There’s something melancholic about Christmas. On the surface it’s hard to conceive of why. Religiously, Christmas celebrates the birth of a major faith’s savior and culturally it’s the time of year where families get together to appreciate one another’s company. Still, there’s something sad about the most wonderful time of the year.
Maybe it’s because it comes at the end of the year and gives everybody plenty of time off from work to think over everything they did wrong before the calendar changes. Or maybe people just don’t like their families. But I’d venture that more than anything it’s the quiet. Christmas is the only day on the Judeo-Christian calendar where the world comes to a halt. The restaurants aren’t open, the T.V. stations are running marathons of A Christmas Story and if you live in the right (or wrong some would argue) part of the world, snow is silently and peacefully falling on the ground. There’s truly some melancholy there hiding behind the year. That’s why a two-part Christmas Special was the perfect choice for the de facto series finale of one of the most melancholic comedies of all time: the original British version of The Office.
Christmas specials have long been a staple of British television. Where American TV series often have Christmas episodes in mid-to-late December, British series like to have full-blown specials whether the show is currently airing or not. Just this year we will be treated to both a Luther and Sherlock Christmas special, while neither show has aired regular episodes in over a year. These specials are undeiniably “special” in both format in quality but rarely does a British Christmas special as important to a series than The Office’s Christmas special.
The Office’s Christmas special is particularly special because it functions as the unofficial series finale. Ricky Gervais’ awful boss David Brent will soon live on in other media in the upcoming film Life on the Road, but the original Office as we know it ended with its two-part Christmas special aired on December 26th and 27th of 2003. But why should a Christmas special, traditionally something joyous and cheeky serve as a series finale for the truly bitter Office? It comes back to that sense of melancholy that both Christmas and The Office share.
The Office rightfully gets a lot of credit for popularizing the mockumentary format that now dominates sitcoms on TV. It doesn’t get enough credit, however, for establishing that comedies on TV can also be hopelessly bleak, sad and at times hard to watch. The trials and tribulations of the characters on the Walking Dead in a hopeless post-apocalyptic hellscape have nothing on the poor drones of Wernham Hogg living lives of quiet desperation with the world’s worst boss who only wants to be their friend. Without The Office, there is no BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty or Review. Hell, without The Office there may not even be a Leftovers or Mad Men. So it only makes sense that the show’s finally moments should be on Christmas, the most wonderful but also most tragic and desperate time of the year.
What’s interesting when revisiting The Office’s Christmas special is that Christmas is barely featured at all. Throughout the entire hour and a half-long special, the word “Christmas” is spoken only twice, once when Tim (Martin Freeman) derisively calls new boss Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) “Father Christmas” and again when Gareth asks everyone to brainstorm ideas for the office Christmas party.
All the trappings of Christmas, itself – the decorations, the presents, the eggnog, is not of particular import to The Office Christmas Special. Instead it’s all about capturing that melancholic feeling. The first part, in particular, is like a “normal” episode of The Office just with David out on the road and Dawn in Tampa, Florida. Still, the mere idea that it’s the holiday season somehow makes everything even sadder.
David Brent, in particular, is a mess. After being fired from his job as boss in the season two finale, he is now a traveling salesman, nearly living out of his car and selling cleaning supplies from office to office. He’s also a kind of pre-YouTube proto celebrity, making appearances at bars as the star of the successful documentary “The Office” for meager pay. Though while he cashes in on his relative fame at every opportunity he’s still holding strong that the show’s producers deliberately misrepresented him.
The post-Office documentary David Brent is a fascinating, yet still loathsome beast. No one in human history has ever had such a unique combination of a crippling need to be liked with a complete dearth of social skills and general humanity to accomplish that goal. But what he does have, is cameras. David says The Office producers deliberately portrayed him to be a villain yet here they are again, welcomed into his life as he travels around from sad bar appearance to sad bar appearance.
When a person at a local convenience store commits the cardinal sin of not knowing who he is, David says, under his breath: “What have you ever done on telly? Nothing.” And then again, when an anonymous dating show goes about as poorly as it possibly can go and the woman who rejects him utters “David Brent? Who the fuck’s that?” he spits back “Who are you! What have you been on before? Nothing,” as if it were a reflex…which it basically is.
