Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Why the US version of The Office is the boss

Let’s get something out of the way before we get started. The Office is undoubtedly one of the best sitcoms ever made, and in just 12 episodes (plus an extended Christmas special), managed to redefine what could be achieved in the once-stale format.

It rocketed Ricky Gervais to international fame, and ushered in a new era of more realistic, fly-on-the-wall comedies. A diverse range of shows, from Nighty Night and Curb Your Enthusiasm to Modern Family, all followed its influential lead, and clearly owe Merchant and Gervais’ creation a considerable debt. And yet, I can’t shake this nagging feeling that the American version is better.

It’s a controversial opinion, I know. I’m sure people will jeer at me in the street, and recommend that I spend the rest of eternity giving Maxine Carr home perms for my sins. But I wonder whether the people who protest the most, have ever actually sat down and watched it. Maybe they’re of the opinion that it couldn’t possibly compare to the original – that it’s just a lazy knock-off. If that’s the case, they’re missing out on the most consistently hilarious comedy of recent years.

It’s not just the American’s who recognized the universal appeal of a realistic workplace sitcom – remakes have also been commissioned in France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel and Sweden, with a Chinese version in the works. But the US version is far and away the most popular, currently in its eighth hit season, despite star Steve Carell hanging up his papier-mâché spare head at the end of the last season.

If you’re not already apoplectic with indignation at my opinion, allow me to address four of the most common arguments I encounter, when telling others that the exploits of Dunder Mifflin-Sabre beat Wernham Hogg hands-down.

Remakes always suck

When Gervais originally sold his concept to American network NBC, all the people who’d championed his unique mix of arrogance and mortification, predicted an early bath for the transatlantic version. The network didn’t seem to be much more confident, commissioning just six episodes as a mid-season replacement for a show that had already failed. By the time the pilot aired, everyone congratulated themselves on their prescient predictions – once again a much-loved show had failed to translate. The characters had been renamed, but everything else stayed the same, right down to 90% of the script. And some humour just doesn’t travel.

However, those earlier nay-sayers were proven wrong almost immediately, as show runner (and former Simpsons writer) Greg Daniels started to exert his own influence over the show. Benefiting from his knowledge of the UK show’s story arc, Daniels allowed the US incarnations of the characters we recognised, to stretch their legs and find their own voice. The writers were also encouraged to write for the actors, rather then the characters from the original show. Halfway through season 2, it was clear that the show had found its own style and tone, respectful of the original, but evolving in its own direction.

It helped that the supporting cast comprises a number of comedians and writers. In fact, three of the show’s lead writers are also permanent cast-members: B.J. Novak (Ryan the Temp), Mindy Kaling (borderline-psychotic Kelly Kapoor) and Paul Lieberstein (hangdog HR manager Toby Flenderson). In addition, Steve Carell wrote several classic episodes, and many of the other performers have a background in improvisational comedy. Rather than putting all the onus on a single pair of writers, this team-spiritedness has made The Office into a hothouse of comedy.

The Office IS Ricky Gervais

When David Brent first appeared on our screens, we marveled at the fact that a show had been built around such a grotesque caricature of the modern businessman. Gervais’ arrogant preening and tactless insensitivity was quite a revelation, compared with the fuzzily likeable staples of traditional comedies. Over time, however, Gervais has returned to the same well a few too many times. Irrespective of the project, he seldom plays anything other than an exaggerated version of his own stand-up persona – awkward and obnoxious, barely able to contain his own seething contempt for everyone around him.

By contrast, Steve Carrell made Michael Scott (Brent’s US equivalent) an entirely different character. Sure, they share some of the same interpersonal shortcomings, but Scott has a more appealing naivety as well as a desperate need to be liked. Both like to think of themselves as aspiring comedians, but in the US version of the show, we see a wide variety of ways in which this plays out.

