Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Racism Served Hot or Cold

How would you like your racism served to you, sir?

First on the menu, we have William Monahan’s The Departed, which won him this year’s Oscar for Best Writing. Let us see how he serves us our racism.

The Departed begins with Jack Nicholson saying the following lines (and since this is a family-friendly column, I’ll bleep the least offensive word in there): “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago, we had the church. That was only a way of saying, we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers, true Guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a f***ing job, we had the presidency... May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this: No one gives a deal. You have to take it.”

So the audience hears this. Is it then outraged? Do some people walk out the way they did on Michael Richards? Probably not.

That’s because Monahan does two things, and he does them simultaneously.

First of all, he’s blunt as hell right off the bat. He slams those expletives right in our faces, getting us to prick up our ears. But at the same time, he does something else. The lines are written in such a way as to signal anyone who hears or reads them that this is the way the character speaks and not the stance of the writer. In fact, the text is written in such a way as to make us say “Yes, that’s right, that’s how he’d say it” almost as soon as the expletives are uttered. So with the first punch, Monahan gets us to stand up, then immediately sucker-punches us, getting us to sit back down.

Monahan forces two thoughts into our brains: ‘This is wrong’, followed immediately by ‘This is how people like the Nicholson character speak’. And then we’re left to ourselves to combine those two statements into one conclusion.

Later on in the movie, Nicholson and his Irish gang have a ‘business meeting’ in an abandoned warehouse with an Asian gang. The two gangs face each other, and Nicholson says, “I’m concerned about a Chinaman who thinks it’s wise to come to a business transaction with automatic weapons.”

The leader of the Asian gang answers in a foreign language. Before listening to the translation, Nicholson says, “For his own good, tell Bruce Lee and the Karate Kids that none of us are carrying automatic weapons. Because here, in this country, it don’t add inches to your dick. You get a life sentence for it.”

It’s the “in this country” that’s actually racist in those two lines. It carries with it a truly superior air. In this country, it implies, we do things like civilized beings; in other countries, you do thing like chimps.

Monahan does it to us again, because as we read/hear these lines, we also immediately think: “This is how Nicholson’s character would, in real life, say it,” Getting us to sit back down again. And getting us to think that pesky third thought again. If you didn’t catch yourself thinking the second or the third though as you read the last two lines from the movie, test yourselves as you read this exchange:

A minute or two later, as the two gangs are still standing opposite each other in the warehouse, Nicholson says: “If these Chinks want to nuke Taiwan any time in this century, they better shape up and show me one million dollars.” When the rival gang fails to react, he continues, “What we generally do in this country is one guy brings the items, and the other guy pays him.”

Catch yourself thinking those thoughts Monahan tried to put in your brain? In any case, the story still continues, and what happens next is not about racism. But that meme, that pesky, intangible, wordless third thought is still somewhere in your head. And something later on, in the real world, will remind you of it. And what you’ll do with that... Well, that’s your business. That is the thinking, conscious or otherwise, of a writer who puts words and concepts together in this manner.

In these examples, only our brain was employed, not our hearts. Monahan went after our thoughts. And so he gave us a dish of racism, served cold.

Let’s see how racism would be served hot.

Conveniently, Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco give us the perfect example in the script that won them Best Writing for the previous year. In a scene in Crash, Matt Dillon, who is white, is a cop talking on the phone to Loretta Devine, who is black, trying to get his father the medical care he needs. Devine explains it isn’t an emergency and asks him to make an appointment in the morning (it is now dark). When he asks for her name, she says “Shaniqua Johnson”. “Shaniqua?” he says. “Big f***ing surprise that is.” Upon which, she hangs up on him.

Matt Dillon makes his way to the car, with his new partner. Over the radio, they hear about a truck, stolen by two black men. A similar truck just passes them, with two black people in the front, and they speed after it. As they compare license plates, they see that this is not the stolen truck. But Matt Dillon turns on the siren and forces the truck to the side of the road.

