17. "Charity," The Office (UK) (2002)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
It's not fair. Monty Python gets credit for (inadvertently) coining the word spam, in reference to unwanted e-mail. Ricky Gervais and The Office deserve similar tribute with respect to people who overestimate the entertainment value of their own YouTube videos, Facebook updates, Tumblr accounts, and tweets. We could say, "My Facebook feed is full of Brent!" Or, "I don't know why I subscribed to that podcast. It's nothing but Wernham Hogg!"
David Brent, played by Gervais in the mockumentary/sitcom he co-wrote with Stephen Merchant, lives according to the rule that the unexamined life isn't worth living. And in his interpretation, his life should be examined by as many people as possible, and by any means necessary. As fervently as children believe in Santa Claus, David believes that celebrity comes to those who hunger for it enough, and that perfecting a humble brag attitude is more important than cultivating any real talent. He's a descendent of Spinal Tap and a foreshadow of Sarah Palin.
David: You've seen me entertain, and raise money, but maybe I'd like to do that in the future for a living, you know. Use my humour and my profile to both help and amuse people, you know. And if it's ideas for TV shows, game shows or whatever you want, I'm your man. I'm already exploring the entertainment avenue with my management training, but I'd like to do that on a global scale, really. And that's not going "Ooh, look at me today, I'm entertaining whilst saving lives. Aren't I brilliant?" It's going,"'If you think I'm brilliant, then give generously and help save these guys who are starving, but are also brilliant" — not as entertainers, a lot of them can't even speak English, but you know, don't give them their own game show, but save them from dying at least. And then maybe they could do something in their own country, on television or whatever they have, the wireless or I don't know, give them a job on the [BBC] World Service or something."
"Charity" is the penultimate regular episode of the original "Office" series, and it's one that could have never been adapted for the American version. David finally faces the music here (after foolishly dancing to an imagined tune in an earlier scene), and his fall is swift, unsentimental, and darkly funny.
He's an ass, and there's no argument for Wernham Hogg to keep him employed, but The Office does elicit some sympathy for the character. He's in a dreary job, and all of his co-workers either act out, in some fashion, or keep quiet and mark time until an inevitably dreadful retirement. In "Charity," the day devoted to raising funds for Comic Relief is a little relief valve, allowing workers to assume alter egos (Sheila's regal Wonder Woman) or do stupid tricks (Gareth hopping on one leg) for one day. The fun peaks when Neil (David's superior) drops in to do a Disco John Travolta impression — prompting David to try stealing the spotlight with a improvised routine that overpowers the office with flop sweat. Everything is a zero-sum game for David (which makes it plausible that he was a better salesman than manager), and when he hears someone else get applause, he's like a cat instinctively pouncing on anything that moves.
Meanwhile, Tim, the closest thing to a traditional hero on the show, is nothing short of sadistic in his practical jokes on Gareth (similar to Hawkeye constantly gaslighting Frank on M*A*S*H), but his main "hey, look at me!" impulse is directed at receptionist Dawn, who's inconveniently engaged to be married — as a means of escape from the office. David wants everyone to pay attention to him, and Tim would be happy with an audience of one, but both feel a similar fear of vanishing into the quicksand of white-collar drudgery.
Indeed, David gets some sympathetic words from Tim and Dawn, who can identify with his terror at staying in place, at the end of "Charity." This comes after a couple of brutally funny moments. One is the first sight of David in his ostrich costume, at the worst possible moment for him; the second is when the rest of the office shows no reaction to David's martyr-like annnouncement that he's been sacked. After this humiliation, David troops down in his ridiculous costome to the Werhnam Hogg parking lot to pose for pictures for the local newspaper (photos that probably won't be printed anyway).
For once, he doesn't overdo something, and his half-hearted tricks with his ostrich "beak" seems so much against the natural order of things that TIm and Dawn give him some pity praise. In early episodes of the American Office, Pam and Jim serve a similar function, recognizing a bit of themselves in Michael Scott's desperate attempts to rise above the tedium of corporate life, but then all three characters had to become more optimistic to accommodate the show's long, long run.
• I picked "Charity" for this list because it works better as a stand-alone episode, but I can't imagine anyone not wanting to follow up with the (regular) series finale, "Interview." The A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff reviewed both episodes:
...this ending is bleak, and it paints a picture of people who gain clarity for an instant, then toss it aside, preferring to stay with the riptide. Brent’s the only one who’s telling the truth here, when he says that being made to quit Wernham Hogg could end up being a good thing, doesn’t have to be the end of his life, and he’s lying through his teeth. When the chips are down, all he really wants is to keep his job and prove he can do it.
• David's "Who says famine has to be depressing?" is a shade more compassionate than Sue Ann Nivens' "What's all this fuss about famine?" in "Chuckles Bites the Dust."
• Maybe it's just me, but David's habit of constantly interrupting and "correcting" himself reminds me of Mr. Kimball on Green Acres. Here's David in the pilot episode of The Office:
This is the accounts department, the number bods. Do not be fooled by their job descriptions, they are absolutely mad, all of 'em. Especially that one, he's mental. Not literally, of course, that wouldn't work. Last place you'd want someone like that is in accounts...
• Gareth has a good plan for cracking down on disability benefit fraud. Mitt Romney, take note.
Gareth: Well I don't know, when they go down the DSS to make a claim, then they should set off a fire alarm, a fake fire alarm. Everybody legs it out the office, leaving them there. If they're fake, they'll be up and running with them. If they're real, they'll be left there screaming for help.
• I can't post a good screen shot of David in the ostrich costume because I stupidly bought the entire series of The Office on copy-protected DVDs instead of from iTunes.
• "Charity," officially known as "Episode 5" of the second season, is on Hulu. The clip below is from YouTube.