The original UK version of The Office is, without a doubt, one of the greatest TV series of all time. All the critics and viewers agree – it ranks alongside even the likes of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. David Brent is one of the most iconic British comedy characters ever created – he’s as iconic as Basil Fawlty or Alan Partridge. But as great as it was, The Office unfortunately only lasted for two seasons and a Christmas special (which acted as a kind of series finale to wrap the whole thing up). The hugely successful American remake went on for over 200 episodes on NBC, but there were only ever 13 episodes of the original UK version. Still, despite such a short run, this show managed to be massively influential. With their series, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant revolutionized TV comedy. Every other sitcom on the air these days is a mockumentary – Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and of course, the American remake of The Office – complete with signature talking heads and looks to the camera at awkward moments. That all started with The Office! So, here are all 13 episodes of the original UK edition of The Office, ranked from worst to best.
13. Work Experience
The premise of the second episode of The Office, “Work Experience,” doesn’t exactly set up much of a plot. It’s a funny idea – a Photoshopped image of David in the place of the woman in a pornographic scene getting emailed around the office – but it’s not enough to drive a plot. The ending of the episode saves it, as it closes with one of the most awkward and uncomfortable and brutally hilarious moments in the history of cringe comedy. As Jennifer arrives and demands that David discipline whoever created the image, David launches into a tirade against Tim. Then Tim reveals that it wasn’t him and it was in fact David’s buddy Chris Finch. All of a sudden, David isn’t bothered by it anymore and says that he thinks the picture is “bloody hilarious,” and tries to turn it all around, no matter how agonizingly shallow and obvious that is. Then Jennifer tells David to call Finchy and fire him, so he pretends to do that and Jennifer catches him on the line with a speaking clock. After a long, awkward silence, Tim ends the episode with the perfect punchline: “Does anyone have the time?” So, without that ending, this episode would risk being a disappointment.
The first episode of any show is never its best. The creator or creators have a pretty vague idea of what they want the show to be. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant knew that they wanted to do a workplace comedy that was set in an office in the style of reality shows or docuseries that might be set in the same place. They also knew generally who their main characters were and what their lives entailed. Unfortunately, after Gervais and Merchant had walked into all this new territory and established the style of their show – which is ten a penny now, but was pretty novel and original back then – and also introduced all the characters and what their relationships, they didn’t really have much time for a plot. Apart from introducing the impending downsize – which is very ballsy for the very first episode of a show about an office, by the way, to have the boss come in and suggest that it might be getting shut down soon – this episode is relatively plotless. It’s more or less just a series of scenes connected by nothing other than it being the same characters in the same office. It’s a little aimless and suffers because of it.
The series 1 finale of The Office is an emotionally trying one. At the beginning, Tim is talking about how he doesn’t want to be stuck behind a desk, working for a paper merchants, for the rest of his life. But by the end, he’s been offered a promotion and he’s using corporate metaphors and talking like David Brent! This is sad for two reasons – one, because it shows us that Tim is headed down the wrong path and his dreams are dead, and two, because it offers a glimpse into a young and ambitious Brent, who once dreamed of leaving the paper company to do greater things before he became the corporate monstrosity that we see today. All the stuff where Brent tries to blag that he faked his way through a medical test in order to keep the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg open comes off as a bit weird, but the scene in which he tells the staff that he has “some good news and some bad news” – that some of them will be sacked and that he’s been promoted – and the staff object to David’s personal victory being “good news” is brilliantly funny. This episode works nicely as a bookend to the first season of the show, since we see David fire a forklift driver in this finale episode and it’s the same forklift driver we saw him hiring in the opening episode of the season. So, it brought things full circle in a very strong way in this sense.
10. New Girl
All of the strong points in series 1’s “New Girl” episode come in its second half, as we get to see how all the Wernham Hogg employees from the Slough branch act on a night out. David gets really drunk and really loud and tries to chat up girls who have no interest in him at all and ends making a scene and then Tim has to escort him home after he drinks too much. Don’t we all know someone who’s just like that? In fact, haven’t we all been like that ourselves at one point or another? That’s what makes it so funny to watch. Unfortunately, we can all relate. And then we get to intermittently see what everyone else is up to. Gareth gets himself caught up in a couple’s weird threesome fantasy as a guy watches Gareth making out with his wife and then invites him home. At first, he refuses, but in the end, we see him driving out of the car park with them, so he obviously came around. And then there’s Finchy, who’s such a brash and obnoxious and self-obsessed and unlikable jerk and ends up getting a girl in the end. We all know someone like that, too.