He walks up to the driver, played by Terrence Howard, who is black, and asks for a driver’s license and registration. He and his wife, played by Thandie Newton, also black, are clearly upper-middle class, if not higher, and not only had she just ‘satisfied’ him as he was driving, the two are clearly amused by the situation. Howard gives Dillon the registration, and he goes to check it. The two are left behind, laughing.

Dillon returns, asking Howard to step out of the car. Howard turns more serious and says he hasn’t been drinking. His wife says he doesn’t drink. “He’s a Buddhist, for Chrissake.” Howard says it’s all right, and steps out of the car. Dillon gives him the full treatment, checking him for intoxication. Howard follows all the steps, but Newton opens the car door and says, “I told you, he doesn’t drink.”

“Ma’am, I’m only gonna tell you one time: Stay in the vehicle.”

Newton, who is a bit tipsy, steps out of the car, saying “Don’t you ma’am me.” Howard tries to calm his wife down, and Dillon says “All right, both of you, turn around, put your hands on top of your heads and interlock your fingers.”

Now Howard begins to argue, though still calm. Dillon asks them again. And again. And then, just as Howard says he’s a television director, Dillon slams him against the car, then asks his partner to pat Howard down.

Dillon then moves on to Newton. She curses her husband, who tells her to do what the cop says. Newton turns to the cop, “And you keep your filthy, f***ing hands off me,” hitting him on the chest. He overpowers her and pushes her against the car, holding her hand behind her back. Her husband, more excited now, tells her to stop talking.

“That’s quite a mouth you have,” Dillon says, then winks at Howard, “Of course, you know that.”

“F*** you,” she says. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You thought you saw a white woman blowing a black man, and that just drove your little cracker ass crazy, didn’t it?”

Howard shouts: “Will you just shut your f***ing mouth?”

Dillon says, “I’d listen to your husband, ma’am,” and begins to pat her down. He tells her to open her legs. And as he feels her dress, he asks her about whether she has any guns and knives on her. “I’m wearing a cocktail dress, what do you think?” she says. “You’d be surprised at some of the places I’ve found weapons,” says Dillon, continuing to pat her down.

Dillon’s partner, also white, pronounces Howard (called Mr. Thayer) clean. Dillon’s hands move down to Newton’s ass, squeezing it hard, as he asks Howard, “What do you think we should do about this, Mr. Thayer?” His hands continues to feel intimate places. “My partner and I just witnessed your wife performing fellatio on you, while you were operating a motor vehicle.” His hands have moved down her legs and are now moving up her dress, as Howard watches, thinking what to do.

Dillon continues, “That’s reckless endangerment, which, incidentally, is a felony. You will be charged with your wife here with lewd conduct and performing a sexual act in public. Now you say you’re a block from home. Now we can use our discretion,” his hand goes up and up her legs, “and let you go with a warning, or we can cuff you,” and we hear by Newton’s reaction that he has now touched a place he shouldn’t have, “and put you in the back of the car.” Howard and Dillon’s partner look on, uncomfortable.

Dillon asks, “What do you think we should do, sir?” And he waits for an answer, with his hand up Newton’s dress.

Now Howard has to make up his mind.

After a few seconds, he says, “Look, we’re sorry, and we would appreciate if you just let us go with a warning. Please.”

Dillon decides to let them go with a warning.

Now, that’s racism served piping hot. It goes for the guts because it comes from the guts and then churns our guts. We feel the outrage, we feel the woman’s violation, and, most of all, we feel the anger. We feel the husband’s anger, the woman’s anger, but we also feel the cop’s anger. We’ve felt it before. We’ve felt the anger that gets people angry enough to abuse their power, even if we’ve never actually done it.

As we watch this scene, we see – and think – how fast things can get out of hand, that this is how innocent people get sent to jail. It’s so easy, as a racist, to throw someone into jail. And just as easily, just as simply, if things would have continued, race riots could form. We also think that as successful as Mr. Thayer is, at the end of the day, he’s a black man, he’ll always be a black man, and because of that his world can crumble any time.

