In some ways, Work Experience exists as an extension of the first episode of The Office, in how it frames itself around a similar story structure.
Just as the tour that David Brent gives incoming temp Ricky works as a device to introduce Wernham Hogg and the culture within the office, here the action is framed around a similar tour being given to Donna, a new office assistant who Brent has taken on temporarily as a favour to his friends Ron & Elaine (the real life names of Stephen Merchant’s parents incidentally). Whereas Downsize was designed to use this device as a way of setting the scene of the office and Brent’s personality, Work Experience is predominantly focused on exploring the culture inside the office and, particularly, the institutionalised level of sexism that becomes apparent with the arrival of Donna and thanks to images being shared of pornography adapted for comedy purposes.
It makes a lot of sense for Ricky Gervais & Merchant to do this in the second episode, having established the setting, because the culture and tone employed in so crucial to understanding The Office and what the documentary captures about not just Wernham Hogg but office culture as a whole. Donna is young and attractive, if seemingly quite working class and with zero interest in a role she has clearly been corralled into doing, but the treatment of her is instantly appalling in a manner that the show recognises as such while mining as much comedy out of the built-in misogyny as possible. This is often the delicate balance The Office treads, and for the most part stays on the right side of – depicting cultural trends and behaviours in a corporate business environment that shouldn’t be present but have been allowed to perpetuate.
Work Experience doesn’t necessarily go down as the showiest episode of The Office, filled with truly memorable moments in the series’ run, but it’s a key establishing piece for the audience.
Donna is firmly a background character, similar to Ricky, in the sense that she serves more of a purpose beyond existing as a defined character herself in the same vein of Tim, Dawn or Gareth.
In this case, as played by Sally Bretton (who would go on to appear memorably in the deeply surrealist Green Wing), Donna is presented as a potential trophy to be guarded and coveted. Brent attempts to frame himself as her ‘guardian’, her ward with her parents away, but this never rings true – partly you suspect because Bretton is clearly older than the character was intended to be, so you never really get the sense she is young enough to be a wilfully bored late teenage girl who finds Brent’s world crushingly uncomfortable. Brent front loads the misogyny aimed at Donna by telling the male members of staff that her father is a police officer and “a bloody big bugger as well, so hands off”.
Donna is instantly sexualised by background male characters such as Jamie or the lugubrious Keith in front of the entire staff, and she is left to smile awkwardly, clearly deeply uncomfortable but unable in her position to challenge the behaviour.
Brent only does so when Patrick, a middle aged staff member, appears to cross a line in terms of his comment, but in reality what he says is no more suggestive and outright perverted than what the other guys say.
Indeed, interestingly, Brent has no issue with gags that involve penises, but the moment Patrick uses ‘tunnel’ as a proxy for vagina, he’s banished. That’s Brent’s taste line and perhaps his own prudishness coming into play. “I will not have her tunnel bandied about this office, willy nilly” he declares, before making Dawn complicit in a veiled attempt to make light of such comments. This leads to him branding her a “feminist” and for Gareth to bodge a reference to the ‘burn your bra’ movement that almost gets him thrown out too. What’s interesting is how Brent, in his chauvinism, equates feminism with Dawn’s violent challenge, as opposed to any simple rebuke of sexist, demeaning language toward women he allows to go unpunished.
Dawn doesn’t really strike you as a feminist either in any particular sense of that word. She doesn’t stand up for Donna or voice any kind of deep frustration at any of the sexist comments. Like most of the employees here, she has accepted the status quo and is too indolent to really do anything about it, while also aware she doesn’t have the voice to do so. She’s termed at multiple points as “just a receptionist” by Brent and others, with no value attached. She certainly wouldn’t subscribe to the questionable idea of feminism that Brent suggests and Gareth alludes to, hashing a reference to the Miss America pageant in 1968 that was protested by the Women’s Liberation Front; the image of them burning bras in protest carried down through the decades as a symbolic representation of militant feminist defiance that, as Jennifer Lee has suggested, distorted the image of feminism subsequently:
Bras were just one of the items protestors were encouraged to bring that day that signified how the male-dominated culture was keeping women locked into rigid ideas of beauty, but they weren’t burned. Starting a fire on the boardwalk was illegal, so protestors opted to Playboy magazines and other items in a Freedom Trash Can. Still, the bra-burning image remained—a symbol that was easy to belittle as women focusing on something trivial. Misinformation and myths sometimes serve as placeholders in our memory when facts are not remembered.
The Office appears self-aware when it comes to these issues in terms of critiquing them, even if it rarely presents the factual alternative.
Donna is certainly no feminist.
