Dated or Delightful? 'The Office' Christmas Specials

(Photo: Courtesy of BBC)
(Photo: Courtesy of BBC)

This time of year, I like to indulge in a little nostalgia by revisiting Yuletide TV specials from years past. In an effort to get some respite from the troubled times we’re living in, I chose to re-watch the pair of Christmas episodes that served as the finale for The Office, the sitcom that I often credit with rekindling my British telly obsession.

The Office debuted in 2001. (Yikes, right?) So now that nearly two decades have passed, I wondered how the concept of a needy, tactless, prejudiced boss as the lead character would hold up in 2020. Though my focus will be on the two 45-minute Christmas specials that aired on consecutive nights back in the Christmas week of 2003, I should reveal that I binged all fourteen episodes of the BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning comedy series.

The first Christmas episode begins with this text on the screen

“In January 2001, a BBC documentary crew filmed the everyday goings on in a typical workplace. Now, nearly three years later, we return to find out what has happened to the employees of the office.”

In short order, we learn that after being made redundant, former Wernham Hogg regional manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) has moved on…sort of. He’s a traveling cleaning supplies salesman by day and, in an attempt to cash in on his documentary notoriety, he makes celebrity appearances at night clubs that mostly involve waving and abuse from the much younger clientele.

David also spends an inordinate amount of time visiting his old workplace, distracting the employees from their work and chewing the fat with his former assistant, Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook). Gareth is less in awe of David now and takes the mickey out of his predecessor for wasting his lawsuit settlement money to launch an unsuccessful music career.

 

The fly-on-the-wall documentary also catches us up with Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis). Previously Wernham Hogg’s receptionist, Dawn is now living rent-free with her fiancé Lee at his sister’s house in Florida. A cheapskate and a layabout, Lee is loving the situation, but Dawn seems less than thrilled that she’s abandoned her dreams of becoming a children’s illustrator and instead babysits in exchange for rent. When the BBC documentarians offer to foot the bill for the couple to return to Slough to attend the Wernham Hogg Christmas party, Lee snaps up the offer without even consulting his better half (as usual).

And then there’s Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman). After recommending Gareth as David’s replacement rather than himself, Tim remains stuck in a rut, selling paper, saddled with another annoying desk mate and still pining after Dawn, apparently.

Meanwhile, David finds himself in a bind when he tries to impress his former boss Neil (Patrick Baladi) and all-around horrible misogynist Finchy (Ralph Ineson). Now he’s left scrambling to find a girlfriend online to bring to the company Christmas party to prove he’s successful with the ladies.

 

David endures a couple of awkward blind dates whilst Dawn stops by the office in advance of the party to meet up with her old colleagues. She and Tim fall into their old comfortable habits of innocent flirting and winding Gareth up about his adventures in the territorial army.

The night of the office party arrives and David’s last online date, Carol, turns out to be quite a catch- a sense of humor, a good listener, and not one to judge a book by its cover. Their date boosts David’s spirits and confidence to the point that when Finchy bad-mouths her, David can finally tell off the bully he’s been groveling to for years.

But we all know the Tim and Dawn story is the pay-off of the specials, if not the whole series. The pair drink and chat and laugh throughout the party until Lee drags her away with the excuse that they have an early flight.

On the cab ride home, Dawn opens her Secret Santa gift from Tim who has predictably purchased a thoughtful gift, a set of oil paints, and a note of encouragement to “Never give up.” As Lee sleeps in the front seat, a tearful Dawn comes to the realization that she deserves respect, support, and the kind of love that Tim has tried to give her all these years.

 

Yay for unrequited love which is finally reciprocated!

The question remains though. Are The Office Christmas specials dated or delightful?

In two decades, a lot has changed especially in the ways people are expected to behave in the workplace. The Office was the type of comedy that relied on a socially tone-deaf narcissist for cringe-inducing laughs. David Brent is the type of guy who tells a racist joke and then asks a person of that race if they think it’s funny. If they don’t complain, Brent takes that as confirmation that it’s not offensive. Archie Bunker did the same in the 1970s. Today we call that microaggression.

David is obviously less sure of himself in the specials than in the heyday of his run as regional manager. The disappointment of not being appreciated as a “chilled-out entertainer” and his C list reality star humiliations finally seems to be breaking down his desperate delusions just a bit. So huzzah for David who has become a wee bit humbler and finds the confidence to stop trying to be one of the boys, if only for Christmas.

Another uncomfortable issue is Mr. Canterbury’s aggressive impatience with the rather exasperating Gareth. Whether Tim and Dawn are baiting him with homosexual innuendo or Tim is locking Keenan in his own office, this once amusing horseplay comes across as more mean-spirited than anything. You may accuse me of being a snowflake, but Tim is meant to be the world-weary everyman of the series, the one who we relate to as he navigates the dysfunctional world of The Office. Alas, his proclivity for pranks flies in the face of his “nice guy” persona.

Despite the aforementioned reliance on a toxic work setting, in the end, I still enjoy watching The Office. It’s a melancholy story of imperfect people. Some have dreams that go nowhere and so they trudge along with very little to look forward to. That’s why my heart still swells a little at the Tim and Dawn kiss. But don’t get me wrong, I’d never consider working there.