But at the end of the day, this is not a scene about racism. Matt Dillon’s character isn’t doing this because he’s a racist – he’s doing it because he’s frustrated that his father is sick and he can’t help him. He’s taking it out in this way.

There almost isn’t a scene in Crash, which doesn’t have racism. And each and every time, at the end of the day, people are only using racism as an excuse, because it’s so easy. Hispanics, blacks, whites, Asian – everyone in the movie uses racism as an outlet, but everyone also sees everyone else as people. Matt Dillon’s character is later redeemed, when he has to save Newton from a burning car. He doesn’t see race, then, he only sees a person he can save, even if he has to risk his life for her. That’s a statement from the head to the head.

But the major statement in the scene described above is from the gut to the head. This is how Haggis and Moresco did it: Our anger thudded in our ears like drums as the cop’s hands went up the woman’s legs. And we felt how easily that anger becomes racism. And then our heads kicked in, understanding how racism is formed. Dillon faced frustration and injustice, and he did this. Now, this couple had an injustice done to them, they can easily turn it into something mean and bad. We felt racism form inside us.

Which is a better tactic for the writer? Hot or cold? Which convinces more? Which lingers more? Which gets the audience to spring into action?

And how would you, the audience, like to view your racism? Hot or cold?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Where the Soul Is

Hollywood has a bad reputation for quality. And, more often than not, it’s justified. But the truth is that there are gems out there, and there are writers whose every line should be studied by us in the same way that Tennessee Williams’, Eugene O’Neill’s and Edward Albee’s lines are studied and scrutinized.

We begin Storytellers with a four-article series, of which this is the last, concentrating on the top four writers or writing-teams working in television today. Most of their scripts are certainly worthy of study and re-examination, and yet the episodes we watch get old in our minds faster than yesterday’s newspaper.

The Top Four

In the top spot: David E. Kelley.

At number two: Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin maintains high quality more often than Kelley. But when Kelley’s good, he has an even wider range, sharper claws, and better drama.

In third place we had Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, writers of most of the first six seasons of Gilmore Girls.

And this week we get to talk about the writers in fourth place: Rescue Me’s creators and main writers, Peter Tolan and Denis Leary.

All these writers or writing-teams can write heart-wrenching drama; can have more laugh-out-loud comedy in a drama than can be found in most sitcoms; have a clear view on life, which they convey through their stories; can deliver stories that feel as intense and intensive as a two-hour movie; do not look down at their audience and do not talk down to it; and all four put their heart in their hands when they write well, and let us watch it bleed.

Peter Tolan and Denis Leary deserve special attention, because they created something rarely found in television or movies these days: A show with soul.

Apart or Together?

Leary and Tolan are not the same apart as they are together. We last saw them on separate shows.

Peter Tolan is best remembered for The Larry Sanders Show, a brilliantly-written show that was as cold as ice.

Denis Leary, meanwhile, wrote The Job, where he played, much like in Rescue Me, a macho, alcoholic cop who cheats on his wife and can’t handle life. But at the end of the day, The Job wasn’t about anything, and its plots were all over the place. Although Peter Tolan was around, his presence was not felt in the writing. This was Leary’s show.

A few years later, when the two collaborated in writing and creating Rescue Me, it seems that each gave the other what he lacked. Tolan gave Leary structure, while Leary gave Tolan the soul he needed. Together, they created a show that’s actually about something.

Tough Guys and Tortured Souls

Rescue Me is about people who hold it in and what they go through when life gets tough. It is about the virtues and faults of holding it in. But mostly, it’s about what happens to people who don’t break when they finally do break.

Before we get to the stuff that breaks the characters down, let’s meet them.

Tommy, played by Leary, is an alcoholic, chain-smoking, pill-popping New-York Irish fireman who cheats on his wife, Janet, and comes from a long line of alcoholic, chain-smoking, pill-popping Irish firemen who cheat on their wives. He has three kids and when we meet him, he’s going through a divorce, and is spying on his wife, unable to let her go.