She takes a great deal of pleasure at the doctored image going around the office which we don’t see but is described as two men ejaculating over a woman’s chest with David’s head transplanted on, in an early example of Photoshopping. In fact, The Office shows a quaintness that dates it when Brent asks Donna if she’s ever used email (her reply is more or less ‘duh’). But Brent still remains, in terms of the image, protective. “Donna should not have to see me as a woman with two men doing that all over me.” This really just disguises his double standards and hypocrisy as a boss. He can forgive sexist remarks aimed at Donna, but he is apoplectic at himself being secretly sexualised for comedy purposes, predominantly because he has lost control of the joke. Brent is happy to provide the joke, or sanction the joke, but he cannot bear to be the joke. And this is the first example we see of how much he struggles when placed in that position.
There is some genuine nuance in how the porn image is handled which speaks to the deeper sexual psychology in Brent. He and Gareth spar over who is the most offended by degrading images of women, when in truth neither are at all. It is all for the camera. They are both misogynists, perhaps Gareth more intently than Brent, desperately trying to prove ‘feminist’ attributes because they understand culturally that sexist remarks are no longer PC, and will be frowned upon by the wider public.
There is a great moment where Brent is trying to prove the Internet is the real culprit behind the image that is spread around, desperately attempting to avoid or remove the point of the joke—a laugh at his expense by a staff who don’t respect him—by framing it as a consequence of a perverted Internet filled with perverted images. To prove his point he types in ‘sex fetish’ but adds when it loads “it takes a while”. He says this almost under his breath in collusion with Gareth and it’s a brilliant moment of inference, suggesting Brent is pretending to be offended about content he has accessed before, and probably regularly does.
This again shows how the comedy in The Office is working on multiple levels; what Brent & Gareth are saying is funny but the humour comes from the image they’re trying to portray of themselves for the unseen audience within the show.
The contradiction with Donna continues when, later, Brent attempts to ingratiate himself with her, Tim and Ricky (as they are goofing around doing the dance to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ rather than doing any work), by telling near the knuckle jokes.
His joke about “forever blowing Bubbles” is hashed up but Donna then pulls out a genuinely funny gag about George Michael’s latest release being “Wank Me Off Before You Go Go”, that makes Tim & Ricky laugh, but Brent can’t. This is another trend. Brent can never laugh at anyone else’s joke, with the exception of Chris Finch, for reasons we’ll discuss in more depth in The Quiz. Brent cannot cope with someone being visibly funnier than him, in the office space, because it undercuts his sense of control. So much of the humour, and his attempts at humour, come back to the kind of control he is subconsciously placing on Donna herself. This is where, again, the comedy would have more impact, and certainly be creepier, if Donna was played by a visibly younger actor.
This is possibly why Gervais & Merchant didn’t go down that route because it might have left Brent & Gareth fairly irredeemable if they were talking, in sexualised terms, about a visibly teenage girl. Gareth, after all, very much tries to scope out her availability on a sexual level, with Brent here as if he is not just her guardian but her owner, or keeper. “Look but don’t touch” he understands. “What d’you mean by look?” Brent counters, very defensive. His motivations are more about not getting a hiding from the off-screen Ron if Donna is ‘tarnished’ than protecting her honour, and you wonder quite if Brent was forced to take Donna under his wing as opposed to offering to do so. That’s a contract we don’t see and can only infer. All we understand is that Donna’s sexualisation, for the creepy edification of the entitled male staff, is treated differently to Brent’s comedic exposure. He considers that problematic, pretending his issue is women being degraded, but the real misogyny in Donna’s treatment is not considered of equal concern.
What happens instead is that Brent, in a classic example of entitled masculinity reinforcing those structures, employs Gareth to try and find out who mocked up the image of him, as a means of trying to show a semblance of responsibility in management for inappropriate workplace behaviour. Gareth, of course, turns it into his own vanity project to reinforce his own insecurity about being just another office worker with no additional standing, and a quasi-fantasy of him as some kind of detective looking to expose the culprit. He appropriates an office and engages in a play on ‘interrogation’ scenarios with various staff members, with Tim and Dawn eventually exposing the fallacy of the entire charade when Tim goads him into trying to sack him if he created the image.
In doing so, however, The Office shows its hand on an area of comedy that Gervais has always struggled to reconcile with his more progressive humour in terms of deconstructing racist and sexist mores: people with additional needs.
It is increasingly clear, and becomes ever more so during the series, that Gareth had undiagnosed additional needs.
Aspergers, ASD, OCD perhaps, but Gareth is more than just a jobsworth or a depressed fantasist like Brent. Gareth simply does not understand social cues in the manner of his colleagues, especially Tim and Dawn. He is a fool, of course. He does have his own delusions of grandeur, sure. But he also possesses a surety of his own abilities that only someone out of touch with objective reality would have, and the tragedy of Gareth is that this naïveté makes him easy to dupe and manipulate, or even pity. Tim & Dawn certainly manipulate him in quite a callous way through wordplay into suggesting he’s a “special needs child”. It’s surface level funny in terms of the wordplay but it’s cruel, and it actually exposes a truth about Gareth that Tim & Dawn prey upon. You can laugh with Gareth still when he says something stupid but it becomes harder to laugh at Gareth when you observe him through this prism.
