Sixteen years after The Office debuted in the U.K., Ricky Gervais has resurrected his most (in)famous role for David Brent: Life on the Road, a feature-length film that debuted on Netflix last week. I’ll give you a moment to lower your expectations, and perhaps a few moments more for fervent Office fans, since television revivals almost always never work, particularly the ones that pretend to be movies. And that goes double if they happen to be British.
I’m not saying British comedy shows are bad. Quite the opposite. The Brits, after all, created Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, the boozy fashionistas of Absolutely Fabulous who might be my favorite characters in the history of everything. They also gave us Little Britain and its litany of characters and catchphrases: Carol Beer (“Computer says no”), Daffyd Thomas (“I’m the only gay in the village”), Marjorie Dawes (“You can have as much dust as you like”), Bubbles DeVere (“Call me bubbles, everyone does!”). For me, these aren’t just TV shows. I’ve quoted them so frequently and for so long, they’ve basically taught me a second language.
But here’s the issue: Both of those shows took a brilliant joke and beat it to death for eternity. Little Britain cracked precisely one gag per character and repeated it for three season overseas, and then repeated them all again for one season on HBO. AbFab got revived numerous times and grew less funny with each iteration, making no attempt to shake up its formula or develop its characters. When you’ve watched two hopelessly self-absorbed women drink and drug their way through 20-plus years, it’s weird not having some sort of moral reaction. And that’s heartbreaking, because morals are so totally not AbFab.
Like the best British comedies, The Office had a brilliant two-season run before whimpering out with two less-brilliant Christmas specials. Gervais went on to do similar things with different projects (Extras, Life’s Too Short, Derek), in addition to becoming an ace Twitter troll and the world’s greatest Golden Globes host. When The Guardian recently asked why he wanted to play David Brent again, Gervais’s vague response—“Why not?”—goes a long way toward explaining why Life on the Road feels so ho-hum. Making a faux-documentary about Brent taking a band on tour might have seemed like a funny, Spinal Tap thing to do, but it’s nowhere near as funny as Brent dancing to “Simply the Best” while teaching a motivational class.
Only Gervais’ ruthless improvisational approach keeps Life on the Road from feeling like a complete waste of time. As usual, he pushes a joke as far as it can go, then pushes it further, and once we’re past that point, well, we have to see where it ends up. Thankfully, it’s been offered to us Americans on Netflix, not as a theatrical release as it was in the U.K. That means we can take it for what it is—an overlong but amusing TV show. If I’d had to put some pants on to see it, that would not have been cool.