The Return of David Brent

Back before Ricky Gervais became known as the guy who was the “edgy” host of the Golden Globes (hint: if you are referring to yourself as edgy, you are not edgy), he was the mastermind behind a brilliant little program called The Office. Before America was bestowed its own version with Michael Scott, Jim, Pam and Dwight, Gervias created their blueprint over at the BBC with Tim, Gareth, Dawn and David Brent.

There has been an on-going debate amongst fans as to which version of the show is superior since the U.S. version debuted in 2005.  While I enjoyed both programs, I think that each one bring something different to the table. The British version proved better at knowing when to call it a day; while the U.S. version is limping through its final episodes and is now barely watchable, the original version of The Office was only 13 episodes long – 12 regular episodes and a two part Christmas Special (man, those Brits love their Christmas Specials). The American interpretation is sweeter than the original UK version in many ways. This is most evident in a comparison of the two bosses: while Michael Scott (Steve Carell) is a doofus, it is clear that many of his gaffes and bad behavior comes from a place of loneliness and a desire to make his co-workers his family. David Brent (Gervais), on the other hand, has a nastier edge than his American counterpart and is much more oblivious to how people see him and the impact his behavior has on others. If you look at the early episodes of the American version of The Office, you can see some of these traits still present in Michael Scott; he would lose these as the series progressed.

For the most part, Gervais has retired the David Brent character, save from a surpise appearance on the U.S. version of The Office during Steve Carell’s final season:

 

However, it seems like that is going to change. Ricky Gervais is stepping back into the character for a one-off special that will air on the BBC and on Gervais’ YouTube Channel on March 15th, 2013. The special is part of Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day, a fundraising event that uses comedy to raise money for charitable causes in the UK and Africa. The special will find David Brent ten years after the end of the UK The Office run. From the promotional materials:

The Office Revisited finds David working a menial job while pursuing his true dream: making it in the music business. “He is passing on his wisdom to younger would-be rock stars now and is living vicariously through a young performer, Dom Johnson,” said Gervais. “Well, really he is trying to worm his way back into rock and roll. Fans of The Office will be excited to know we finally get to hear the whole of ‘The Serpent Who Guards the Gates of Hell’ and an amazing Brent self-funded video, ‘Equality Street.’ Horrendous.”

A trailer for The Office Revisited can be viewed on Ricky Gervais’ YouTube page. It definitely has some potential, though I always have some trepidation about going back to spend time with characters that I’ve made my peace with. There is always the fear that it will taint your memory and become a parody of what it once one. But it’s for a good cause and since it is intended to be a one-time only thing, I’m hoping that they will do a nice job with it. This was Gervais’ most iconic role and I don’t think he wants to trifle with it either.

So mark your calendars – David Brent is back for a limited engagement!

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What’s the Best Sitcom of the Past 30 Years?

I’m a big fan of the website Vulture; I link to a lot of their stories in my roundups because they do a really nice job of staying on top of pop culture stories and their writers seem to have pretty similar interests to me. They also keep you up to date with a healthy dose of snark and sarcasm, two things that I enjoy almost as much as pop culture. So Vulture and I are pretty much a perfect match; they are doing the kind of work I wish I could do if I had a staff, had actual connections and got paid to consume all the pop culture that I wanted.

They are currently examining an interesting question: What’s the best sitcom of the past 30 years? They are trying to answer this riddle the same way that I think all problems should be solved – with a single elimination bracket system. Seriously – put anything in a bracket structure and you have my attention. Vulture used the same methodology with TV dramas last March, where unsurprisingly The Wire came out on the top of the heap because it is the best television show ever made. For what they are dubbing “the Sitcom Smackdown,” they have selected sixteen comedies to battle it out for ultimate supremacy.