You can see that in Donna, who he attempts to charm in his own ridiculous way while he interrogates her, by showing what he considers a softer side. “People think a strong man can’t be sensitive, but I’m thoughtful and caring”. Donna just thinks he’s pathetic but it does expose another side of The Office that serves as an undercurrent to the warped male psychology of the series – a belief in men being men, with all the built in misogyny and adhere to gender roles that brings. This will be explored more in later episodes but we see elements of it in Work Experience. Brent enjoys using a mobile phone to make a rubbish Dirty Harry gag, playing on the “did I fire five or six bullets?” moment from a Clint Eastwood character who exudes a rugged, cool masculinity. Later, in the warehouse, Jennifer is quite shockingly and openly sexually objectified by the boorish warehouse operatives led by Glen (aka ‘Taffy’, a name Brent thinks is a nickname but only he calls him) who says they “likes ‘em posh”. “What she needs is a good shagging!” another one adds to Brent after she’s gone.
It’s another example of the culture Brent has allowed to foster in that they don’t see anything in making loaded sexual comments to one of the senior figures in the company, because they know Brent would impose absolutely no sanctions. When Jennifer finds out that Taffy has a ‘video’ for Brent, she realises a clear truth: “This is just one big boy’s club, isn’t it? Seedy little men with their seedy little jokes”. Astonishingly, Brent’s suggestion for her to avoid ending up being objectified in that way again is not to go down to the warehouse, to actually avoid employees who will be enabled to speak to both a female and a senior member of staff that way. Brent ends up only outwardly moving to do anything about the porn image going around the office when Jennifer challenges his masculinity over it, threatening to do his job for him, and Brent then merely pretends to reprimand Finchy when he finds out it is him.
“Pathetic” Jennifer brands him and Brent has nowhere to go. He is simply revealed for what he is in terms of workplace attitudes toward sexist and misogynist language.
Around the central theme of appropriate workplace behaviour is also the ongoing arc of impending downsizing, with staff understandably anxious that they might be made redundant given the impending decision about a merger.
Brent considers himself steering a ship based on complete trust, and that his word on this is law. He is more concerned about his image as a leader, which is based on aspects of his personality and his broader delusions: “I’m just saying when people say ‘Would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss?’ my answer’s the same – to me, they’re not mutually exclusive. There’s a weight of intellect behind my comedy. Yeah? If you were to ask me to name three geniuses, I probably wouldn’t say Einstein, Newton… you know. I’d go Milligan, Cleese, Everett…. Sessions.” What’s interesting about this is how Brent believes that running a business in a leadership role equates to performance, and he believes morale and inspiration comes from parroted comedy. Brent cannot see how his belief that quoting classic comedians and performances is purely designed for his benefit rather than for his staff. Merger will later painfully make this more apparent.
Crucially, Brent is also not adopting any of the hard changes he needs to make in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, mainly because he doesn’t want to lose his position, as he sees it, as the friend of his employees. When asked by Jennifer what steps he has taken, Brent replies with meaningless jargon which she describes as “management speak”. She adds “you hate that” and this too is intriguing, because it suggests Brent has positioned himself to Jennifer as a straight-shooter; the kind of manager who ostensibly cuts through the bullshit, but the moment he is challenged to make real changes he falls into jargon that he believes he can use as a shield.
He tells Jennifer he’s done the opposite of what she wanted, to prepare the staff for probable redundancies, and displays his ultimate disregard for their intelligence when she suggests it’s a more harmful tactic in the long run with “They won’t remember.” Brent really believes this, that his rhetoric will save him, and that the staff around him will just accept his own sense of reality. He even lies to Jennifer by inventing a staff member he has made redundant, a warehouse employee named ‘Julie Anderton’, in order to get her off his back. “You backed me into a corner” is his response when she finds out the truth. Again, this reinforces how strongly Brent has fashioned his own reality within Wernham Hogg, free of objectivity and the kind of accountability he is now threatened with.
As a second episode, Work Experience continues to set in place aspects of The Office that will carry through both seasons, on a narrative level and when it comes to the deeper exploration of our primary characters and the comic situation they inhabit. While sometimes it gives way to the sexist attitudes of the time, it mostly works to try and expose them for what they are in a progressive fashion and on that level, The Office is somewhat ahead of it’s time. It remains unafraid to shine a light on entrenched office cultures that, even just twenty years on, feel beyond the pale.
Check out our other reviews of The Office Series 1 here:
- Work Experience
- The Quiz
- New Girl