When The Office first premiered on this side of the Atlantic, I was a bit put off by the whole thing. At the time, I professed that it just wasn't to my taste, but the sad reality was that it hit too close to home. I'd never had a boss like David Brent (played by series creator Ricky Gervais), and my then boss was a kind woman who cared very deeply if she had to give me poor marks in my performance reviews. No, what affected me most about The Office was how perfectly it captured the oppressive banality of office environments. Unlike Office Space or Dilbert, Ricky Gervais wasn't about to give you a happy ending unless everyone-actors and audience alike-was willing to work for it.
Having since left that job, I've been able to return to the British version of The Office with clearer eyes. And it is only with trepidation that I call it the "British version": an American version of The Office will air on NBC in March, starring Steve Carell, formerly of The Daily Show and Anchorman.
When The Office first premiered on this side of the Atlantic, I was a bit put off by the whole thing. At the time, I professed that it just wasn't to my taste, but the sad reality was that it hit too close to home.
Set at Wernham Hogg, a paper company in the drab little town of Slough, the UK version of The Office is a mockumentary full of characters in various stages of arrest. There's Tim, the sensitive bloke, who wants to return to school; Dawn, the receptionist, who regrets the slow drift she's made away from her illustration work; there's Gareth, Assistant to the Regional Manager, or, as he likes to say, Assistant Regional Manager; and then there's David Brent, Regional Manager, who speaks as if he's expecting to be swept up by a television producer and given his own talk show. Unfortunately, David rarely makes an observation that doesn't cause one to feel a bit squeamish or embarrassed for him. And they're all living under the threat of being "made redundant," which is British for "being downsized."
At the beginning of The Office's first series (the show consists of two six-episode series and one special), David Brent was a harmless boob who let meetings disintegrate into him playing songs on his guitar about "free love on the free-love freeway." By the end of that series, he was a shining example of how dangerous an inept manager can be. The second series went deeper-it explored the redundancy of David Brent and examined the V-2 rocketlike trajectory of office workers plummeting toward the ground.
The Office Special tied together loose strings and allowed its characters the closest thing to a happy ending inside the world of Wernham Hogg. It could even reduce a cynical bastard such as myself to tears, sending him in search of the blooper reel on the DVD. This is the first show that made me care for the characters without feeling like a moron for doing so. My initial reaction was that the show could fuck off, but by the end of The Office Special, I was rooted to my place on the couch unable to breathe.
That said, I reacted to the news of NBC's "Americanized" version of The Office as if it were stomach cancer. I cooled down a little after seeing the pilot (which was leaked onto the Internet), and now find myself straddling the line between two camps. On the one hand, I can't recommend that anyone watch the show-it's not very good. On the other, I'm a little peeved that so much time and effort went into adapting something that didn't need to be adapted. I do hope the show finds its own voice, but it would be irresponsible of me to say that it already has.
It's difficult to begrudge the actors for wanting to take a crack at The Office. Despite being little more than an Americanization of the British version, the script for the pilot script is ten times better than most things on the air. Even so, this retelling does little to expand upon the characters and situations that fans will recognize from the British version. I really wanted to hate it, but then again the first episode of BBC's The Office left me feeling a bit cold as well. It wasn't that I didn't "get it," but that I almost didn't want to. The themes in both are most certainly the same; and yet where Ricky Gervais had a certain addled swagger about him, Steve Carell feels inert.
Perhaps it is a kink yet to be worked out, but thanks to the history of such cult classics that met their doom on network television-Freaks and Geeks, Wonderfalls, Twin Peaks, Temptation Island, etc.-I have very little faith that NBC's The Office will be allowed to live long enough to come into its own. By and large, TV that makes people cringe has a more difficult time finding a following. This isn't indicative of some great defect in humanity: not everyone wants to stare into a mirror and examine their most unattractive qualities, but viewers are generally skeptical of TV shows that eschew blithely happy plot lines for a potentially discomforting look at reality. It's not fun to see people getting their feelings hurt.
The NBC adaptation reminds me of sitting around the lunch table in middle-school riffing on Naked Gun with my buddies-day after day after day-until we learned each line by heart and began to go through the motions. The well ran dry and we moved onto something else.
I'm willing to wait and see how it goes. Predicting what will appeal to the viewing public is tricky business, but I think it's fair to say that NBC's The Office might very well find itself playing to an audience that's (a) already prepared to hate it or (b) unaware of the fact that they're supposed to form any kind of opinion about it at all. Who wants to watch a show about an office where everyone is awkward and uncomfortable and funny in an obtuse way when you can watch One Tree Hill?
I'd rather have seen the "Americanizing" resources put into creating an entirely new NBC series with input from Ricky Gervais. Failing that, considering how little has been changed on the new show, why didn't NBC just purchase the rights to broadcast the British version on American airwaves?
As to the Americanizing, what exactly did they change? Very little, to be honest. The paper company has been renamed Dunder-Mifflin and is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Gareth character (named Dwight) is played by Rainn Wilson, who is probably best remembered for his role as the creepy intern on Six Feet Under. Wilson does his best to adapt Gareth's unsettling weirdness, but tends to lean more toward weird than unsettling, taking the character to a wackiness level that doesn't seem to fit the material. Tim is turned into Jim and has shifted from bloke to dude. This might not sound like much of a difference, but it certainly does make him less sensitive as a character: When Jim puts Dwight's office supplies into Jell-O to aggravate him, the motivation seems to be more condescension than weary playfulness. Pam (the Dawn cipher), with whom the emotional ballast of the pilot weighs, operates on a half-second delay. During a scene where Michael Scott (Steve Carell) plays a prank on her, Pam breaks into tears just as Dawn did in the original-but it doesn't feel right this time. She doesn't come off as sad, she just seems to be imitating Dawn.
The main focus, of course, is Steve Carell's character. He exemplifies the lack of chemistry between the cast members, especially when he drags out exchanges longer than necessary as if to impress upon the audience that they're supposed to feel uncomfortable. When he asks an intern if he likes Punk'd or The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, I realized exactly what's wrong with the show-it's replaced its heart with references to other works. Ricky Gervais' The Office has been around long enough to spawn references in Burger King commercials, for God's sake! The NBC adaptation reminds me of sitting around the lunch table in middle school riffing on Naked Gun with my buddies-day after day after day-until we learned each line by heart and began to go through the motions. The well ran dry and we moved onto something else. I hope the same happens to NBC's The Office.
In the end, I'm just glad that Ricky Gervais is making some cash out of his idea. In an interview with NPR, Gervais claimed that the humour in The Office is very American, but that the language and setting are parochial. "We don't want someone doing an impression of me," he added. "We don't just want another forty-year-old fat bloke touching his tie. We've done that." But everyone has their own Wernham Hogg, and I suppose part of the charm of watching Gervais' The Office is finding out that work-time tedium rings as true in North America as it does in the United Kingdom. Anything else would be redundant.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Tuesday.