 

From Vulture.com

From Vulture.com

 

There were some ground rules for what sitcoms were eligible: the show had to air after 1982; the show had to run for at least three seasons; the show had to be made in the United States and it had to be a sitcom, rather than a sketch show. This explains some of the exclusions from the tournament, but not all. The staff attempted to explain why some fan favorites didn’t make the cut, but I don’t think that all their arguments are persuasive. I don’t agree with the exclusion of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Parks and Recreation or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in particular and I think a legitimate case could be made for Frasier and NewsRadio. I personally would have excluded Sex and the City from consideration; I was never as big of a fan of the show as some women and the few times that I’ve caught a re-run, I didn’t think that the show has held up very well over time. I’m also a pretty staunch Golden Girls fan, but I would have been OK with that being excluded. Ideally, I think the bracket should have been expanded to include more candidates – they probably could have done a 32 show bracket without having to scrape the bottom of the sitcom barrel and would have resulted in some more diverse shows making the cut. If you maintain the 16 that were originally selected and add Curb Your Enthusiasm, Park and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Frasier, NewsRadio, Everybody Loves Raymond, Scrubs, Archer, The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, King of the Hill, Will & Grace, Modern Family, Happy Endings, Bob’s Burgers, then I think you have a more interesting discussion.

I also don’t necessarily agree with the ranking that Vulture gave these shows; it seems like one bracket with Louie, Seinfeld and 30 Rock has a more difficult road to the finals than the bracket with Friends, Golden Girls, Roseanne and Malcolm in the Middle.

That being said, I think this is a fun exercise. My personal bracket would look like this:

ballot

(Disclaimer: I’ve never seen The Larry Sanders Show and only a few episodes of Malcolm in the Middle)

Golden Girls over Friends is admittedly something of an upset pick; the nostalgia factor probably was in play here. And while both shows are a bit dated upon repeat viewings, I found that I appreciate Golden Girls much more now than I did when I was a kid and I used to watch it on Saturday nights. I get a lot more of the jokes now that I’m an adult; turns out Golden Girls was a much saucier show than I thought.

If you know me at all, you know that the final showdown was pretty much preordained from the get go, though my final choice may be a shocker. I didn’t take the decision lightly; for me, this was the Sophie’s Choice of sitcoms. I so love both Seinfeld and Arrested Development. Perhaps it is the anticipation of new episodes after the original run of the show was cut tragically short, but I had to go with Arrested Development. Seinfeld is amazing, but I gave Arrested Development the slight edge because I think it is a more sophisticated show; not in subject matter, but there are so many layers to Arrested Development that it takes multiple viewings of episodes to process all the jokes that are happening. Seinfeld is a smart show, but Arrested Development laid the groundwork for jokes episodes in advance. It was a structurally more complex show. After some deep soul searching, I’ve got to give the edge to the Bluths over Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. This will probably keep me up nights.

So what would your bracket look like? What shows are you upset that Vulture left out? What would you have eliminated? Do you agree with my selections? Sound off in the comments below.

Thoughts on The Following

The Following makes me crazy.

Intellectually, I know that the new Fox drama about a cult of serial killers is not that good. It relies on a lot of clichés from the genre and the writing and plotting is problematic on many levels. It thinks it is a much smarter show than it is. I know all this.

And yet, I can’t stop watching. In fact, I look forward to The Following every Monday night. Flaws and all, I can’t help getting sucked into a show that I know I shouldn’t be this into. To quote the great George Constanza, who himself was paraphrasing the not-so-great The Godfather, Part III — “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”

The fact that I can rattle off a list of the problems that I have with the show, yet still feel compelled to turn in very week is extremely frustrating. I guess one shouldn’t underestimate the power of Kevin Bacon.

If you haven’t seen the show, Bacon stars as former FBI agent Ryan Hardy. He is called out of retirement when the serial killer Joe Carroll escapes from prison, as Ryan was instrumental in Carroll’s original capture. In their manhunt, Ryan and the FBI discover that Carroll has cultivated a cult of followers who are helping him carry out his master plan.