Naturally, David spends a lot of his time back at the Wernham Hogg office – a place he supposedly hates for making his position redundant but also a place he can’t seem to keep himself away from. He won a 40,000-pound settlement from Wernham Hogg for hiring Gareth to his old position after it was supposedly made redundant, which he promptly blows on producing an atrocious single that sold 150-some copies.
Aside from Gareth in charge, things haven’t changed much. Tim still haunts the place, looking for a partner to torment Gareth with now that Dawn is in Tampa with her fiancé, Lee. Things are as bland and grim as they’ve ever been and even grimmer so with the prospect of an office Christmas party hanging overhead. But that’s where The Office Christmas special makes the best of its mockumentary format. The now commonplace mockumentary-style basically means any sitcom where the characters occasionally talk to the camera. The Office, however, makes the absolute best of it. An unseen producer behind camera floats an offer to Dawn and Lee to cover their travel expenses back to Slough for the Christmas party, which they accept.
In real life, people move away and you’re likely to lose touch with them. Tim made a move for Dawn’s heart and he failed so she moves away to Florida. If this weren’t a TV show, that would likely be the end of it. But the producers of The Office are capable of changing the script a bit – so to speak. Ostensibly, they’re trying to capture real life…but wouldn’t real life be a little bit more interesting if Tim and Dawn met each other one last time, tipsy off eggnog in a dimly-lit office?
At first, their investment in a plane ticket looks to have been a sunk cost. Dawn arrives at the office before the party and while everyone is happy to see her, Tim is sadly but believably awkward. Then slowly but surely they start to fall into their old relationship, playfully fucking with Gareth with gay innuendos. Then the Christmas party stars and everything is great. Despite being a Dante-ian hellscape from no return, the Wernham Hogg office actually seems to be a pretty good time. From the outside looking in as a viewer, you can still see the melancholy aspect of Christmas. You can see the sad fact that this is just a reasonably budgeted corporate event with safe plastic cups to drink out of. But the employees are legitimately having a great time – even David who undeservedly found the one woman in England who finds him charming. There’s a moment where you can feel the promise of Christmas – the concept that a holiday may actually be a holy day where something special can happen. Then Lee bitches out and makes Dawn leave early with him.
That’s that. The party is still fun for Tim and it’s undeniably great that he got to see an old coworker that he connected with. Still, despite the best efforts of the The Office’s producers, there was no miracle. Dawn goes home. Tim then speaks to the camera in what surely must be the most genuine, articulate, yet bittersweet soliloquy about the triumphs and frustrations of every day life ever spoken in a sitcom.
“The people you work with are people you were just thrown together with,” he begins. “You don’t know them. You had no choice. And yet you spend more time with them than you do your friends and your family. But probably all you’ve got in common is that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day. So obviously when someone comes in who you have a connection with…yeah. Dawn was a ray of sunshine in my life and it meant a lot but if I’m really being honest I never thought it would have a happy ending. I don’t know what a happy ending is. Life isn’t about endings is it? It’s a series of moments. You turn the camera off, it’s not an ending, is it? I’m still here. My life’s not over. Come back in ten years and see how I’m doing then. I could be married with kids. You never know. Life just goes on.”
The Office Christmas special is a great Christmas special because it captures the melancholy of Christmas as just another day that’s supposed to be a special but isn’t. The Office Christmas special is a perfect masterpiece of a Christmas special for what comes next.
Tim gives Dawn a secret Santa gift of oil paints and a drawing she once gave him with the message to never give up her dream of becoming an artist. She finally comes to her senses, dumps her loser finace and returns to the party to kiss Tim.
The Office was a hilarious, but dark show where people’s dreams and aspirations were rarely, if ever, realized. The Office Christmas special is a great Christmas special and a perfect ending to the series because for once, on one seemingly normal day, a miracle finally happens. The miracle happens partly through the obligation Christmas creates to bring people together and the producers’ deep pockets to bring Dawn to Slough. Still, the legwork for the miracle was done by the hard work of two people who did everything they could to make it clear they cared about each other.
The Office Christmas special then captures the real secret of the season: it can be melancholy or it can be miraculous. All it does it bring people together and then we decide the rest.