Slimming this final season of Corporate down to only six episodes cannot help but make me think of Britain’s tendency toward far shorter seasons than our American cousins – and specifically, of stuff like Fawlty Towers and The Young Ones. Both those comedies ended only two seasons in, and clearly had the momentum and goodwill to carry on for longer, but the creators, wary of diminishing returns, chose not to.
Of course, if one does start talking about British comedy, then it’s only natural to compare something which is set in an office to The Office – and having seen both versions of that, Corporate is straightforwardly a better adaptation. This is not strictly to criticise America’s The Office, but for all that it spent its first season slavishly aping the UK original, it is best known for, essentially, being its own beast. It had a strain of sentimentality to it not present in the original, and could not bear to make Steve Carell’s Michael Scott an irredeemable turd in the same way as Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, an awful little man who Gervais seems to now be modelling himself upon.
Historically, Corporate has kept its sentiment levels at a consistent, chilly zero. There was certainly no assumption that anyone in a management role must have some kind of redeeming quality – like the British The Office, here they are if anything the most neurotic ones of all. And any kind of bonding the characters did was not a Jim-and-Pam love story, but rather the kind of guarded, hushed association you might get in a Stalag prison camp, only with no actual Nazis visible.
So what must I make of this season of Corporate doing an episode about depression? Honestly, it’s not a huge departure, particularly if you’ve picked up on the very bleak picture I’ve provided. Despite the now-trite ‘if you’re affected by any of the issues raised in this program’ disclaimer, it’s very ready to mock the mentally healthy’s patronising attempts to help, and never falls into po-facedly having a capital-m Message. What it does have, though, is a literal black dog, which even being voiced rather chummily by Bob Odenkirk is a profoundly disturbing creation which would not have been out of place in a horror movie.
In fact, there’s more than a bit of Corporate that would only need a little push to become outright horror. The boardroom scenes always have a touch of the cabin fever to them, and if the doors ever got jammed item one on the agenda would quickly become who gets eaten first. But more generally, it’s all about the horror of being helplessly embedded within a corporation – and there is horror to be had there. Even when we see the characters having clocked out for the day, it’s never as if they’ve escaped that lower circle of hell, even temporarily. The company still looms over all.
(True to form, when Matt and Jake take a business trip – which itself seems more like a hostage exchange – it’s to a hotel owned by Hampton-DeVille, and there is still no respite.)
Similarly, an episode about office friendships – which, yes, by the standards Corporate has established is as gushingly sentimental as the average telenovella – is just about rescued by the distinct impression that these friendships would never, ever, ever extend beyond working hours. And, moreover, are entirely predicated on complaining about those other poor fools at the office. But there is nonetheless a feeling that these characters have become a little too comfortable – and by extension, that this is probably the right time to put a pin in it.
There’s no better illustration of this incongruously comfortable feeling than Lance Reddick’s Christian DeVille. Much as I understand why Corporate would want to make as much use of him as possible – he’s always been an evil, charismatic delight – this time around he has, sad to say, lost a bit of his edge. He’s still a maniac boss for the ages, but not quite the monument he once was.
This may just be down to time’s inexorable march. Originally he was a rare treat, a seldom-seen scene-stealer. But as the years have ticked by and he’s clocked up more screen-time, he has become more familiar with the rest of the cast, we have become more familiar with him, and familiarity breeds…if not contempt, then a lack of the healthy mixture of respect and fear that Christian’s big-boss character originally carried. Most distressingly, he actually knows other people’s names now. It’s hard to imagine the Christian of the first season becoming friends with any other named character. You always presumed he spent his free time at Satanic blood-orgies with Jeff Bezos and the Bilderberg club, or golfing, whatever it is the unnecessarily wealthy do.
That may be a cartoonish exaggeration, but it’s one in line with the magical-realist world of Corporate. At worst, that sort of thing can be a little broad – at its best, it’s taking very real horrors to their ridiculous-yet-logical conclusions, like, yes, a huge and horrifying dog-figure whispering in your ear to tell you “don’t bother cleaning the bathroom, it’ll just get shitted up again anyway”.
Corporate is what Dilbert would be like if Scott Adams had any balls. Adams, to his credit, can successfully identify the evil absurdities of office life, but is too content to then point and laugh at the people involved as if they’re an entirely separate phenomenon (“Ah ha ha ha, Dilbert’s tie goes up…”). He never takes the obvious next step of figuring out that these wilting, planarian creatures are products of their environment, something which Corporate was clear on from the start. Its denizens do not exchange three-panel newspaper comic quips – rather, it is the doomed, shapeless musings of people who are already being dunked in boiling oil by demons, and who know it.
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Corporate is a show about real pain beneath a smiling face – but it’ll make you laugh, because it’s all finally happening to other people.
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