We no longer felt like we were subterranean creatures, scratching along through the soil. We had windows that looked out over palm trees and the California sky, hints of blue above the smog level. We finally felt like the company might be on more solid footing, even though it was 2007, and all available evidence suggested everything was about to come down around our ears.
And then we started looking at each other again, and that desperation crept back in. We weren’t happy. We’d been momentarily drugged. The bottom wasn’t just falling out. It was gone.
The Office is the only show I can think of that both accurately portrays this sensation and gives it the emotional heft it requires. It’s a hilarious, funny, terrific show, but it’s also a deeply sad one, a comic tragedy that puts the emphasis on the latter word in the final two episodes of its second series. And, yes, we’re coming up on specials that place a happier ending on the whole story, and yes, there are glimmers here and there of something better for these people. But this ending is bleak, and it paints a picture of people who gain clarity for an instant, then toss it aside, preferring to stay with the riptide. Brent’s the only one who’s telling the truth here, when he says that being made to quit Wernham Hogg could end up being a good thing, doesn’t have to be the end of his life, and he’s lying through his teeth. When the chips are down, all he really wants is to keep his job and prove he can do it.
“Charity” and “Interview” are both brutal pieces of television. The latter, in particular, just might be my favorite piece of television ever made. If the series one finale postulated that all of these people are trapped at Wernham Hogg, often by traps of their own devising, the series two finale shows that even when they notice the nature of the trap and grasp at their own happiness, they’re content to remain with their legs in the teeth. These are the episodes where Tim breaks Rachel’s heart, Dawn breaks Tim’s heart, Brent finds himself losing everything, and Neil and Gareth, essentially, triumph (though Gareth will never know just how much Tim helped him to that place). Any victories here are hollow, and there are no happy endings. And to think at the time there was no solid information on whether there would ever be another chapter in the story. (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had already said there wouldn’t be a third series.)
But what tempers the brutality and keeps the whole story from being misery porn is something I mentioned back in week one of my write-ups but haven’t really brought up again: Gervais and Merchant’s basic, decent humanism. Gervais and Merchant don’t like all of these characters, but they find ways to empathize with them. Brent, in particular, is a monster of a man, but Gervais and Merchant lay him so low in these two episodes that it’s impossible to not feel sorry for him, even if you completely agree with Neil and Jennifer about how Brent’s performance means he should be made redundant. The scene at the end of “Charity,” where he cavorts mirthlessly around the parking lot with a costume that makes it seem as if he’s riding a giant ostrich, seems like it will be his lowest moment, particularly when he’s cheerfully talking about second chances in “Interview.” But then he’s begging for his job back and promising to do better and just hoping Neil and Jennifer will listen, will hear whatever it is he’s saying. They don’t, of course. They’ve already moved on, thinking that Wernham Hogg, a dying company in a flailing industry in a rotting town, can be improved with a new manager. Maybe it will be for a while, but there’s no long-term salvation here. A new building or a new manager, it’s all just a Band-Aid.
I’m consistently amazed by how the second series strips away everything that both Brent and Tim—our two main characters—care about. “Interview” is particularly brutal in this regard for both men. Brent loses his belief that his employees love them when only Dawn turns in her resignation. He loses his belief that he’s inspiring when the people who run the motivational speeches company tell him they’ll no longer be needing him. He loses much of his dignity when his employees don’t even care much to take his card and promise to stay in touch in the future. And, finally, he realizes that he’s about to lose the only thing that makes him who he is. For as much as he dreams of being an entertainer or hosting a game show, David Brent needs the office. It’s his stage, the place where he has a captive audience. Without that, he’s nothing, his own boss, facing a terrifying future where no one has to listen to his terrible jokes and see his routines. He’s reduced to something nakedly desperate, begging for something he didn’t want earlier that day.
What happens with Tim is subtler, until it all swirls together in one of the great TV moments ever filmed. By and large, Tim already has been beaten down to nothing, been reduced to a man who took a big step in deciding to go back to university, then reversed that step for a little bit more money. Why did he do that? Well, security, for one thing. But there was also Dawn, the lovely secretary he pined for from afar. So long as she was around Wernham Hogg, he’d have a reason to keep punching the clock, to keep winding up Gareth, to keep coming up with pranks. But now, she’s off to the States (in one of series two’s more sudden plot developments), heading to Florida with Lee to live with his sister for a while. She’s taken the step he could never take, even if it’s at the behest of a man she could do so much better than. She’s left behind security and taken the leap Tim could never take. And as all of this is going on, he’s losing his girlfriend and turning down a promotion—both moves that seem like good choices, since they won’t keep him mired where he is—deciding instead to pin his chances on a grand, romantic gesture.
