It’s hard to remember now, but when the UK original version of The Office, starring co-creator and co-writer Ricky Gervais, first aired in 2001, it was a revelation — a wickedly funny, desperately sad mockumentary style look into the denizens of one paper-pushing company. It was the loneliness and desperation that burned through the screen, whether it was big boss David Brent’s (played by Gervais) attempts at fame and friendship or Tim’s (Martin Freeman’s) fight for something like love and sanity. It was a marvelous work, equal parts comedy and tragedy, certainly worthy of (high) placement in the all-time-best-show-ever pantheon. Gervais played the role of Brent so well that it felt like he was Brent, at times. The show felt lived in and accurate about the daily misery of the working man. It was not a show made by people who had no idea what it was like to be in an office job that could maybe become your life; rather, it was steeped in that existential terror.
While The Office was never a giant hit — although 7 million people tuned in for the finale in 2003 — it eventually grew in power. It played all over the world, and the concept was malleable enough that there have been remakes from America to Russia. And the American version of The Office, starring Steve Carell, was a long running monster, airing from 2005 until its final episode last year for nine seasons and 201 episodes. (In comparison, The Office U.K. ran for fourteen episodes and about seven and a half hours total, if you include the Christmas specials.) David Brent, Gervais’s signature character, hasn’t gone away. Gervais is reviving Brent for a BBC-backed movie that will show the delusions coming from Brent’s band on tour. Which is fine, but it’s kind of a bummer — as if Gervais was one-and-out with The Office, he could’ve been a legend.
The Office made Gervais, a longtime chancer in England — he had his own one-hit-wonder 80s band, along with odd jobs managing Suede, working for the radio and sometimes for the BBC (on The 11 O’Clock Show, where “Ali G.” started) — a “name.” He ran with his newfound fame to create Extras, a show that used the ordinary-people-looking-for-fame formula of The Office to create cringing, sometimes funny comedy. (It also predicted Kate Winslet’s future Oscar for a Holocaust movie years before it happened.) After Extras, there was a mix of comedy shows that eventually would air on HBO, from An Idiot Abroad to Life’s Too Short; stand-up that was about Gervais’ atheism; and films that were trying for an old-timey sweetness (Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying) but ended up muddled and mediocre. Gervais flickered into relevance once more when he hosted the Golden Globes and “took the piss out of the Hollywood elite” by being a “truth teller,” but mostly his performance teetered on that thin line between sort of funny and Joan Rivers mean.
That’s been the problem as Gervais has persisted as a public figure. What made The Office funny and sad was that the humor was pointed, often, at Gervais’ character’s obliviousness and at the sort of melancholy that comes out of the specifics of the world. As he’s become a “mogul,” the humor has gone outward, and often it feels cruel and predatory, particularly in the case of longtime radio buddy Karl Pilkington, the “idiot abroad,” who has been a longtime sidekick to Gervais and his coconspirator Stephen Merchant, the very tall star of the recent, dreary, canceled HBO show Hello Ladies. As each work has had diminishing returns, and as Gervais has become more embittered and cruel as a public persona, mostly carrying around an ego that seems about the size of the Empire State Building, The Office‘s legacy feels sullied, in a fashion. People forget that it was a really incredible show.
Maybe Gervais is just the sort of person who’s palatable in 14 half-hour episodes. Maybe he doesn’t have the constitution to be a star that people ever really care about (he was in the Muppet movie earlier this year, a fine combination of man and puppet). Yet he clearly has the money, power, and platform to know that he has an audience that will listen to him, and that, in its way, is a bit depressing. His work after The Office hasn’t had that much to say, and the points have been obliterated by his ego. Musicians and writers — your Jeff Mangums and your Thomas Pynchons — know how to release the work and then go into stylish obscurity and hiding talent, until the reunion tour is a financial viability, but TV guys like Gervais should figure it out too. It’s a much cooler way to make sure your art is always great.