Here he is, in season 1, explaining why the guys at work don’t know he stopped drinking: “I quit drinking in front of family, so that Janet would think that I really quit drinking so I could get back together with her, but I didn’t tell the guys at work I quit drinking because I didn’t want them to think it’s a sign of weakness, or that, you know, I was having some kind of sudden change, like I was losing it. Plus it allowed me to keep drinking while I was going to AA.”

Tommy’s firehouse is filled with men who are the archetype ‘tough guys’: macho, homophobic, and emotionally unavailable. Firefighters are heroes to Leary and Tolan, but they are as flawed as any of us. For example:

Tommy is talking with Franco about last night’s escapades. Halfway through, Tommy says, “What I can’t believe is you making a move on a chick with sideburns.”

To which Franco replies: “Hey, Tommy, it’s getting slow out there, pal. All that pussy I was getting after 9/11? Now nothing. People forget.”

“Yeah,” Tommy says. “Sad commentary.”

Acerbic, cynical people. And real.

Here’s another example of how Leary and Tolan write their tough guys:

Someone anonymously posted a poem they wrote in the firehouse.

Tommy reads it allowed, then ridicules it.

The author says, “I don’t know, it’s not that bad. It rhymes.”

“So what,” says Tommy. “My ten-year-old can make stuff rhyme. It doesn’t mean he’s the next, uh... Name a poet.”

“Angie Dickinson,” says one firefighter.

“Angie Dickinson? From Police Woman?”

Franco, puffing on his cigarette, says, “Nah, I think you mean Emily Dickinson, from the Belle of Amherst.”

Tommy looks at him, surprised, “You know poetry?”

“Nah,” he puffs on his cigarette again. “I jacked off to a picture of her once, when I was eleven.”

But it’s not the comedy that gives Rescue Me its soul, and not the dialogue. It’s the broken, shattered people. The show is populated with tough people with tough lives who don’t know what to do when things get too tough. One of Tommy’s firefighting friends has a gay son with which he cannot talk and a wife with Alzheimer who forgets she’s married. Another firefighter's daughter is rushed to the hospital because she took his pills, but that's not enough for him to be able to quit taking them. Tommy’s wife takes the kids, sells the house, and all four disappear.

Jimmy, also a firefighter, was Tommy’s cousin and best friend, and he died on 9/11. His wife, Sheila, can’t stop crying and can’t find a man. She gets drunk and hits on Tommy: “I can’t meet anybody. I can’t get Jimmy out of my mind. He’s always there. You are the closest thing I have to him. You’re sweet. You’re funny. And you’re here. Right now. Right here. Christ, you lost Jimmy, you just lost Billy Warren, I mean how long do you think all of us have?”

Tommy is haunted by the ghosts of the people he didn’t save, including Jimmy’s. The dead people follow him, talk to him, and haunt his dreams as well as his waking life.

When Tommy’s mother dies unexpectedly, his father begins to cry: “You know, my father cried a lot towards the end of his life. He never cried before then. Probably not even as a baby. But near the end, you looked at him cross-eyed, and he’d bust out bawling. It’s the ghosts, Tommy.”

Tommy suddenly takes a greater interest in this, “It’s the what?”

“All the people you’ve hurt, all the meanness you did. You get old, you stop moving a million miles a minute. It all comes back. It really shows up again. All you can do... All you can do is cry.” And he does. Too embarrassed, he waves Tommy off, “Go on, get out of here! Make your suck-ass coffee!”

Tommy and all the men in the firehouse and their families don’t know how to break. Leary and Tolan throw at their characters everything they can, making their lives as hard as possible, to see how they would react. To teach us, to teach the characters, and to teach themselves something more about human nature.

Three extreme examples of how tough things get and what happens then:

After his wife kidnaps the kids, sells the house, and disappears, Tommy hits rock bottom. He soaks himself in vodka, and lights the lighter, inching it closer towards his body.

Halfway through the show, just as his life is getting back in order, and as everything with his wife is good again, their son is killed in a mindless hit-and-run. How do you deal with something as horrible as that? And how does someone like Tommy, who can’t deal with anything, deal with something like that?