The problem with the series 2 episode “Party” is that nothing really happens. It opens with the birthday celebrations for Trudy, one of the new additions to the staff from the Swindon branch, where she receives a series of tasteless gifts, like a leather basque and a neon pink dildo with a bunch of different settings. And then later, at her party, we are treated to less of a plot and more of a string of hilarious moments. There’s the moment in which David shows off his boots (“You don’t see many of those around these days.” “You can still fine ‘em.”), or the scene where Tim enters a meeting with David and Neil and plants the dildo on David’s desk – or the scene later on where David is hired for a management training course and then discovers it on his desk and confronts the whole office about it. The episode is funny, which is the most important thing, but without an awful lot of character development (apart from Tim getting a new romantic interest and drifting apart from Dawn, which was a very interesting way to shake up the character dynamics) or conflict driving the plot, it’s not all that engaging.
For all intents and purposes, this was the final episode of the show. This was the series finale. It was the last proper episode, and then Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant decided to do the two part Christmas special in order to give the series a more rounded and complete conclusion (but more on that later). “Interview” is a somewhat melancholic episode, as it chronicles the last day in office for David Brent after being made redundant. For the whole episode, he’s acting really chill about it and saying his goodbyes to everyone in the office and being interviewed for a trade magazine. By the way, speaking of which, guest star Olivia Colman, who would go on to become a huge star of British movies and TV shows, does a great job of playing it straight opposite Brent’s madness as the journalist who is interviewing him. But the best moment of this episode – and maybe the finest piece of acting in the whole of Ricky Gervais’ career – is when the cracks start to show and we see how depressed David is and he gets a lump in his throat as he begs for his job back. That scene elevates this episode to a whole new level of emotion.
7. The Quiz
Ricky Gervais has said that Finchy is the only character in the entire show who is a genuinely unlikable person, the kind of person who you actually wouldn’t like in real life. But like Lee, he is painfully identifiable. Just like we all know a Lee, we all know a Finchy. We all know someone who holds everyone who’s young and has a college education in contempt and thinks they’re smarter than everybody else and gets irrationally angry when they’re proven wrong or when they don’t get their way. We also all know someone who thinks they’re hilarious when really their jokes make everyone totally uncomfortable. That’s all perfectly on display in “The Quiz,” which focuses on the feud between Finchy and Ricky (the UK counterparts of Todd Packer and Ryan Howard, respectively). It’s a hilarious episode, with some great comic moments (“Fray Bentos” etc.). As with all episodes of The Office, there’s a stronger focus on character than story, and that’s what makes it so terrific and engaging. “The Quiz” developed David Brent as someone who sees himself as the funniest person in the office who everyone finds hilarious. It also dug a little deeper with Tim’s feelings for Dawn, and as always, the character moments were masterfully subtle. It’s not the show’s best show, but it’s far from its worst.
6. Christmas Special
Inspired by the similarly short run of the similarly amazing British comedy series Fawlty Towers, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were determined to stop after two seasons. But thank God the pair decided to come back for a Christmas special in order to properly wrap things up. Make no mistake – this isn’t the kind of Christmas special where the characters have to get to the North Pole in order to meet Santa and save the holidays. It’s framed as a “Where are they now?” type documentary in a world where the original series has aired on the BBC and one interesting point sees Brent asserting that the way the series was edited made him look like more of an idiot than he actually is. Maybe this is true. Maybe Brent is competent after all. It’s an intriguing twist and it’s also crazy postmodern. The Office’s two part Christmas special more of a series finale that brings a satisfying conclusion to every plot point in the whole series. If you’d been a diehard fan of the show since the very beginning, then this was the episode you’d been waiting for. Against all odds, Tim and Dawn finally got together. David Brent found happiness when a dating agency – following some truly disastrous dates – set him up with the perfect woman. He finally stood up to Finchy and told him to “f**k off.” It wasn’t the best episode of the lot, but it was the perfect ending for the series.
