“The Quiz”/”Training” (series 1, episodes 3 and 4; originally aired 7/23/2001 and 7/30/2001)
In which Finchy wins the “real quiz” and David takes us on a ride on the free-love freeway.
Be honest with yourself. You probably don’t need eight hours to do your entire job. Or, rather, you probably wouldn’t if your office was fully staffed. (Assuming it’s not, best of luck to you, and I hope everything turns out well. And if you’re unemployed, that’s awful, and I hope you’ve found something soon.) It’s probably going to take me a couple of hours to write this article, but if I really buckled down, I could get it done in probably one. But I’m easily distracted, and a quick trip to TV.com to check a fact or two would inevitably turn into at least an hour’s worth of dicking around, spread throughout the hour of actual work I was doing. (Actually, as I write this, I’m at a local restaurant, and though there’s no wi-fi here, I still got distracted when checking the original airdates on my phone. So it goes.) And I’m sure some of you will protest, “No, I work hard all day, every day,” but I know that’s not true because I’ve seen our data, and I know that you visit overwhelmingly from work. Hey, I had an office job too. And I used to spend all day reading The A.V. Club when I was there.
Yeah, you put your nose to the grindstone, and yeah, you make sure everything gets done. But you also find room to let your mind wander, to goof around with friends, to find something fun on the Internet to share. And nobody up the management food chain really pays much mind because global capitalism relies on you being enough of a free spirit to want to buy shit (though not so much of one that you buy NO shit), and for that, you need an active Internet connection and something to amuse yourself with. It’s no different at Wernham Hogg. Like most workplace sitcoms, The Office is about anything but work. It’s about the things that happen in between the moments when work gets done. But its focus is shifted from the lovable co-workers you wish were your co-workers to the idea that any day you get through the job you hate without killing yourself is a victory indeed.
There are perhaps no two episodes that exemplify this thesis better than the two we’re covering this week, “The Quiz” and “Training.” The center of the first is an after-hours quiz game, held at a local pub, which just happens to coincide with Tim’s 30th birthday, a day that’s filling him with a proper mixture of ambivalence and dread. And at the center of the second is a training seminar that seems like it should go like any other but is quickly taken over by David Brent’s need to perform. Crucially, the others, even though they’re largely horrified by Brent’s behavior, also find the whole thing kind of fascinating, a few of them eventually joining in on Brent’s closing number. It may be a car crash happening before their very eyes, but it’s different from anything else that’s happened in the office, and that’s something, at least.
These episodes also crucially center Tim as the sympathetic hero of the show. In the previous two, he was the audience identification character, the person who saw just how ridiculous this was and let us know by looking into the camera. But in these episodes, we get to see just how stifled his development has been, in his career and otherwise, and we get to see that he longs for something else, something he probably won’t get. These episodes also provide some context for Brent, making him a bad boss and an idiot of a guy but not the worst person who works at Wernham Hogg. We finally get to meet “Finchy,” and he’s a terrifying example of an alpha male who needs to assert his territory and his dominance over all of the other primates in his circle. He’s a right dick to Brent, and it causes a kind of psychological effect where we circle around Brent because hey, he’s what we know, and at least he’s not THAT guy. (More about this in a bit.) As such, these are important episodes for changing what we think we know about Brent.
But they’re also important episodes for changing what we think we know about Tim. As mentioned, Tim’s the audience identification figure, the guy we’re supposed to look at and see a lot of ourselves in. Tim’s the guy who hates his job as much as we do. Tim’s the guy who sees how ridiculous all of this is. Tim’s the guy who’s always ready to take the piss out of something that’s happening. Tim’s the guy who longs quietly for the pretty co-worker he can never be with. And Tim’s the guy who turns 30 and finds that his life is not what he thought it would be. All of these are instantly, easily recognizable emotions for just about anyone in the audience. Yet at the same time, the show throws that right back in our faces (and Tim’s face). Tim is stuck at this job, yeah, but he’s stuck there because he hasn’t taken a chance on anything. Dawn remains a friend, not a lover, because he’s never laid out how he feels. The series views Brent with almost complete contempt and Tim with almost complete veneration, but for this one thing. Brent, for all his faults, sees the cameras and goes for it. Tim takes a bold step at the end of “Training” and immediately walks it back when he finds Dawn is still with Lee.
It’s an awful, cringe-inducing moment of embarrassment, but it’s also a crucial one. Up until now, those embarrassing moments have been played almost entirely for laughs. There may be some pity or sympathy mixed in with those laughs, but the cringe humor is the humor of laughing at buffoons who don’t know how buffoonish they are. Here, though, the embarrassment is played almost entirely for drama. It’s a moment that lets us know the show isn’t just going to let things simmer along and never develop. For two whole episodes, now, the world has been shitting on Tim, and if he’s only got this one chance to be happy, well, he’s going to take it. But when Dawn says she’s still with Lee, he slinks back into his chair. Tim’s the guy who wants better things but at the same time doesn’t really have anything specific in mind. (Crucially, we never get to hear his ultimate fantasy.) All he wants is Dawn, and while that’s a romantic notion, it’s also what’s keeping him stuck in neutral.
