Posted by: pop-break | October 16, 2009

The British Office – The New Shakespeare?

brent johnson explores the genius behind the original version of The Office

There’s a major reason why you really can’t compare the U.K. and the U.S. versions of The Office. One of them isn’t really TV.

It’s the closest our culture has come to Shakespeare since Shakespeare, in a way.

For those who don’t know, The Office was originally a British series. Ricky Gervais — who us Yanks are starting to embrace — was the star of the show, which he also wrote and directed (with Stephen

Our own Brent David Johsnon is a big fan of David Brent (Ricky Gervais)

Our own Brent David Johsnon is a big fan of David Brent (Ricky Gervais)

Merchant). The set-up is similar. Gervais is David Brent, a boss enamored not as much with being loved by his employees as he is being having them watch and worship him.

There’s Tim (Martin Freeman — Love Actually, Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), the subtly smart, could-be-confident guy who pines for the office receptionist. There’s Dawn (Lucy Davis — Shaun Of The Dead), the office receptionist who’s too content with consistency and scared of stopping it to realize she’s in love with someone other than her fiance. There’s Gareth (Mackenzie Cook — Pirates Of The Carribean trilogy), the office fool who doesn’t realize he’s the fool.

And there’s a bevy of awkward moments, smashing one-liners, pop-out supporting characters. And it all happens in 12 episodes and one two-hour finale special.

So while I implore you to catch the series this month as it’s replayed for American audiences on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim (Every Friday at midnight), I implore you more to rent it.

Watch it all in order. Because it’s more movie or mini-series than sitcom.

And keep watching even if you don’t get it at first. I didn’t the first time I watched it. It seemed too British. The accents were too quick to understand. So I turned it off halfway through the first episode. But my brother told me to keep watching. And soon I realized: This show is a mile more than jokes.

That’s another major difference between this and its American counterpart. The U.S. Office is brilliant because it balances absurdist humor and uncomfortable situations with subtle dramatic moments that lift it beyond farce. But the U.K. Office is really a tragedy that tricks you into thinking it’s a comedy. That’s what makes it Shakespearian.

David Brent is a Falstaffian figure. He’s large and brash and demands your attention in ways he doesn’t want you to. He wants you to think he’s cool for wearing an earring and leather jacket to work. He wants you to love it when he brings his guitar to work and sings a song he wrote called ‘Free Love Freeway.’ Instead, he’s the kind of person who is in dire need of self-awareness.

I’ve heard people say they hate David Brent. And I’ve heard Ricky Gervais himself say the show is really about Dawn and Tim. But it’s not. It’s about seeing the broad shortcomings of a man but realizing he doesn’t deserve hatred or even pity. He deserves understanding. The show is a character study. That’s what makes it magnetic.

I don’t like most television dramas. Like 24. One episode of blowing up and clenched teeth is enough to get it. Shows like that lack any sense of humor. Real drama is in people. So is comedy. You’ll find it in Hamlet. You’ll find it in Richard III. You’ll find it in As You Like It.

And you’ll find it in The Office.

(On an endnote, I’m known for making brash, hyperbolic statements about pop-culture. And here’s another: For all I just said about the U.K. Office being a circular, movie-like show, it’s quite possible that the single greatest half-hour of television ever produced is Episode 4 of Season 1. Watch the reactions of everyone who isn’t David Brent. Genius.)

For more on The Office, check out Ricky Gervais’ official Website



  1. I was such a huge fan of the British “Office” that for several years I wouldn’t even watch the US version because I knew it wouldn’t come close. Since, I’ve learned to embrace them both, but the analysis above is spot on. You might want to compare them, but you can’t – they’re not the same thing.

  2. hyperbolic statements…..What the heck does this mean? I mean if you’re gonna use British English yous could at least warns us guys.

  3. […] 7.) The British Office: The New Shakespeare? (Brent Johnson) […]

  4. […] 1. The Office (U.K. version) Ricky Gervais’ mock-doc about a quaint British paper company is the essence of brilliance: hilarious when it needs to be and utterly perfect in the amount of drama it sprinkles in. As I’ve said before, it’s the closest modern-day pop-culture has come to Shakespeare. [Check out Brent's blog on the UK office here. […]

  5. […] The Office: The New Shakespeare I often make bold declarations about pop-culture. ‘This is the greatest Duran Duran record ever!’ But this is one I truly believe: Ricky Gervais’ original, British version of The Office is the closest modern culture has come to Shakespeare. I’m sticking to it. […]

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