A scene in The Office Christmas Special nearly gives David Brent away. Or rather, David Brent comes closer than usual to giving himself away. The Christmas Special is set three years after the conclusion of The Office and plays catch-up with faces made famous by the BBC2 documentary series. David has been made redundant, won a hefty lawsuit against Wernham Hogg, then blown most of that money recording a cover of (what he likely believes to be Simply Red’s) “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Brent is now on the dating service scene, cold calling ladies he chooses from a list of pictures, and selling cleaning supplies to disinterested office managers. At night, Brent plays a D-league celebrity at night clubs, a mystery “TV personality” on posters whose identity is revealed to anyone willing to pay the discotheque door fee. Desperate to make something of his notoriety, David tantalizingly introduces himself to blind dates as a famous man, and the ladies generally prove as disappointed with him as he with them.
In the Christmas Special, we see David call a new lady from the dating service menu and introduce himself as someone from BBC2’s The Office. He is giddy to be recognized, but the woman asks, “You’re not that awful boss?” David responds that he is not, then the woman presses him, “Who are you?” After bumbling for words a moment, he hangs up, pauses a moment and complains to the camera, “Who are you? What’s your name? Too many questions.”
Had he been thinking, he could have passed the question, “You’re not that awful boss?” off on Neil Godwin, the only other male boss from the series. Instead, he hesitates a beat and unconvincingly answers, “No.” Telling the lie throws him off, he can’t concentrate and he fumbles the interview. At peak performance, Brent would have assumed she meant Neil and pressed forward with plans for a date.
In the twelve episodes of the first and second series, Ricky Gervais crafted David Brent as a man profoundly adept at the art of self-justification. David is also trapped in a nasty cycle of self-justification, for nothing makes him more loathsome to others than his insistence on his own goodwill and likability, and nothing requires more acrobatic self-justification than the loathing of others. As the series progresses, the hatred of his coworkers becomes more pronounced, and David’s denial of their hatred becomes increasingly brazen.
The enduring brilliance of The Office, however, is in the long, slow challenge to the impression that David is loathsome. Seven years after the end of The Office, Gervais co-wrote and starred in The Invention of Lying (2009), a film which repeatedly pulled the (best) hidden trigger that fired The Office’s comedy gun. Returning to the Christmas Special a moment, another scene finds David waiting for a blind date and when an obese woman approaches, he sweats, but after he finds she isn’t looking for him, David says with relief, “I’m waiting for a blind date and I was afraid you were it.” The Invention of Lying wasn’t really about lying, but presumed a world wherein no one was capable of holding back their most immediate thoughts. Similarly, the problem with David Brent might not be that he’s loathsome, but that he says whatever he’s thinking. All the absurd gymnastics of self-justification with which we privately console ourselves (for being fat, for farting in public, for having no taste in dress) are made public in David, and we cringe when David supposes himself “lovable” because we can smell the stink of our own self-justification as he speaks. David doesn’t know when he’s betrayed himself or exposed the crassness of his thought. All of his attempts to be politically correct prove twice as offensive as the offenses political correctness aims to subdue:
After David discovers a dirty picture with his face superimposed on it being passed around the office email, he asks:
David Brent: Who else has seen this filth?
[everyone puts their hand up, including Joan the cleaning lady]
David Brent: You haven’t even got email, Joan.
Joan: Someone printed it out for me.
David Brent: Who printed this out for Joan?
[everyone puts their hand up again]
David Brent: Well. I’m angry. And not because I’m in it, but because it degrades women, which I hate. And the culprit, whoever he is, is in this room. Or she, it could be a woman. Women are as filthy as men. Not naming any names – I don’t know any – but women… are… dirty.
David expects the claim “Women are as filthy as men” will quell potential outrage that he has singled men out for their vulgarity— but David is a good egalitarian, because egalitarianism is the manner du jour. Throughout the full run of the show, David performs political correctness like a 7th grade boy doing Hamlet in a middle school play, although he imagines everyone is impressed with his sophistication and gentility. While David believes, perhaps in his heart of hearts, that he would do anything to be thought well of, in truth, he is willing to do nothing of what is required to be liked. He refuses to be honest with himself and admit how desperately he wants to be liked, and in refusing every kind of introspection, he refuses any kind of intuitive knowledge of others. He’s nearly an alien.
I first encountered The Office in my first year as a high school teacher, and while it would be too much to say the show saved my life, it certainly saved my job. Despite the opinionated tone I sometimes take in articles here (or writing for CiRCE), I genuinely can’t stand conflict. In that first year of teaching, I watched the whole Office series three or four times and studied David Brent for signs of myself— the back peddling, the man pleasing, the overzealous search for new ways to be liked. Several times in the classroom I caught the David Brent stench in my words as I presented myself as the cool teacher, the teacher who referenced popular culture, the teacher who understood the plight of the student. Watching The Office was a painful, necessary rebuke I had to revisit until the sting had been fully absorbed. What I learned was that everyone was a little Brent-ish, and recognizing this fact was the only key to not being highly Brent-ish. The Office is a show every teacher, every administrator, every boss of every stripe ought to make a ritual effort to watch for an hour once a year. Your ego demands it.