The funny thing is. But I’m talking, as my Dad used to distinguish it, not about funny ha-ha but about funny peculiar. I find it next to impossible to watch more than two episodes of The Office back to back but, almost as soon as I’d finished writing last week’s blog, I wanted to watch more. It’s been difficult restraining myself for a whole week. But the moment episode 3 began, I was twisting about in the same manner, alternating between laughing and whimpering in sheer embarrassment, and not always alternating.
Again, the two episodes formed something of a unit, linked as they were by David Brent’s disastrous foray into the world of business seminars and motivational speaking. In episode 3, Brent is approached by guest stars Tom Goodman-Hill and Jennifer Hennessy as Ray and Jude, representatives of a company that do business seminars and training. At first, Brent’s casual, overacting that his time is valuable, better things to do, in short being bloody rude. His tone changes when they explain that they’re not offering to do Wernham Hogg’s training but want him to do training for them, as an expert. For £300 for fifteen minutes speaking. Nice work if you can get it, and even nicer if you can keep yourself from pointing out to everyone that can’t get away far enough fast enough that that adds up to £1,200 an hour. And episode 4 shows what Brent made of it.
On one level the thing’s highly predictable. You know it will all be a disaster, that Brent will make a holy show of himself, it will fall flatter than the Nevada Desert, but it’s like Morecamble and Wise at their peak: you knew what was going, and you could even predict some of the lines, but you still laughed your head off. But Gervais and Marchant turn the screw to the point of bursting. It’s not just an absolute disaster, but a disaster pinned down and butterfly-mounted in every line, every gesture and, most of all, in every background extra.
I mentioned this in relation to Lucy Davis last week, but this week it was clear that she’s merely primus inter pares (Martin Freeman is nearly as good but his expressiins are more comically overt) but one of the greatest aspects of this show is the precision in which the silent extras, and even the more sane stars, react, without words, with only minimal expressions, emphasising the sheer grotesquerie of what you’re experiencing. Without that visual representation of your own WTF responses, the show couldn’t be as funny as it is.
And it’s not just Brent. Gareth Keenan, in a completely different manner, is only marginally better. You cringe at practically everything Brent says or does but Gareth, whose range of monstrosity is so much narrower, you would walk away from, unable to subject yourself to his witless meanderings any longer. This is particularly acute in the multi-angled compressed triangles of Tim/Rachel/Dawn, Tim/Rachel/Gareth and Tim/Dawn/Lee. On the one hand, Gareth is trying to get himself into Rachel’s knickers by the only way he knows, namely crude, oblivious and horribly real and depressing, whilst Tim’s flirtations with the eager Rachel are open and enthusiastic, winding Gareth up and depressing poor Dawn, who very evidently is interested in him far more than she lets on to herself, whilst you’ve got the orthodox triangle involving her fiance Lee, from the warehouse, who pig ignorant chauvinist pigs would look down upon and sneer at for a pig ignorant chauvinist pig.
Episode 3 is centred around Trudy’s birthday and how the risque gifts she’s been bought by her colleagues drag the episode down, or should that be up, into a rompish thing of cheap sex jokes and innuendo so blatant as to not even be single entendres. It’s pitch-perfect, whilst the scene in which Brent winds up waggling a grotesque pink vibrating dildo that he can’t work out how to switch off is priceless. Not that the motivational talk isn’t infinitely more pointed but this just had me howling.
Underlying all of this is the ongoing slide of the series towards the moment of inevitability. I said last week that the series’ one true flaw is that it’s difficult to the point of impossibility to imagine how this David Brent could ever have gotten to the height of Branch Manager. I quoted the Peter Principle, that every man is promoted to the level of his own incompetence, and judging by that it is possible to see Brent as a decent salesman, hard-working and focussed, promoted to a level he’s genuinely unsuited to, and between egotism over having his abilities recognised and the subconscious fear of being found out, he’s constructed this elaborate monster of not just adquacy but brilliance to hide from himself that he is a five foot man in a six foot bog.
Brent’s performsance is sliding rapidly. He’s getting worse. Neil can see that as plainly as we can. He just isn’t up to it. And every little thing that Neil says or does is being challenged in a display of petulance that would embarrass a four year old. It’s going one way. Brent is not only being given ample enough rope with which to hang himself, he’s simultaneously building the scaffold. The pond water may be turbid and murky, but we can see through it clearly enough.