Another unbearable, unforgettable moment of television comes a few episodes later. His own brother is secretly sleeping with Tommy’s ex-wife. One episode revolves around the fact that one of the firefighters in Tommy’s firehouse is secretly sleeping with Tommy’s crazy sister, constantly telling us how Tommy beat her last boyfriend within an inch of his life. This helps set up Tommy’s mindset and, at the same time, blindside us to the main event. Towards the end of the episode, in a family event, Tommy sees his brother and his ex-wife touching under the table.

In an amazing piece of acting, Tommy completely loses it: We see the wires snap inside his brain, as he just looks at them. Then, with absolutely no warning, he leaps across the table, no longer entirely sane, and beats his brother. He throws him all over the place, then into the street, throws his head through the car of a window, kicks him, and, spitting on him, leaves him half-dead on the road.

There is a difference between this drama in Rescue Me and the dramatic turns that appear in shows like ER and Third Watch. The last two have drama for drama's sake, because it keeps the audience glued to the set. Something is burning inside Leary, and he and Tolan keep writing situations that return to the same thing: breaking the unbreakable people. And during that process, Leary makes us feel for an hour what he feels all the time, and we all learn something about human nature.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Aaron Sorkin, the Nature of Friendship, and 9/11

When Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip first came out a few months ago, Matthew Perry was making the talk show rounds. More than once, he referred to Aaron Sorkin, the creator and writer of the show, as a genius, and to monologues and dialogues he’s had to perform as “Another Aaron Sorkin genius monologue”.

When someone is referred to as a genius, it too often also means that everything he does is genius or that if I can’t see what’s good about something that person did, I must be the stupid one. The latter statement, in fact, is how directors like David Lynch and Lars von Trier get actresses to do crazy things for them.

Aaron Sorkin is a genius. But let’s ask the real question: What’s in it for us?

We last saw Aaron Sorkin in a The West Wing episode, a show he had created and had written all but one of the episodes in its first four seasons. With Bartlet’s daughter kidnapped, the Democratic President resigned temporarily, ceding power to the Republican Speaker of the House, played by John Goodman. In that meeting, Goodman chided Bartlet’s staff, and Bartlet stood up for them. Cutting Bartlet short, Goodman looked at him, and said, “You’re relieved, Mr. President.”

It was certainly among the top ten most memorable television moments.

With that, and with Bartlet’s daughter still kidnapped, Aaron Sorkin left the series, which ran for four more years.

In The West Wing Sorkin coddled us with great actors, characters who are unabashedly intelligent and well-read, an unpredictable plot that makes us think we just watched a two-hour movie, good drama, good comedy (there are usually more funnies in a Sorkin drama than there are in a half-hour sitcom), all with a fast-paced intelligent dialogue, usually about things that actually matters.

Dialogues like that are hard to find in any Hollywood product, since the prevalent wisdom is that it’s a turn-off for the audience. But the truth is that Sorkin’s writing was ripe with talk about policy even as the ratings got higher and higher. The reason it didn’t get old was because Sorkin made sure that even a discussion about the census was, at the end of the day, about people.

The most extreme example of something prevalent wisdom says should never work on television was in an episode called ‘Arctic Radar’, when Toby and Will Bailey had a write-off. Yes, that’s right, a write-off! Can you imagine two people sitting down and silently reading each others’ scripts as compelling TV? Sorkin made it work.

In fact, he chose a venue that was perfect for it: every subject in the universe could wind up on the President’s desk. What it comes down to is something as ancient as the Greek tragedies: Big events are happening somewhere off-screen or off-stage, while our characters sit in a room and talk about it, debate, and decide what to do – all in a compelling way. When the story is done right, talking about the action is as powerful as seeing the action. That’s why the special effects were cheaper back in 500 B.C.

Not only did Sorkin not resort to special effects in The West Wing, he insisted on talking about problematic issues intelligently, while never resorting to sex, violence, or even a mini-skirt. And he still got good ratings. Imagine that.

