November 30, 2009

The BBC Office's American Step-Children - Documentary Fail?

Thanks to Netflix's handy-dandy "Watch Instantly" feature, I spent a nice chunk of the weekend re-watching the entire run of BBC's "The Office," starring Ricky Gervais and Martin Freeman, created and directed by Gervais and Stephen Merchant. That includes the 6-episode Season 1, the 6-episode Season 2, and the two part Christmas Specials (which chronologically occur one year after the end of Season 2). It's a series that is short enough to knock out on a holiday weekend, just about 8 hours total (basically one and a half times your average Lord of the Rings extended edition).

Now I'm not one of these commenters who feel the need to declare the supremacy of BBC's "The Office" over NBC's "The Office." They're intrinsically different animals due to their native cultures, customs, speech patterns and audiences, and each has their strengths and weaknesses (which I'll outline at some further date), but their creators (Gervais/Merchant in Britain, Greg Daniels in the U.S.) have a basic formula that works. That is, that the average office environment is ripe for comedic exploitation because of the inherent, if sometimes contradictory, combination of power politics, forced-upon relationships, monotony, internal and external economic unease (leading to paranoia, self-esteem issues and jealousy, among other things). Following the Dilbert Principle, managers are vain, often emotionally and psychologically pathetic, and less concerned with productivity than validation. David Brent is more often concerned with vanity than Michael Scott, who veers more towards the oblivious most times.

In any case, the premise (or conceit) behind both versions is that a documentarian is capturing "day in the life" footage for some grand project to be produced in the future, or more likely, the half hour serialized show that you and I watch at an undetermined time later. And this concept is where the shows diverge greatly, and unfortunately this technique also creates a substantial, fundamental credibility issue for the U.S. version. Still, it took the British version's series-ending Christmas specials to highlight it.

The BBC Office Christmas specials look at the lives of David Brent, Tim Canterbury, Gareth Keenan, Dawn Tinsley and the rest of the Slough office of Wernham Hogg one year after the documentary has run on BBC2. David is cold-calling and selling shammies, Gareth is in charge of the office, Dawn and her fiancee are illegally staying in Florida, and Tim is still stuck in the same job (after turning down David's job because of "plans to leave"). There are predictable, but satisfying results, for almost everyone, culminating in a wild and crazy Christmas party.

But the key, for the purposes of this discussion, is the open acknowledgement of the existence of a previously-aired documentary and even the documentarians themselves. Foreshadowing Gervais' "Extras," David Brent attempts to cash in on his "reality show" 15 minutes of minor celebrity, as "the boss you love to hate," so he hires an agent, releases a self-produced single and music video, tosses out T-shirts at radio promotions, and dresses as Austin Powers at a Dating Game mock-up with other no-name reality show participants. It generally leads to humiliation, if not a realization that Brent's bigger in his mind than he is in reality. Self-delusion might be more painful to watch from afar, than to actually live through. (Again, "Extras" took this concept and ran wild with it.) So, the actual airing of the documentary led to changes in David Brent's life, as well as affected his interaction with other Slough citizens. (Plus, in a change in style, the documentarians actually ask questions of David on-camera, fully dispelling the notion of a silent filming observer, previously understood and often acknowledged with knowing looks and silent reactions to the camera.) The process of being filmed and then aired created a different reality for David Brent. The American "Office," and its other quality mockumentary step-children, "Parks & Recreation," and "Modern Family" for example, avoid this next step altogether.

And that leads to a weird realization. What exactly is the documentary situation on the American "Office"? Have the documentarians really been filming the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin since 2005? And since the rest of the inhabitants of Scranton have never treated Michael Scott or any of the other Office personnel as "reality" stars (and it takes only a few reality show episodes these days to equal representation/cross-over potential, apparently), one could assume that the documentary has never been released, in any format. Which begs the question of why in god's name would Dunder Mifflin allow unrestricted access to its employees and offices for going on five years if there's nothing to show for it. As Gervais has openly explored in two BBC series, TV exposure creates a new (and often cruel) reality over and above the original documentary reality. The American mockumentary shows simply pretend that the new reality of indirect fame doesn't exist, and that their subjects continue to operate in a complete celebrity vacuum, for years and years. It's a convenient conceit, if not a lazy one, since a situation where Michael Scott is probably the most famous person in Scranton, Pennsylvania, doesn't let him do his job effectively anymore. But it's a puzzling conundrum that the show has created. The BBC series mitigated this by limiting its length to six half-hours episodes per season, with a definitive ending where David Brent is terminated as a "redundancy." There is no end-game for the Dunder Mifflin. The documentary footage will be edited, scored and will apparently play in an alternate universe. Interesting corner to be backed into conceptually, but it's subtle enough that it doesn't override the stories being played out in the episodes. A definite limitation to the mockumentary format though: is this documentary never planning to be seen?

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