It’s rare that I can remember the first time I saw something in a movie or TV show I love, particularly if I’ve watch it many, many times, but I do remember the first time I saw the “She said no, by the way” moment. It was the middle of the night in my too-hot apartment, and I’d watched way too many episodes of The Office in a row, but I just had to see how all of the plot threads that came crashing together in “Charity” would be resolved in “Interview,” particularly the moment where Dawn and Tim share the awkward kiss (he’s just paid for) we’ve been waiting all this time to see them share. Tim sits, frustrated, even as his girlfriend comes over to flirt with him playfully. It’s clear what and who are on his mind. And then, in “Interview,” he finds out Dawn is leaving. He makes a couple of jokes about it and congratulates Dawn and Lee on their brighter prospects. He talks to the camera about how he never really felt that way about Dawn, no matter how much the cameras tried to say otherwise. And then he cuts off in mid-sentence. Stands. Goes to find her. Pulls her into a room. Takes off the microphone. And after a moment, she’s hugging him. And then he’s back at his desk. He flips the microphone back on. “She said no, by the way.” I was floored. Devastated. The whole room had gone cold. It was like there was nothing left worth believing in, even as I knew I had two more hours of the show in which Tim and Dawn could find a happy ending.
But I was 23 the first time I saw this show, and now that I’m 30, I see another side of this whole scenario. Gervais has said in interviews that if Tim had said what he said to Dawn at any other time, she might have taken him up on it. But when he tells her now, she’s already planned a major life change, a move across the Atlantic to pursue a better life. At the time, I got the basic logic of that, but I didn’t really understand just where Gervais was coming from. Now, having sat in that new building and watched the life drain out of myself, I understand all too well. Tim might represent a better relationship for Dawn—one where she smiles every time she sees him and feels that electricity every time she holds his hand—but he’s also Wernham Hogg. If she leaves Lee for him, is there any guarantee that she gets out? Probably not. She’s probably stuck there for life, even if she’s in a happier relationship. Dawn had dreams at one time and plans. This is a chance to chase them again. Tim gave up. Dawn doesn’t have to. As much as we want her to say yes, she needs to say no.
It’s here that Gervais and Merchant’s humanism comes into play again. Too often, saying that a writer or director has a “rich sense of humanism” means that that person makes films or TV shows where everything turns out all right and there are mostly earned happy endings. (Think of, for instance, someone like Cameron Crowe, who tends to make films where things are OK in the end.) It’s rare in something from Gervais and Merchant to have absolutely everything turn out all right, and they certainly don’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling for most of their characters. But what I think is notable about them is that they definitely want their characters to want something more, to reach and strive for something. They want those characters to have that moment of clarity where they realize who they really are, the moment when the fake pompousness of the talking head gives way to understanding. And for as often as Gervais and Merchant have used this device for comedy, they use it almost exclusively in “Interview” for drama, for moments where Tim and Brent realize just how far they’ve fallen short and how little happiness is actually in their lives.
It’s in these moments that Gervais and Merchant step back and regard their characters not just with empathy and warmth but with real understanding and appreciation. Who hasn’t begged for something, prostrating themselves before a more powerful superior? Who hasn’t gone after someone they’ve loved and been rejected? Clarity and understanding are bracing things, and they come along so rarely that it’s easy to let them pass you by. In “Charity” and “Interview,” Gervais and Merchant give every single one of their characters (yes, even Gareth, who gets another cruel rejection from Rachel) a moment where they realize they’ve been lulled into complacency—Brent’s word—and have lost everything because of this.