But even as these episodes call Tim on the fact that he’s stuck where he is because he’s unwilling to take a chance, they also evince a lot of sympathy for him. He doesn’t take a chance because 90 percent of the time, that crazy notion you have about leaving your job and opening a bookstore or getting into full-time TV criticism is going to fail. The jobs people really want? There are only a few of those. The jobs people hate? Oh, there are lots of those, at all levels of the income pyramid. So Tim’s not a failure of a human being for not leaving. He’s just someone living out that famed life of quiet desperation, and as he celebrates that 30th birthday, complete with Hat FM, the hat with a radio in it, he’s watching the rest of his life flash before his eyes and trying to find ways to be happy about that fact. Of course, the only thing that really brings him that happiness is Dawn, and she’s the one thing he can’t get.
So he takes his victories where he can get them. And that’s where the two “villains” of these episodes come in. It’s interesting to compare how the show handles Finchy and Lee. They’re both pretty loathsome individuals, with no redeeming characteristics (well, I guess Finchy can be kind of funny here and there). But I find Finchy utterly believable, while I think Lee is probably the biggest misstep this series makes. Finchy completely makes sense as that alpha male who’s always seen the office as his stomping grounds and won’t let anyone—not David, not Tim, not quiz show contestant Ricky—impede on his territory. Everybody knows a guy like Finchy, a casual asshole, and I think, crucially, the show decides that no one but Brent is going to be all that impressed by him. Ricky and Tim find him ridiculous, the other office workers don’t find him nearly as amusing as Brent does, and no one is really willing to put up with his bullshit. He’s mean to Brent, yeah, but that’s because Brent more or less lets him be, thanks to being weirdly in awe of Finchy and thinking their friendship is closer than it actually is. Everybody else sees through the ruse.
On the other hand, Lee’s just an obstacle. Watching this episode, it’s obvious that, once again, the documentary crew is working hard to build a predetermined narrative. In this case, it’s the one that argues that Tim and Dawn are secret soulmates (a narrative that the documentary crew will stealthily advance throughout the run of the series, to the point where it becomes arguable that Tim would have ever acted on his impulses without them there). We never see what it is that Lee says to make Dawn forgive him tearfully, nor do we see the parts of the argument where she comes off poorly. Everything is skewed to make Lee seem like as much of a bastard as possible, and that whole idea comes off very well, actually. Lee’s the high school boyfriend Dawn ended up with by default, more or less, and the crew pushes that notion as far as it can.
But is it the crew pushing that notion, or is it the show itself? It’s tricky to separate just where the show as fictional entity stands apart from where the show’s view of the documentary crew coloring the actual reality of this workplace. The Tim and Dawn romance becomes the one beacon of light to hang onto in the midst of all of the sadness and desperation—indeed, it’s one of the best-written and acted will-they/won’t-theys of all time—but that also means that in the condensed series the show gets, Lee never gets a chance to be anything more than an oaf. It’s never immediately clear why anyone would want to be with Lee in the way that it’s clear that, say, people wouldn’t mind working for Brent. (He’s a loudmouthed asshole, but at least he provides a break from the tedium of having to work when he wanders by, babbling about nothing.) Where even background characters like Keith and Malcolm feel as if they’ve got some point of view on the situation at Wernham Hogg, Lee often seems like a villain in an old-time movie serial. He never gets any of the shading Brent does or even the shading Finchy gets (where it becomes clear his need to hang onto the quiz trophy stems from his need to be perceived as the top dog in the office).
And yet in the midst of all of this, these episodes are two of the best examples of the show’s gleeful sense of humor. “Training” may be the single funniest episode the show ever did, especially thanks to the gag of Brent having his guitar almost everywhere he goes. (The gag where he plays a special song to help Dawn overcome her heartbreak at her apparent break-up with Lee is a little broad and sitcommy for this show, but it absolutely works at the same time, so it’s hard to criticize it.) And the songs—about a spaceman who takes away racism or a sexually liberated woman writhing around on the hood of a Cadillac or the death of Princess Diana—are some of the better intentionally bad songs in TV history. They’ve got catchy enough melodies that you find yourself thinking they could be good… until you hear the lyrics. (Hilariously, Brent describes himself as a “lyrics man,” though he says the music comes along well, too. From the songs he performs, I’d say it’s the exact opposite.) And the man who comes in to lead the training, Rowan, is one of the great one-shot characters the show had, as he slowly realizes that his training has been utterly overrun by the grown child who runs the office, finally storming out when Tim makes his big declaration.