As with all TV shows that kick off with a fantastic first season from the get-go (like Arrested Development, Rick and Morty, and The Leftovers, to name a few), the season 2 premiere episode of The Office had a lot to live up to. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had set a very high benchmark of quality for themselves and they had to keep things funny, original, fresh, and new for their second series. But thankfully, as “Merger” showed us, they were more than up for the challenge. If anything, season 2 is even greater than season 1. It expanded the scope of the series by bringing in new characters, including a business rival for Brent and a new love interest for Tim. All of a sudden, this already brilliant series had become even more interesting and engaging than before. There’s also some serious moments of drama in “Merger.” A newly promoted Tim is not being as fun with Dawn as he was before, and when he finally comes to his sense and starts having fun with her again, Lee catches them dancing and slams him into a wall. Geez, what a moment. It’s a more realistic version than the American counterpart, which sees Roy attack Jim and Dwight mace him. This one feels so real and that’s what makes it so shocking. It’s powerful stuff.
The episode “Appraisals” is full of hilarious moments: Mr. Sidney Poitier, charity wank-a-thon training, “Under weakness, you put eczema,” etc. The episode works, because we’ve all been through an appraisal from our boss. We know what it’s like. It’s usually not this funny, but we can relate. Ricky Gervais and Martin Freeman were notorious for breaking character and laughing during takes, so the scene in which David gives Tim his appraisal took them a whopping 74 takes to get through. The scene in this episode in which David gives Keith his appraisal and tries to get him through the questionnaire that he left blank and David slowly loses the will to live is both hilarious and infuriating. But we’re with David on that one. The Office never disconnects from its audience. There’s always someone who we’re going along with in any given moment. It’s usually the office employees who we empathize with, as they feel awkward or uncomfortable or embarrassed around their boss David Brent. In this scene, it’s actually David who we empathize with. We get frustrated with Keith at the same rate that he does. It’s actually not easy to pull off, to make sure that the audience is always in one character’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective. It actually enhances the comedy. It’s genius.
The character of David Brent is so fantastic that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant could take a premise as simple as “David gets hired to give a fifteen minute talk on how to become a success in the world of business,” and spin it into something that is endlessly hilarious. For starters, they have him gearing himself up for the gig (he sees it as a gig, like he’s a rock star), trying out his tips and techniques on Gareth, and then they have him dress casually before the event, which looks like a ‘90s disco nightmare. Then, before he goes on, he gets the guy who hired him to take some awkward glamor shots of him and stops by the vending machines to chat to a couple of guys who are smoking a joint and tries to seem cool to them (“I’m mad enough without the stuff”). And then we get the pièce de résistance. He goes up, gives his speech, it goes horribly (he contemplates life with no arms and no legs and then charges out of the room set to Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best”), and he somehow comes out of it thinking he did amazingly and inspired a ton of people. It’s just hilarious from start to finish. This whole episode might just be Brent’s finest hour.
“Training” is not only one of the very best episodes of The Office – it’s also the best kind of episode of The Office. See, the key difference between the British version and the American version of the show is the realism. The British version felt so much more brutally real than the American version. In the American remake of the show, Dunder Mifflin often felt like it would be a fun place to work. But in the original British version, Wernham Hogg always seemed like the most terribly depressing place to work. It felt like a real office, so it was more relatable. A perfect example of this is the training day that they have. We’ve all had one of those, where we have to sit together in a circle of chairs and watch slides and listen to some guy who’s come in from corporate headquarters as he rattles off every cliched metaphor for sales and motivation and overcoming workplace challenges that you can think of. Plus, this episode is rammed with classic moments from the show, like when Tim asks out Dawn and awkwardly tries to cover it up when he finds out she’s still with Lee – and, of course, all the moments with David’s guitar.
As the episode with the David Brent dance, this automatically becomes the greatest episode of the show, because it has what is arguably the most hilarious moment of cringe comedy in history. But there’s also some substance to this episode. Sure, it all revolves around the Wernham Hogg employees’ antics on Red Nose Day – the Wonder Woman costume, the Ali G costume, Gareth hopping around, Dawn’s kisses for a pound, Tim hiding all of Gareth’s belongings, the pantsing prank – but there’s a running thread that Neil and Jennifer are becoming disappointed with David’s performance in his job, and then the bombshell of his redundancy comes out of nowhere. And trust Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to be able to bring this sad and devastating moment back around by undercutting it with a moment of sheer awkward hilarity. When they have David stand up from behind his desk to reveal that he’s in costume in a sort of homage to Rod Hull, it’s a hysterical contrast between two moods. This juxtaposition is just one example of what makes The Office so darn great. Merchant actually appears in the episode, too, as Gareth’s friend Oggy who David manages to insult so badly that he cries and storms out of the office. So many great moments in this episode.