Because it’s easy to believe that if you make a few cosmetic changes, the basic outlines of your life will be enough to keep you floating along. I finally quit when I realized that thing weren’t going to get better, that I was trapped in a dying company in a dying industry, surrounded by other publications circling the drain just as surely. On my last day, the handful of people I was close friends with that still worked there bought me a cake, and when they asked me to cut it up, I said a few boilerplate things about how happy I was to be starting a new job. It was a lie. I’d found a freelance opportunity that would last a few months, but the checks would soon dry up. I was walking out the door into uncertainty, into an economy that was about to crater. But all around me, my friends smiled and nodded. We all wanted to believe. We all wanted to hope that if things weren’t better in the new building, maybe, they’d be better in a new life.
And I walked out and got in my car and never went back.
- It’s worth pointing out that Comic Relief is one of the many things in this show that has no real American counterpart as a cultural reference, but it’s one of the few that a whole episode is built around. Even when watching in 2004, I got it through contextual clues, and now I’ve read enough to know that it’s basically a kind of fun fundraiser for various charities, but goodness, it sure seems strange to these American eyes.
- Merchant makes his first appearance in the series as “the Oggmonster,” and Brent promptly insults him for his goggle eyes. Of course.
- In a season filled with terrifyingly cringe-worthy moments for Brent, the very worst might be the dance he does in “Charity,” attempting to show up Neil and his dance with Rachel.
- Incidentally, Rachel and Neil seem very close throughout this series. Some of you have speculated they might have been sleeping together at one time, and I have to admit if she’d turned up as his wife or something in the specials, I would not have been surprised.
- Two great Keith moments in “Charity”: when he talks with Dawn about how Tim has gotten together with Rachel and when he answers the phone with “Booyakasha.” Series two might as well be the series of Keith.
- It’s worth noting that although these two episodes are fairly light on the whole idea of the editing team influencing the narrative (since the narrative proceeds fairly straightforwardly), the shots are deliberately chosen to emphasize the Tim and Dawn connection throughout. The most obvious is in “Interview” when we know that Dawn is leaving but Tim doesn’t yet, and the camera pans between the two on opposite sides of a pillar, as if waiting for her to wander over and mention it to him.
- I love Brent’s foolhardy interview with the Inside Paper reporter, wherein he tries to tell her exactly what to write. “‘Why buy a book when you can have the whole library,’ Brent quipped.”
- If nothing else, “Charity” would be worth it just to watch Gareth hop around all episode long. Also, Gareth’s love of Dirty Bertie may be my favorite example in this series of a joke going on so long that it loops back around to being funny again. (I love when Dirty Bertie starts up while Tim’s recommending Gareth for the temporary manager’s job.)
- My favorite bit character, the janitor who stares in terror at the camera, returns in “Interview” for a few moments of camera-staring action.
- When I first saw these episodes, the two series were all I had, and I had no money to buy the specials. So I had to wait a few weeks to get paid before I got to see the specials, which made what happens in them all the sweeter. I can’t imagine watching them now without a little gap between “Interview” and the first special.
- "It's different for girls. It's more light-hearted. Lower risk." "Erotic."
- "Who says famine has to be depressing?"
- "And that's what today's all about: dignity. Always dignity."
- "Then you come back in and say, 'It's all right. Don't cry. You've passed the test. Here's your money.'"
- "That was one way. I didn't kiss him back."
- "Let's grow ourselves a big lanky, goggle-eyed freak!"
- "It's a good name. I'll call you Nathan."
- "Well, contestants run upstairs and they get a clue…" "No, not the game show!"
- "The States." "United States?" "Yeah."
- "Word of warning, then. Over there, they call them fanny packs, because fanny means your arse over there, not your minge."
- "Have a seat. You've been on your foot all day."
- "Excuse me. Desk procedures. Chairs are for sitting on."
- "Both me. Not me in bed with another bloke named David."
- "Look forward to doing it to you, too."
- "If it's Ker-Plunk, then I'm coming round."
- "I don't think you'll win a Pulitzer for filth."
- "Strings to Brent's bow. A.) Philanthropist."
- "You've got good buttocks, Gareth?"
- "I like blacks." "Cool."
- "Don't take Dirty Bertie. I beg you. Don't take Dirty Bertie."
- "You can't change cirumstances."
- "She said no, by the way."
- "Please don't make me redundant."
- "I will try twice as hard. I know I've been complacent."
- "And people say she's just a big pair of tits."
Next week: We embark on a special project before tackling the specials, in which we take a look at the pilot version of the American Office and a few foreign versions, if I can scrounge them up.