“Merger”/“Appraisals” (series 2, episodes 1 and 2; originally aired 9/30/2002 and 10/7/2002)
In which the Swindon bunch comes over and David Brent is not as funny as Neil
One of the big problems with approaching The Office critically is that the series’ relationship to David Brent shifts and changes. The one consistency throughout the whole project—even the final two episodes and the specials, which go a long way toward humanizing him—is that he’s a sad, pathetic little man, desperate with being the most liked and the most accepted among those in the office. But beyond that, the series has a complicated relationship with him, just as you might with an aggressively bad boss in real life. It does feel a measure of empathy for him—when he gets upset at just how much the Swindon bunch prefers Neil to him, the series clearly has some feeling for him, even if it’s just a kind of sad pity. But at the same time, it holds him in a kind of contempt.
In some ways, it’s all about using the rules of TV against us. On TV, just as in the workplace, there’s a real desire to side with the people we know, even the odious ones. To return to Taxi, a show we’ve talked about here a bit, there would be episodes where some interloper for the group’s affections would come in, then they’d realize they really did love Louie, in spite of the fact that he was the worst boss ever. Here, we’re predisposed to find Neil insufferable—thanks to a full season of talk about him without seeing him. Yet when he comes in, he really does seem like the best kind of boss. He kept his Swindon employees motivated and hard-working. He seems to understand the right balance of self-deprecation to mild insult to tell effective jokes in the workplace. And he’s friendly and approachable.
At the same time, these are two of the worst possible episodes for Brent, who spends the first one telling racist jokes and not understanding how anyone could find them offensive, then spends the second one nakedly angling for the affection of the Swindon bunch before ultimately blowing them off at lunchtime and reading Dawn a poem about his penis. Brent’s a pathetic, small man, but these episodes are among his most pathetic and his smallest. Now, part of this is the structure of season two, which needs to tear Brent down and make him seem utterly execrable before the end, which asks you to have greater sympathy for him than you’ve ever had before. But first, we’ve got to see him at his clueless, petulant worst. And then the show all but dares us to prefer having him around to having Neil around. And why would we rather have Brent around than Neil? Because the show’s more entertaining that way.
In a way, The Office was doing some of the same things that The Sopranos was doing in the world of TV drama. Brent’s not exactly a mob boss, but he’s something of a comedy antihero. Tony Soprano was allowed to get darker and more disturbing and sociopathic as the series went on because James Gandolfini’s performance was so mesmerizing that you’d follow the guy down whatever alleys the writers wanted to take you. Brent, meanwhile, essentially subverts the entire comedic hero type. He’s not especially funny. He’s petty and awful. He wants to always be the center of attention and never cedes attention to the ensemble. He’s always on, even when he needs to step back to be a more effective boss. But because Ricky Gervais’ performance is so mesmerizing, so amazing in its train-wreck thoroughness, we can’t look away. There’s no show without Brent. And we like the show. So we want Brent to stay, even if the Slough gang would be better off with Neil in charge. (In some alternate fictional universe, there’s a world where Brent did get that job and series two followed the Slough branch acclimating to Swindon with occasional visits from the awful, awful man now in Jennifer’s position. I doubt I’d prefer that show, but I’d love to see it.)
All of this ties in to the fact that as series two begins, it’s already slightly more ambitious than series one. Series one set out two fairly simple overarching plots—will Slough or Swindon close down, and will Tim and Dawn hook up—then mostly let a bunch of other stuff happen around them. The show was more about playing around with workplace sitcom tropes—a training session, a night out at the bar, a new employee—and filtering them through the series’ ultra-realistic style than it was about telling a long, cohesive story arc. And that’s certainly fine. Sitcoms, which try to reflect the rhythms of life, only funnier, rarely need to have long storylines to be satisfying.
But in season two, Gervais and Stephen Merchant are already upping the ante. Things that happen in the first episode immediately carry over to episode two, as we see when Lee shoves Tim up against the wall for dancing with Dawn. And the overall tone of these episodes carries over as well. Brent tries to impress everybody in the “getting to know you” meeting and party in episode one, and he’s still trying to impress them in episode two, even as they’ve obviously grown more unlikely to like him. Again, this isn’t the most complicated storyline in the world, but it definitely gives us a throughline, and it invites us to see just how far Brent can push things before we decide he’s no longer funny to watch. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but it does give series two a cohesive feel, and I think I ultimately prefer this series to series one for that reason. (If you prefer the other one, I don’t blame you. It’s probably funnier, with more hard jokes.)