My biggest problem with The Following is that I think the writers “cheat” quite a bit. They consistently write themselves into a corner and then have to bend the rules of good storytelling to get themselves out of it. When the writers aren’t sure what to do to prevent everyone from being caught or to explain an unlikely string of events, they simply reveal that someone “isn’t what they seem” and is one of Carroll’s devotees. This was a thrilling revelation the first few times that they did it, but it has now become such an over-relied upon plot resolution that it has lost all of its effectiveness. These revelations often occur seemingly out of nowhere; one minute someone is working with the FBI, the next they are helping other members of the cult escape from harm. It’s gotten to the point where I just assume that everyone is a member of Carroll’s crew – if it is eventually revealed that Kevin Bacon himself (Carroll’s sworn nemesis) is actually in on all of the murder and mayhem, I don’t think I’d even blink. If Carroll ever decides to “go straight” and stop hacking people up, he should go to work for a college or university because he is one hell of a recruiter. The fact that this guy has a seemingly unlimited bench of acolytes, some in strategic positions of power, he can activate at any time would be very impressive, if it wasn’t completely ridiculous. The writers need to come up with a new signature move.

The members of the cult also seem to vacillate a lot in their competency; one minute they are pulling of an extremely complex and dazzling stealth caper that required a lot of long term preparation and the next they are making some pretty rookie mistakes that make them look like idiots. They have been increasingly stupid in the last few episodes; I may have never pulled off a complicated escape from prison or killed a bunch of people (that you know of), but I have watched enough Law & Order to know better than some of these clowns. Their intelligence level seems to be dictated by what is needed for the plot.

The show appears to have eased up on one of my other complaints, which was they were hammering home the Edgar Allan Poe symbolism a little too hard. Carroll is supposed to be obsessed with Poe and the early episodes went out of their way to make sure that the viewer never forgot that.  I’m no Poe expert, though I did write a pretty kick-ass term paper on him my junior year of high school, but some of the connections that the show makes to Poe seems a little farfetched. The writers have moved away from this a bit – you can now go a whole episode without someone quoting The Raven – but every once in a while they throw out some reference just to remind you.

I have some other minor issues with the show, like I think they probably should have cast a more charismatic guy as Carroll, but despite all of this, I can’t seem to quit this show. Even when I know most of the tricks that the writers have up their sleeves, they occasionally do something that is unexpected. The Following has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie and even with the increasingly frequent “and he/she is a member of the following” reveals, you still can’t help but be curious as to what is going to happen next. The show isn’t completely telegraphed and there have been several times where I have been surprised at where the story line has gone. I’ll give The Following credit – they know how to ramp up the tension each week. It’s such a thrilling ride that you almost forget all the issues.

Credit has to be given to Kevin Bacon as well; he is the anchor of the show and he’s doing his usual solid work. Bacon is just a really likeable actor and it helps that you are being asked to root for him every week. I’m also a fan of Natalie Zea from Justified and the short lived program Dirty Sexy Money (anyone else watch this?) and she does a nice job in her role as Carroll’s ex-wife and love interest for Kevin Bacon. Some members of the cult are more compelling than others, but there are definitely some interesting dynamics unfolding between the three main cult members. I’m not totally on board with the actress that is playing Agent Parker (Annie Parisse), but they are attempting to flesh out that character to at least give her a more interesting backstory.

The Following will probably never crack my pantheon of great shows; I’m not even sure that I would be this invested in it if I had anything else on my television schedule for Monday nights. It helps that this is only a thirteen episode season; any longer and I think their tendency to return everything to the status quo would just become far too repetitive. But if I can shut my brain off and just go with the flow, the show is sure a lot of fun. Despite its faults, it is an hour of fast paced entertainment, which is sometimes all that you need.

The Following airs Monday nights at 9 pm (ET) on FOX. Viewer discretion is advised – this is a pretty violent show for network TV.