In the UK Office - why does there appear to be so much hate for Neil? Seriously, even Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have confirmed that you're not supposed to like Neil. The only evidence given for this is that Neil laughed at an off-colour joke from Finchy about David's date (even though David has laughed at even worse comments from Finchy) and that in some unspecified way Neil is 'smug'.
I remember watching the Day of Laughter episode for the first time with my friend. During Neil's dance bit, my friend remarked that the actor was really good at portraying "an arsehole that people actually like". I think Neil's character just strikes a chord with a lot of folk who know what it's like to utterly resent a person that everyone else seems to love. The kind of person that you'll swear is a dog-kicking covert jerkass who probably fantasizes about face-painting Myley Cyrus when he gets home at night, but everybody else thinks he's a gem and laugh hysterically at all his dull, anodyne jokes and classy anecdotes. I think also by the time series two rolled around most viewers saw David's horrible social skills as something bordering on a disability and pitied him for it, if they didn't already. It felt like Brent was in a tragicomical battle with a crippling social illness and Neil, simply by having all the qualities David wanted, had an exascerbating presence and on some level he knew it and secretly reveled in it. The trick Gervais and Merchant pull is that when he laughs at Finchey's remark in the Special, it shows he's not an unfailing Nice Guy and vindicates the feelings of fans who didn't like him. Sorry, driveled on a bit there. Incidentally, Armando Iannucci does a brilliant Cringe Comedy dinner party sketch playing on the "guy-who-everyone-likes-except-me" phenomenon in The Armando Ian,ucci Shows.
There are a few other clues throughout the series that Neil's not quite the nice guy we're led to believe; the fact that he willingly took the job that saw the Swindon office shut down and, presumably, everyone except the people he brought over fired suggests a hidden ruthlessness, the fact that he connects well with Finch (ultimately much better than Brent, who's clearly just an easy target for Finch) suggests a bit of a nasty streak. However, as well as what the poster above notes, ultimately I think it stems from the fact that we're seeing him largely from Brent's point of view, and from Brent's point of view Neil is That Guy. You know the one; the guy who effortlessly does everything you want to do much better than you ever will, and while he might not say anything you always get the sense that he knows it and is lording it over you a bit. He's younger, handsomer, his jokes make everyone fall around in hysterics while yours fall flat, he makes loads of friends while you struggle to connect with people, he has a beautiful girlfriend while you're lonely and single, and so on. While some of this is unfair to Neil, since Brent's perspective isn't exactly reliable, consider also that we're introduced to Neil around about the same time that we start being encouraged to see Brent not just as an insufferable pointy-haired twat of a boss but as someone who's a bit more vulnerable, a bit more sad and a bit more sympathetic than we previously thought; with these Hidden Depths on display, it stands to reason that the apparent Nice Guy Neil probably has a nasty side as well, but is just better at hiding it than Brent is.
Though the ruthlessness at being willing to sacrifice his staff to take the promotion applies equally well to Brent, as he would have done exactly the same thing if not for failing the medical.
Also note he is somewhat hypocritical as he critises David for office productivity, and then plays office cricket, which is downright dangerous. But Brent's still a tool to him.
I think it's clear Neil had only been playing office cricket during the lunch break, or at least towards the end of lunch break, while Brent was down the pub with his colleagues.
The somewhat confusing thing is that he gets on well enough with Tim, the Straight Man. In the US version it was easier to tell Charles Minor wasn't supposed to be liked because he did not get along with Jim.
Without wishing to disrespect the American version (having not seen it), this — I'd suggest — is intentional, to introduce a bit of complexity into the situation. People are not always 'not supposed to be liked' just because one person doesn't like them. Neil, for all that he's hinted to have a less nice side, is still supposed to be a pretty likeable and charismatic person, so it's not out of the ordinary that Tim, who is also a pretty likeable and charismatic person, would like him as well.
Considering David Brent is an incompetent boob and the Slough branch are generally perceived as "having a laugh", how come the board initially vote for him to be promoted instead of Neil?