And even though over a year had passed between the last episode of series one and the first episode of series two, in the show’s world, things have just progressed by a couple of weeks. We pick up again with the Swindon bunch arriving, and out of all of them, it’s clear that Neil and Rachel will be the two important new characters we meet this season. Neil, of course, is the anti-Brent, the guy who walks into any room and immediately makes everybody in the room like him. Brent hates him almost immediately. (I like to think it all begins when Neil fails to laugh at the monkey atop the coat rack pictured above.) Neil’s an interesting character—one of my favorites in the series, really—because he has one of the hardest jobs in the whole series. He has to be the villain of the series without ever being villainous for a single moment. Again, Gervais and Merchant are asking us to question the editing, which naturally sides us with the characters we already know and views the new ones as interlopers. Neil’s a good guy and a terrific boss, but he’s also a threat to the guys we already know. So he becomes, in his own way, the bad guy.
Rachel’s less interesting as a character. She’s pretty much just a romantic foil for the Tim and Dawn storyline, so he finally has someone he can be interested in other than the pretty blonde receptionist. If Lee was too much of an obvious goon in the series’ conception of him, Rachel’s a bit better. She’s just a pretty girl who works at the office who’s interested in Tim. But for such a major character, she has even less to her than someone like Keith (who gets one of the funniest moments in the series in these two episodes), and it’s never likely that she’ll present a real threat to a presumed Tim and Dawn romantic match. I’ve always loved the Tim and Dawn storyline, but on this rewatch, I’m more and more bothered by the weakness of the competition both have for their affections. Again, you can make the argument that the documentary filmmakers are framing everything in a very specific way using editing, but there’s little indication of much more dimension to either Rachel or Lee, the kind of dimension that might make them believable romantic foils instead of convenient plot points.
That said, the Swindon bunch are good for one thing in particular: They remind us of just how horrifying Brent’s behavior is and just how low he can stoop. And in his quest to get them to love them, he does many, many things he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing around his normal bunch. Where last season he seemed constantly aware of playing along with political correctness (even if he had no idea why he should be), this season, he’s telling the new employees jokes about a black man’s cock and the Queen of England, simply because he wants them to think he’s the funniest guy in the office. David’s already got the cameras present to perform for, but with a whole new bunch of people who’ve never seen his typical routines before, the effect is even more magnified.
The scene where he attempts to win everybody over in the conference room by doing an impression of Eric Hitchmo, another Wernham-Hogg employee from a different branch who has a shriveled hand and constantly complains about how he doesn’t “agree with that in the workplace,” may be the cringiest in the show’s whole run (though I seem to say this about a new scene with every week I rewatch this series). It starts off all right, with Brent fumbling through a few opening lines, but then he’s making manic faces and doing Columbo impressions and trying to filter Hitchmo through Basil Fawlty and on and on. And of course Gareth has to bring up the jokes he does about Hitchmo’s hand (“the wanking claw”). And it just keeps going, and his face gets more and more desperate, and you immediately realize that this man is going to do whatever the hell it takes to get these people to like him more than Neil. And he’s going to fail every time.
And it’s here, I think, that we find just why the show keeps Brent empathetic, even if he’s never really likable or ever really a good guy. Some of you have taken me to task in comments for “liking” Brent too much, and I think you’ve had good points. And what I would say to this is that Brent isn’t likable so much as he is someone I can understand, someone I’ve been at multiple points in my life. He always misreads the social situation. He’s desperate for acceptance but rarely aware that others find him horrifying. In short, he’s deluded about just about everything, and because he can never succeed, he ironically becomes a more empathetic character than just about anyone on the show, no matter how much awful stuff he does. I’d never want to work for David Brent, and I’d never want to count him as a friend, but I’ve had more than enough times when I’ve been David Brent, and I never, ever want to repeat those times again. And that’s the essence of cringe humor, the engine that drives this show, comedically: the idea that there’s nothing funnier than being forced to relive your own worst moments via others who go through greatly heightened versions of them. (In a way, Brent recalls another of my favorite fictional characters, Peanuts’ Charlie Brown, though Charlie’s much more immediately likable.)