Now imagine something else. Imagine a writer who believes he can change the world by showing us the beauty of what he sees. Take, for example, the power of friendship. The two main characters in Sports Night were best friends, who supported each other through tough times. In The West Wing one recalls the time Bartlet was about to reveal the fact that he had lied to the American people and everybody’s life was about to turn into a living hell. Bartlet sat his aide Charlie down, and said: “I’m confident in your loyalty to me. I’m confident in your love for me. But if you lie to protect me, if you lie just once, if you lie just a little, if you lie because you can’t stand what’s happening to me and the people making it happen, if you ever, ever lie... you’re finished with me. Do you understand?”

That is how you write love.

In the first episode of Studio 60, we see the friendship of Matt Albie and Danny Tripp (played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford respectively) two friends who know each other from forever-ago, know their faults and worship their talents. Now here’s the trick: What does a friend do to lift a friend when he is completely on the ropes? He gives him responsibility.

After he hears that Whitford had fallen off the wagon for the first time in 11 years, after listening to his friend, after offering to help, to go on a vacation, after making sure he’s fine, Perry brings him back by gently laying the responsibility on his friend’s shoulders: “Forget that. But it’s going to be our show now. And only one of us can screw up at a time. And I think we both know that most of the time it’s going to be me. You’re the big shoulders.”

A friend says ‘Save me’, and the other friend now has to put on the human mask, get off the floor, and save him. And that’s how he is saved, as well. It’s a male-friendship thing, because men like to pull themselves out of trouble by putting on masks. And, boy, it works. In real life and on television, when written by someone who has experienced it more than once. It’s a motif that appears throughout Sorkin’s writing, and now that his two characters are such good friends, perhaps we’ll explore it again and again.

There is one more element to Sorkin’s writing that is revealed in everything he does: He wants to do some good, and he believes in his audience’s ability to achieve it. When he tackles things he thinks are wrong, he does not simply criticize, he criticizes constructively. He does not just topple, he helps us build, by showing us how things could be done.

Sorkin seems to believe he can fix at least part of the world. Not through hubris, but through persuasion, and by showing us that we are capable of something better and more beautiful than what we have achieved so far.

There are many examples, but certainly one of the most touching is his 9/11 speech. In the second episode of the West Wing’s fourth season, terrorists put some bombs under bleachers in a university, and the bombs go off. Everyone is horrified, of course, and the President gives a speech that day. And I’ll be damned if this isn’t the speech Sorkin wishes Bush had given after 9/11 about the tragedy and about the firefighters. Sorkin uses his supreme talent to find exactly what the American people needed to hear then and probably still need to hear now. He is giving us his version of the 9/11 speech with Martin Sheen’s delivery:

“More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of its own choosing. We did not seek, nor did we provoke, an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect, nor did we invite, a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. Forty-four people were killed a couple of hours ago in Kensington State University. Three swimmers from the men’s team were killed and two others are in critical condition when, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. ... Ran into the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. When every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge we look up and we’re reminded that our capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.”

Sorkin believes that writing can affect change, that writing can move mountains. That it can blow the roof. That it can make us better people. That it can make us cry and make us laugh. That art, when done right, makes us better people.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Defanging 'The Office' OR Is Ricky Gervais Evil?

The American version of The Office, starring Steve Carell, is a good-looking blonde with obscenely dark roots.

Let us take a look at the successful comedy, by tracing it backwards into the past, down two winding paths. The first winding path will begin in the present and lead us to the origin of the American version of the show. Going further backwards in time, the second path, which had originally led up to the American Office, will be traced back to the dark origins of Ricky Gervais’ British comedy.

Let us start at the present.

If I were to describe The Office today in one sentence, this is how I would do it: The Office is a funny mock documentary about the goings-on of the people who work for a paper distributing business that’s out of date. But if I were to describe the series a year ago, I would have written a different description: The Office is a funny mock documentary about the angst and the futility of office life.