But it’s the darker, more muted humor of “Quiz” that sticks with me even more. This is about a man experiencing something utterly humiliating on a day that signifies that, yeah, the rest of his life could look pretty much like this. And it never once gives him a victory or an out. He has very little to do with the fact that his team wins the quiz trophy. He loses his shoes and has to go retrieve them. The girl he loves is with an oaf who thinks an appropriate gift to give to him for his birthday is a giant inflatable cock. And he’s almost certainly going to be working in a crushing job where the only joy he gets is in having a laugh about his co-worker being gay. And it’s here that the show advances its single strongest argument: That time spent pining for the co-worker or running up the guy who works across from you (and is really annoying) might ultimately be worth all the desperation and frustration. These people aren’t your family, not in the way other sitcoms would have you believe. But they are a kind of port in a storm, a safe, predictable harbor when taking a chance is simply too much.
- For whatever reason, I’ve adopted the format of calling David Brent “Brent.” If you’d prefer otherwise, please say so.
- Things that are adorable: Lucy Davis in Hat FM.
- And how great is it when Tim angrily insists his coworkers not throw the hat over the roof? He starts out mocking it, but by the end, it's the one really nice thing that happened to him that day: His mom remembered his birthday and gave him something she thought he would like.
- It’s worth pointing out that Mackenzie Crook really solidifies himself in these episodes as the guy that’s best at delivering the show’s ridiculous dialogue. The things Gareth has to say and keep believable keep getting weirder and weirder, yet you never question it because Crook has defined Gareth so particularly.
- Rowan’s always wanted to own an island. Brent would like to live forever, just to see what that’s like. (Tim’s getting a pretty good idea right about now.) And Gareth would like lesbians, sisters. And he would just watch.
- I love the scene where Dawn says she might leave because she doesn’t want to do this forever. (Gareth suggests if she really works hard, she could answer phones at head office!) You can see a switch flip in Tim’s eyes where he realizes he doesn’t have to do this his whole life. It’s interesting, however, that that switch is tied directly to Dawn. It shuts off once she shuts him down.
- I always find it surprising that Tim lives at home with his parents. Is that common in the United Kingdom? Someone working at a job like Tim’s in a city about the size of Slough in the U.S. would have their own apartment. (And, indeed, Tim’s American counterpart, Jim, did throughout the U.S. series.)
- Brent’s quest to learn more about Dostoyevsky just to impress Ricky has always struck me as both odd and funny. I like how he evidently views Ricky as something of a celebrity and wants to compete at his level. (Surely Blockbusters isn’t that popular of a show, right?)
- The week in inexplicable Britishisms: Daley Thompson won the decathlon gold medal for the United Kingdom at the 1984 Summer Olympics. (And for very bizarre reasons, I knew that without having to Google it.)
- While I don’t really like Lee as a character, I’ve always liked how the show makes evident that he sees Tim as a romantic rival and seems to understand more fundamentally how he feels about Dawn than Dawn does. Other than that, though, the scene where he talks about Dawn cranking out a couple of kiddies is one of the worst in the series.
- There was lots of great discussion in comments last week about how Brent sees this documentary as a chance to get famous (something he references obliquely when he talks about how he can’t believe he and Finchy are going to be on TV together). I like the idea advanced in comments that Gervais split his two biggest fears—that he’d never escape his terrible job and that he’d never become famous—equally between the two main characters. And these episodes are crammed full of moments where Brent notices the camera and decides to play up his comedic “skills.” And that talking head where he tries to insist that he and Finchy are a great comedic team while clearly having no idea how comedy's supposed to work (neither's the straight man?) is one of my favorite talking heads in the series.
- "We tell them why, and they go, 'Yeah, you are the best.' Their opinion."
- "Anyway, he is a vegetable now, and that's something we've all got to look forward to."
- "I'd have only spent it on a huge inflatable cock."
- "Then you'll probably get a cleaning job or something." "Gotta dream the dream."
- "Which insect produces gossamer?"
- "Alright. You. Capital of Borneo?" "I don't care."
- "No, the equivalent. Coconut."
- "Tickle him. Tickle him. Tickle him!"
- "You constantly have to find new and erotic ways of spicing things up in the bedroom."
- "Could you set fire to a stamp?"
- "I think there's been a rape up there!"
- "It's not often you get something that's both romantic and thrifty."
- "Two lesbians probably. Sisters. I'm just watching."
- "She's dead." "She's not dead!"
- "Dawn, you work hard, you could be answering those phones in head office or better paper merchants!"
- "How big is this chicken that it's the same size as a bag of grain?" … "It's a super-chicken."
- "Not this (farmer). He's gay." "Well, then he shouldn't be allowed near animals, should he?"
- "Go and get the guitar."
Next week: Series one comes to a close (already?), as David hires a “New Girl,” and the Slough branch faces the day of “Judgment.”