Carell is also able to inject much more pathos into a character who might otherwise be gratingly unlikable. Whether he’s taking on a second job in a call centre to subsidise his monstrous girlfriend, or struggling to be creative in his improvisation classes, Michael feels much more like a fully-rounded human being. In contrast, David Brent was always such a loathsome cock, that it was hard to believe that anyone would hire him in the first place.

In addition, the US show is full of moments which subtly remind us that, despite his many shortcomings, Michael Scott is actually good at sales. For example, there’s a lovely scene in season four when Michael gives an ex-client a gift basket, but warns him not to let his daughter eat the nut brittle because she’s allergic. As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

Shorter is better

The Offices of Wernham Hogg were clearly built in the shadow of Fawlty Towers, in that Gervais and Merchant clearly admired John Cleese and Connie Booth’s brevity. They called it a day after just 12 episodes, having exhausted themselves with their own perfectionism. The divorce can’t have made brainstorming sessions too much fun either. Of course, the main difference between Fawlty Towers and The Office, is that the former relied on elaborate farce, whereas the latter mined observational, character-based humour for its laughs. This means that the office-based scenario should lend itself to a longer-running format.

As the show has expanded, so too have the background personalities, gradually evolving into fully-fledged characters in their own right. Unlike their UK counterparts, who were little more than ciphers, Oscar, Kevin, Creed, Meredith, Phyllis and Angela have all had their own opportunities to shine during the show’s eight-year run.

For such an ostensibly simple concept, the show has also developed a rich mythology – filling out the world in which the characters live. Unlike conventional sitcoms, where the universe appears to reboot every half hour, this feels like a real world. Jokes play on subtle references to events that took place years ago, giving an extra degree of verisimilitude to the show. Rather than relying on contrived flashbacks or expositionary dialogue, the writers assume that the audience has been paying attention from the start, and exploit this familiarity at regular intervals.

Americans don’t get British humour

If there’s one thing that Americans know how to do, it’s write witty one-liners, filling their shows with photogenic smart-arses who always know just how to wring a laugh out of a contrived scenario. Where they tend to struggle, is in grasping the dark absurdism of British humour. And yet, there are few characters on TV as wonderfully surreal as Dwight K Schrute.

Far from being a lazy pastiche of Gareth Keenan, Dwight is a beetroot-grower of Germanic descent, who lives in a decrepit farmhouse that Norman Bates might charitably describe as a fixer-upper. Obsessed with bears and Battlestar Galactica, his matter-of-factness is often supplanted by an eagerness to get lost in how own nonsensical imaginings. It’s this tendency to over-engineer his own fantasy world that fuels some of the show’s finest exchanges, especially when he engages in a battle of wits with his nemesis Jim:

Dwight: I'm going to be your new boss! : It is my greatest dream come true. Welcome to the Hotel Hell. Check-in time is now, check-out time is never.
Jim: Does my room have cable?
Dwight: No. And the sheets are made of fire.
Jim: Can I change rooms?
Dwight: Sorry, we're all booked up. Hell convention in town.
Jim: Can I have a late checkout?
Dwight: I'll have to talk to the manager.
Jim: You're not the manager? Even in your own fantasy?
Dwight: I'm the owner. The co-owner. With Satan!
Jim: Okay. Just so I understand it: in your wildest fantasy, you are in Hell, and you are co-running a bed-and-breakfast with the Devil.
Dwight: Yeah, but I haven't told you my salary yet.
Jim: Go.
Dwight: Eighty *thousand* dollars a year.

Sometimes, we don’t even need to hear from Dwight himself, to get a sense of his curious survivalist instincts, as receptionist Pam explains a mix-up over the office keys: “There is a master key and a spare key for the office. Dwight has them both. When I asked, "what if you die, Dwight? How will we get into the office?" He said, "if I'm dead, you guys have been dead for weeks."

Although we’re a good year and half behind the US, the show’s first six seasons are available on DVD, with the five of them in a particularly affordable boxset. So go on, take a punt. You won’t be disappointed. That’s what she said.

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