This season, Jim’s pranks on Dwight are along the lines of convincing him that Jim is slowly turning into a vampire or that Dwight is getting secret messages from the CIA or that Dwight is getting faxes from a future Dwight on his own stationery. In the first two seasons, the pranks were less radical and more of a turf war between two people who work in the office.

For example.

Dwight begins to shred paper noisily right beside Jim, as Jim has a phone conversation with an important buyer. When Jim asks if Dwight has to do it right now, Dwight insists that it is urgent. “I should have done it weeks ago.” Jim then puts the guy on hold and pulls the shredder’s plug. In retaliation, Dwight puts his finger on Jim’s phone, cutting his conversation short.

Another time, Jim puts Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O and returns it to the drawer.

In another episode, following another small turf war, Jim tapes sharp, pointy pencils to every spot on his own desk, to make sure that Dwight doesn’t accidentally touch his desk. Dwight, saying this is dangerous, slams all the pencils with his phone.

The point is that these pranks are more realistic, more likely to happen in an office, and are actually a statement about the fact that most of us are stuck in an office with people we don’t really care about, and how little victories are what matters to us.

Another huge element of the series that is now completely gone is the element of embarrassment so big you don’t know what to do with yourself.

One day, Jan, the boss from Corporate, comes in to the office. Todd, one of the company’s top sellers, is calling, and Michael puts him on speaker to impress Jan. Todd immediately asks if “old Godzillary” (Godzilla and Hillary in one) is coming to the office today. As Michael tries to stop him, Todd says “I’ve been meaning to ask her one question. Does the carpet match the drape?” And Michael hangs up on him, but, of course, too late. And a silence, too awful for words, ensues, before Jan breaks it by going on with the set agenda.

Another time, Michael tries to ‘punk’ Pam, his secretary. As a “morale booster”, he tells her she’s been downsized. And not only that, but that she doesn’t deserve any severance pay. Pam begins to cry. Michael tells her the truth. Pam calls him a jerk and walks out of the room, leaving Michael sitting in the room, with the new temp, not knowing what to do with himself.

Embarrassment, embarrassment, embarrassment.

The third element that’s subtly disappeared from the series is that of futility. When Jim begins to describe his job, he grows bored with it during the first sentence. Pam doesn’t want to get fired, but she also admits that maybe it would be good, because maybe then she’ll get to do something she wants.

Topping this off, the fourth element that had been prevalent in the first two seasons and, unlike the others, has not completely disappeared but only almost disappeared, is the characters’ inability to move or create any kind of change in their lives. Pam has been engaged to her boyfriend for three years when the show begins, and it took another year for the couple to decide that there should be a wedding day. Pam never stood up for herself, never asked to be treated right, and simply put up with what was.

At the same time, Pam and Jim have been attracted to each other from afar, and for more than two years they danced around each other, neither of them having the guts to actually take a stand. The people working in the office were afraid to get fired but at the same time afraid that they would spend the rest of their lives doing this. None of them had had the strength of character to even try something different.

Since the original British series ran for only two years and was only fourteen episodes long (the Americans go for bulk over quality, the British for quality over bulk), the original material ran out after Jim kissed Pam at the end of the second season, and since then the American writers have kept what they could, writing what’s easy to maintain, and what’s easy to write funny: Letting Michael make an ass of himself, letting him put his foot in his mouth, letting Dwight be Dwight, letting Jim make fun of Dwight. And that’s the third season. That is what has remained of the original show. And that in itself is enough to make a successful comedy.

But during the first two seasons, the show was better, funnier, and, yes, much darker. When it began, you could see that the show was about something: It’s awful when your life is controlled by outside forces, like a boss who can fire you or a company that can downsize or go out of business. It’s awful when, to make a living, you have to go out and work at horrible jobs with petty people. It’s awful when people don’t act on what they feel and don’t do what they really want.

So now we delve further into the past, taking the second path backwards in time to see where this darkness originated. Because if the first two seasons of the American Office seem dark, when compared to the BBC’s The Office it’s practically Sesame Street.