So it’s here that we rejoin the characters, headed into series two. Gervais and Merchant, who’ve displayed such a talent for a raw kind of humanism that taps into our own worst impulses and gets us to look at kooks and assholes in new ways, are now going to apply the squeeze to those kooks and assholes. Brent’s competing with the greatest guy on Earth. Tim’s settled into a new job and is trying to be a responsible adult, even as it pains us a little to see him sell his soul like this. Dawn’s all but given up on her dream of becoming an illustrator. Even Gareth—the most lackadaisical character in the office—finds himself in situations that force him to confront the fundamentally deluded opinion he has of himself. With the Swindon bunch introducing all this conflict (and most of it entering organically, no less), it’s clear that something’s got to give, and the next four episodes are going to show just what that something is.
- The aforementioned funniest scene comes out of a plot device that the show ends up not doing a lot with. In the second episode, Brent is conducting “appraisals” of the staff, which basically amount to job performance interviews and assessments (as we Yanks would call them). Both the Tim and Dawn interviews are used to advance just how far the characters are from their desired stations—with a bit of vintage Brent humor when he tries to get Dawn to list him as her number one influence in the workplace—but the scene where Brent tries to conduct an interview with Keith is one of the few where Gervais plays the absolute straight man to one of the other characters. It’s just a masterful example of the show sticking in what’s essentially a comedy sketch right into the middle of everything else, complete with Keith never having any idea what the many options on the Q&A are.
- Another scene I really like: That bit that opens the first episode may be the moment with the most unfettered joy in the whole of the first two series. It’s almost as if the show is stepping outside of itself for a moment to say, “Hey, isn’t it great that we’re back?” Even Tim seems to be enjoying himself, and it’s one of the few “Brent being a somewhat entertaining boss and good human being” moments we who believe he gets a raw deal in the editing can point to. (Also, his explanation of “Muppets” is great.)
- Another great moment of awkwardness in these episodes: Gareth and Brent carry Brenda, the woman in a wheelchair, down a couple of flights of stairs during a fire drill, then grow winded and just abandon her there. Just awful.
- You may have noticed that among the redundancies made (including Karen) is Malcolm, who was presumably let go for knowing too much. I always liked Malcolm. Oh well.
- I sometimes find myself saying “Oggy, Oggy, Oggy! Oink, oink, oink!” in real life, though I rarely immediately remember it’s from here.
- The only reasons I’ve ever been successful with women are due to the fact that I follow Gareth Keenan’s advice, which includes making sure they have enough money to go shopping for groceries and making sure they’re satisfied sexually after I’ve finished. Thanks, Gareth!
- Judging from Google, there are a lot of people out there who assume Eric Hitchmo is a real person and miss completely that Brent is riffing on someone he’s met at various conferences. And, honestly, given this series’ lengthy number of obscure Britishisms and cultural references, who can blame them?
- "Oggy, Oggy, Oggy! Oink oink oink!"
- "It's a title someone has given you to get you to do something they don't want to do for free."
- "It turns out that Dawn can do a lot of it anyway."
- "Yeah, he drinks."
- "He's got a little withered hand, like Jeremy Beadle? I didn't mention it."
- "I don't do stuff about his little hand." "Yeah, you do. The wanking claw."
- "Why is that racist? It just happens to be a black man's cock."
- "I don't know Jennifer. I could show you a magazine…"
- "Make sure it's legal, and be safe, OK?"
- "…'darkies' instead of 'coloreds'…"
- "So now when people say, 'What do you do?' I say, 'I'm a receptionist.'"
- "Pipe dreams are good, in a way."
- "He's already embarrassed himself once by asking Dawn out, so this can only end in tears."
- "Do you remember what the question was?" "No."
- "Hit him really hard above the ears because the vacuum in his brain would kill him instantly."
- "If you do go all the way with Tim, and you expect me to go in there after, make sure he wears a condom. It's sort of a rule."
- "HELLO, FROG!"
- "I froze your tears and made a dagger and stabbed it in my cock forever."
Next week: Trudy has a birthday “Party,” and Dawn finds herself getting jealous in “Motivation.” Then we’ll probably take a week off (because those last two episodes of series two are going to be barn-burners, man). (Oh, and I'm going to be at TCA, too. What a lazy bum!)