Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Office: The cutting room floor

Since it's a slow day with no new column and no TV from last night to comment on (thank God for "The O.C." tonight, or I'd have no new episodes to blog about for quite a while), I wanted to throw out a thought that's been rattling around in my head since my interview last week with Ricky Gervais.

We were talking about the documentary framing of "The Office" and how the camera crew no doubt brought out the worst in David Brent, and Gervais said that David was too naive and fame-hungry to realize the filmmakers would only include his bad moments.

"So, wait," I asked, stunned. "Does that mean David had good moments that didn't make final cut?"
"Absolutely," he said.
"Like, there were times when he successfully told jokes that other people found funny?"
"Absolutely."

This sent my mind spinning, to the point where I'm not sure what we talked about for the rest of the hour. (God bless digital recorders.) When I watch a real documentary or reality show, it's with the understanding that the filmmakers/producers are shaping events to tell the story they want to, but it never for a second occurred to me that what we were seeing with "The Office" was anything but an objective view of David's life. Now, I feel like I need to go back and watch the entire British series to reimagine what David -- or Gareth, or Tim, or even Keith -- must have been doing right in between the scenes that made final cut.

I haven't had a chance yet to ask Greg Daniels if he views his show the same way (UPDATE: check the comments for some Greg thoughts), but just as an exercise, what aspects of characters from either show could you imagine being dropped from the documentary episodes?

24 comments:

Adam said...

Wow. I'm dizzy. I'm now imagining a female camera operator with a secret crush on Jim, much like what's-his-name focusing on Keira Knightley in Love, Actually.

And a world in which Stanley is generally energetic and happy, and not just on Pretzel Day.

Alan Sepinwall said...

See? It really makes you start questioning everything.

Anonymous said...

Where can I find that interview? It sounds really interesting.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Nowhere yet. I haven't even transcribed it. It'll probably run either the day "Extras" returns (Jan. 14) or a few days before that. Depending on how ambitious I'm feeling, I may do what I did with the Leary/Tolan interview and run a full transcript here. (Only problem is, we talked at length about "Extras" season two, and I don't like posting spoilers, even for a comedy.)

Anonymous said...

I'd imagine we'd see more moments of Ryan actually being interested in Kelly (as glimpsed in the last episode) and of Michael actually doing his job well (as in the Chili's and New York episodes).

I kind of doubt Greg Daniels feels the same way, though, because there are a lot of times where it feels like the writers completely forget about the documentary angle. Dwight's initiation of Ryan comes to mind as one example and I'm sure there are plenty more.

Fred App said...

Technically speaking, I guess, what winds up on the cutting room floor on the American version is what you see under "deleted scenes" on the DVD. But I haven't seen anything there that makes Stanley look happier, Michael more professional, or Ryan more infatuated. There are scenes, though, that prove Kevin should be featured more prominently.

R.A. Porter said...

There's a difference between the real cutting room floor of Greg Daniels and the virtual cutting room floor of the fictional documentarians. The deleted scenes on the DVDs aren't going to include those cuts.

Anonymous said...

You might find this interesting:

http://girlintheattic.livejournal.com/66505.html

Jason said...

Well, the famous example is "This Is Spinal Tap," which the in-character members of Tap insist was a hatchet job that only showed them at their worst. It's not a bad conceit, especially for a comedy that's outrageous yet supposedly real. If it were really that bad all the time, it would be ridiculous, no?

Alan Sepinwall said...

So I e-mailed Greg Daniels after posting this entry, and he wrote back to say that, intrigued as he is by Gervais' approach/theory, "we have been playing the documentary crew as being pretty fair, even though the characters would argue with that."

And my friend Phil attempted to blow my mind by asking, "What if Jim and Pam and/or Karen is no more real than Survivor I's Greg and Colleen?"

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure Greg and Colleen never kissed on camera. Or told the camera crew they were "into" each other.

J said...

While conceptually it's an intriguing game, it really sounds like Gervais' ego at work. While actors love to play villains, they (especially comedic actors) also need to feel loved.

Gervais has cooked up alternate-reality where his character's best moments are now offscreen. You can't even see how great a guy he was.

Dan Coyle said...

15 years ago, there was a short-lived series called Arresting Behavior that was a sitcom about cops followed by a Cops type news crew- a real progenitor to The Office (though far more broad and silly). The best joke on the show was one of the camermen outrunning the cop chasing a perp. The show was sort of evenhanded, though the crew would find their way into the kids' lives too, strangely.

Interestingly, Ron Edlard and Chris Mulkey were on the show, and played the exact same characters on Bakersfield P.D., the goofy dreamer cop and the complete psycho cop. Of course, the show had the same writers. If you're gonna swipe, swipe from yourself. That way you steal from the best.

I hate to say this, Alan, but I think Gervais was having a bit of fun with you, like Grant Morrison making noise about his Marvel 2099 revamp or threatening to start a massive lawsuit against the Wachowskis for stealing The Invisibles to make The Matrix.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Dan and J, I don't think Ricky was messing me, or going on an ego trip. In the larger context of the conversation, he wasn't trying to suggest that there was a vast difference between the David we saw and the "real" David -- just that David was capable, from time to time, of not being a total screw-up. But the price of the fame he wanted so badly from being in the documentary was the filmmakers excising even the faintest trace of competence or charm.

