David Brent shoots for stardom in Life on the Road

Fame is a very different beast now than it was when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant first introduced the world to David Brent, the painfully awkward general manager of mid-size paper merchant Wernham-Hogg, and star of the BBC’s game-changing mockumentary series The Office.

“It’s worse than it was 15 years ago,” Gervais says now. “The Office came out of those quaint docu-soaps where an ordinary guy got his 15 minutes of fame. We’ve had all those talent shows — Big Brother, The Apprentice — and the world’s changed, it’s more demanding.”

In a world where neither talent nor merit are necessary to become famous any more, Brent finds himself still anchored to the bottom of the fame pool, clawing and scratching his way through an endless procession of reality stars and manufactured celebrities for a glimpse at the surface.

David Brent: Life on the Road is the intimate, cringe-inducing record of Brent’s last charge, a tour diary of the self-managed and self-financed “tour” he embarks on with Foregone Conclusion, a band of session musicians he’s paid to back him as he sings his awfully misguided, universally derided and occasionally racist adult contemporary pop songs. Even Brent suspects this is his final shot at stardom, cashing in his pensions and taking time off from his job as a sales rep at a restroom supply company to pay his way around the pubs and nightclubs of the greater Berkshire area.

Just as Brent’s insatiable appetite for fame has grown ever more blood-thirsty over 15 years, it seems so too has Gervais’s penchant for cruelty towards his most indelible creation. The Office was famous for the discomfort its main character elicited through his incompetence, awkwardness and burning desperation to be liked. But, importantly — and this is probably why The Office will remain one of television’s all-time great achievements — the cringe was always couched in just enough humanity to keep things bearable and inject some real emotional exploration underneath the comedy. Wernham-Hogg’s David Brent wasn’t a bad guy, he just tried way too hard to belong.

There was only one moment in The Office where a character was genuinely mean to Brent’s face and it occurred in the series’ Christmas special, giving viewers two full seasons’ worth of time to first cultivate their hatred of Brent. But even though he was at the height of his insufferability, the interaction still felt horribly direct and mean-spirited. In the scene, Brent leaves a meeting with the new general manager, where he was told he’s no longer allowed to visit the office for social calls. He addresses the office:

David: Who wants to go for a drink tomorrow? Yeah? Anyone?
David: Short notice. What about day after that? Have a beer, just... Thursday’s good. For me, anyway.
David: What’s good for you? I can still come for meetings. Who wants a meeting?
Anne: No one wants a meeting with you, no one wants a drink with you. You don’t even work here.

It looks benign on the page, but that last line is positively dripping with disdain. For most of the series, the office employees dealt with their feelings toward Brent by simply trying to avoid him, rather than scolding or insulting him to his face. But this scene, barely 10 minutes from the end of the entire series, finally pierces Brent’s self-awareness bubble and forces him, for a single agonising moment, to come to grips with the depth of his unpopularity. It sticks out as a particularly excruciating scene in one of the most difficult viewing experiences in television history.

But now it’s 2016 and viewers have cringed their way through Curb Your Enthusiasm, Nathan For You and The Eric Andre Show, all of which make The Office look about as transgressive as Two and a Half Men. Gervais, perhaps recognising the direction in which the wind has been blowing since 2001, has responded by doubling down on the cruelty, and interactions like the above are now the rule and not the exception in Life on the Road.

Almost everyone Brent deals with — workmates, bosses, venue managers, even his own bandmates — are outwardly hateful towards him practically all of the time. Talking heads interviews with the session musicians of Foregone Conclusion reveal that they have absolutely nothing positive to say about the man paying them to accompany him on the road. Audiences only give him their attention when he’s offending them or shooting them in the face with a T-shirt cannon, otherwise they stare blankly as he groans his way through songs like “Equality Street” and “Lady Gypsy”. Even the man Brent has paid to be the sound engineer for the tour tries to convince him to cut his losses and go home early.

It’s Olympic-level cringe throughout, but there are none of the humanising elements that generated empathy (and therefore watchability) in The Office, apart from an abrupt and ham-fisted pitch for pathos in the film’s final 20 minutes. And perhaps worst of all, it’s not even particularly funny. It’s like while being laser focused on dredging up past glories, Gervais forgot what made his creation so compelling in the first place.

And that’s the obvious question ultimately posed by Life on the Road: is the last ditch attempt at greatness here actually Ricky Gervais’s? It’s relatively widely accepted that apart from his two early television hits, Gervais has struggled to create anything else of lasting value. Has he coaxed his old faithful comedy character out of retirement for one last, ill-advised small venue tour? It’s hard to come up with another reason why there needed to be a David Brent movie in 2016. Even Stephen Merchant seems pointedly keen to clarify that Gervais alone is responsible for this one.

Perhaps Gervais can learn from the uncomfortable (and, in the context of the film, predictable) revelation Brent has towards the end of Life on the Road: sometimes you need to learn to be happy with where you are and what you’ve already achieved.

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