When Reveille Productions decided to take the British Office, they clearly decided to defang it. As is usually done in Hollywood to movies and TV shows that are based on foreign movies and TV shows, the text is simplified, the story dumbed-down, the endings usually more optimistic, and the true sting of the creation smeared with an awful lot of honey.

Only two major instances come to mind in which the Americanization of an original series dramatically improved the original. They are The Office and Three’s Company.

Originally produced as Man about the House, and written by John Mortimer, a British playwright and author. (Run out and find episodes or books of his funny, dramatic, and satiric Rumpole legal series.) If you follow the first season or two of Three’s Company, you’ll note that there are a lot of wordplays, a lot of double-entendres, many people listening in through doors at lines that make sense in at least two ways, and so forth. John Mortimer’s word games disappear from the American series once the original material runs out. However, the British Man about the House had, if you judge by this series alone, no comic actors. All the funny lines were stepped on. The original British version of Three’s Company wasn’t funny.

The American version had John Ritter, whose comic abilities saved the show and carried it. After two seasons of relying on the original texts, the rest of the seasons were written to fit Ritter’s talent.

Now, where the British Man about the House simply wasn’t funny, the British Office was funny, but it made you want to kill yourself.

Originally written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Storytellers assumes that since Gervais also starred in the role we know as Michael Scott (originally: David Brent) and played the embarrassment and hopelessness (with more or less the same text) to the point of magnifying it a thousandfold, the major themes of the series came from him.

The original Office was, I apologize for this in advance but there is simply no other word for it: evil. By this I do not mean that anyone involved in its making is comparable to, say, Hitler or that Gervais has ever done a bad deed in his life. To my knowledge he hasn’t, nor do I suspect or imply that he has.

The word evil, when uttered by an atheist like myself, leaps to mind only when witnessing someone utterly beyond redemption. Again, the atheistic definition of redemption would be: possessing not even a glimmer of hope.

Everything Gervais wrote into The Office is true. It touches on something we all recognize, truths about how small, petty, and futile everyday life is. The series is funny. It is art. And yet, the dark place that it shows is completely without redemption. And it therefore reeks of evil (in the atheistic sense, again).

It may sound incongruous, but when writers write about awful things, they are writing out of optimism, even if they do not know it. When writers write about the evil that men do, they want us to better it. When writers write about the dark and awful depressions they fall into, they cry for help, believing deep down that there is help for them. When writers show us the seedy streets, the tough world, or the corruption of those in charge, they are saying ‘it’s wrong’, hoping the audience can somehow change the world. In all of these there is hope.

The only other piece of story art I can think of that comes close to being irredeemable is Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The book has a massive appeal to teenagers because its teenage hero, Holden, lives in a dark world in his head, in which no one understands how he feels and from which he doesn’t know how to escape. But when you read the book not as a teenager, you also notice that Salinger doesn’t give Holden any hope. Most teenagers who feel bad, also believe things can get better, they just need to find the way, or perhaps someone needs to come and save them. Teenagers act out because they are looking for salvation and don’t know where it is. When you look for salvation, it means that deep down you still think it exists.

Salinger, a grownup who doesn’t see any way out of the dark world in which he lives, accordingly gives Holden no shred of hope in the book. The book, however, is not beyond redemption, because the very act of having written it is the act of hope. Salinger’s act of sharing the darkness is an act of hope, that maybe someone will read, maybe someone will understand, maybe someone will save.

Gervais’ The Office doesn’t even offer that. There is no cry for help in the British Office. There is no hidden appeal to humanity to better its ways. There is no sliver of light which shows you that behind some wall there is some sunlight. In fact, Gervais’ act of sharing is actually saying “Wake up, you morons! Look around you and see the world as it is! There is no hope anywhere to be found! Stop hoping!” And if you do it convincingly – which he does – that feels somewhat evil.

So, no, Ricky Gervais isn’t evil, he’s probably a very nice guy; but his creation is.

Error correction: Todd Packer was erroneously referred to as Tom Packer.