Nilco said...

The difference between the both OFFICE's, the Brits and the US versions, is the former had a real documentary crew editing what we saw and the latter is the fake crew that follows us all around in our fake little TV programs.

I think this is the only way the american show could work as well as it has.
There's no way a real office could function under the production schedule of a lengthy american episode order.
Plus, when's the last time you saw a body mike on the american show?
It's the reality show that's in all our heads.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Nilco, the American documentary crew is absolutely real. We've seen numerous pieces off evidence: characters removing body mics, Pam and Jim interacting with the camera man, Karen commenting on how Jim is always making faces at the camera, etc.

Now, the nature of the film is still up in the air. Greg has said they might be foreign filmmakers (hence the original "The Office: An American Workplace" title) and that the final product will air in another country, or they could be like Frederick Wiseman or David Sutherland or the "Hoop Dreams" guys, where they shoot miles of footage for years before the end product is completed and aired.

At some point, Greg wants to deal with the characters getting a look at the film/show, but I imagine it would have to be at or near the end of the series, because Michael will be fired on the spot as soon as Jan or someone higher up in corporate sees even 10 minutes of this.

Nilco said...

I don't remember the americans ever removing mics but take your word for it.
The brits removed them several times.

You bring up good points, but I contend the characters are just breaking the 4th wall with the show.
Often times they pause to reflect like Michael in the hallway before departing for "Asian Hooters" , when seconds before we saw the line of men exiting.
In the episode where Michael kisses Oscar, Dwight sits commenting on his disgust (in his aside) but tries it himself (in the meeting room). Dwight didn't have time to sitdown for the interview before the about-face.

Now, I know reality shows are all about distorting time etc, but the second example has me only fastening my mind around the aside idea.

I'll believe Greg on the american documentary airing when we get there.

BTW- the best scene last week was Angela taking pride in how well she holds a grudge.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Off the top of my head, Michael removes his radio mic in "The Injury" so he can go into the MRI room with Dwight.

There are just too many explicit references to the camera crew -- say, Jan realizing she just kissed Michael on-camera in "Valentine's Day" -- for me to dismiss the concept as a fanwank.

Anonymous said...

There was also an episode shortly after the Jan/Michael kiss where they're on the phone and she asks him if the camera crew is there. He says no, but when she realizes he's lying quickly hangs up.

Dan Coyle said...

I don't see as many explicit indications that the camera crew is real as I did on the BBC version, but the characters do react as if there's something other than a fourth wall there. I contend it's probably a James/Wiseman scenario. The crew is just shooting footage for some weird American workplace epic the producer has worked out in his head and has bank enough to go pretty far with it.

Anonymous said...

It is clear that the American version takes greater efforts to portray Michael as an occasionally competent boss (something I've seen Daniels admit in interivews). If you accept Gervais' conceit that the UK documentary only protrayed David's bad side, you would have to assume that either (1) the U.S. version of the documentary takes greater efforts to make Michael look occasionally competent; or (2) Michael is in fact more competent than David.

Anonymous said...

Since I've watched the entire second season of The Office in the last several weeks, and just started the third, I can say that the characters are definitely camera aware- there's even an episode in the first half of season 2 in which the cameraman crosses the line a bit:

Pam asks the cameraman to look out for someone eating a candy bar (as Angela has mysteriously just bought two instead of one). Later, the cameraman moves up to Pam, gets close, and waits. "What?" she says to the camera, and then the camera urgently swings over to Dwight, eating one of the candy bars. The camera swings back for Pam's reaction, but then continues on Dwight, so dunces in the viewing office can put it all together.

Also, Michael is, moreso in America than elseware, prime defendant material, but he has managed several times to exhibit competence (generally while getting his buyer hammered). Likewise, Dwight is the best salesman in the office, even though Jim seems like the guy that isn't too crazy to buy from.

Gish said...

Alan,

I am a little surprised that the idea of Brent being a decent guy is that much of a surprise. I always took it to be the ultimate point of the Xmas Special. It starts out with Brent complaining about how unfairly he is treated on the "show." I initially took that as him just not being self aware, but the ending changes that. Over the final scene, Brent gives a decent speech about what it means to live a full life, and then we see the whole Office legitimately laugh at one of his impressions. I always took that to mean he was at least partially right and that the Xmas Special was a purposeful tweak on reality television. The point where they offer to fly Pam and Lee home is an obvious manipulation of events to create drama, something we didn't see in the first two seasons.

Matthew said...

This has to be the most pointless discussion I've ever read. Gervais' original comments were taken way too literally. Clearly, his point was that the character of David Brent had no idea he would end up looking bad on the fictional documentary, which sort of explains away the fact that he didn't try to behave himself when the camera was on. Alan, what is your point that the documentary crew is "real?" There is no "real" documentary crew in the American version, and any extent to which thete is a real one in the BBC version is if Gervais and Merchant hired crew members with a documentary background.