Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky requires that you put the new cover sheets on all your TPS reports before viewing this American translation of the classic British sitcom.
Our reviews of The Office (UK) Special Edition (published December 1st, 2011), The Office: Season Two (published September 18th, 2006), The Office: Season Three (published September 4th, 2007), The Office: Season Four (published September 2nd, 2008), The Office: Season Five (published September 8th, 2009), The Office: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published September 8th, 2009), The Office: Season Six (published September 7th, 2010), The Office: Season Six (Blu-ray) (published September 13th, 2010), The Office: Season Seven (published September 22nd, 2011), The Office: Season Seven (Blu-ray) (published September 14th, 2011), and The Office: Season Eight (Blu-ray) (published September 2nd, 2012) are also available.
"I think better to be a happy idiot than someone who knows the truth."—Michael Scott (Steve Carell), Dunder Mifflin Regional Manager
One of the most innovative British situation comedies in years crosses the pond to become a tepid American sitcom that allows its breakout star periodic fits of brilliance. Haven't we heard this one before?
Facts of the Case
Moving among the desks of the burned-out sales staff of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, a documentary camera captures the overconfident antics of Michael Scott (Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), the nervous flirting of underachievers Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer), and the borderline aggressive behavior of "assistant regional manager" (really assistant to the regional manager) Dwight Shrute (Rainn Wilson). Michael is the poster boy for the Peter Principle: He fancies himself a brilliant manager, constantly joking as a cover for his own incompetence. And the camera makes it that much worse.
Bureaucracy sometimes makes no sense. For example, Universal wants to sell you on one of its new flagship comedies, The Office. It would make sense, from a marketing perspective, to make the compulsory trailers that front the first-season DVD advertise comedies. But somebody in the marketing department apparently said, "You know what people who like contemporary high-concept comedies based on Britcoms like? '70s cop shows!" So enjoy that trailer for McMillan and Wife, gang.
Anyway, American television networks have a long tradition of adapting British comedies, and the success of such shows often depends on how free the lead actor is to ham it up. Three's Company (née Man About the House) thrived on John Ritter's rubbery pratfalls. Sanford and Son (née Steptoe and Son) transformed Wilfrid Brambell's "dirty old man" into Redd Foxx, who barely contained his dirty mouth (he was a notorious "party record" comedian prior to this), as the viciously funny junkman.
It is hard to see anyone other than Ricky Gervais mastering the obsequious yet earnest persona of middle manager David Brent, the world's most horrid boss. The BBC version of The Office, which ran for only 12 episodes and a Christmas special, was a showcase for Gervais' peculiar brand of cruel comedy. Watching The Office is like watching a traffic accident in slow motion: The ballet of wrecked lives is beautiful as it unfolds, even if we know that suffering will be the ultimate result. Gervais and cowriter Stephen Merchant made a shrewd decision in staging the series as a mock documentary. This was not merely a gimmick. David Brent's often offensive sense of humor and silly efforts to avoid the hard decisions a competent manager has to make were kept in check for years by the disciplinary effect of office bureaucracy. But put a camera in the room with a guy like Brent, and he cannot contain himself. Brent's masturbatory fascination with his own potential stardom proved his undoing over the course of the show's brief but potent run. Brent was no cartoon, however, but a thriving character ultimately capable of some small redemption by the series finale. Brilliant stuff, and well worth seeking out on DVD.
The American version of The Office, adapted for NBC by King of the Hill overseer Greg Daniels, moves the action from depressed, industrial Slough to depressed, industrial Scranton. Steve Carell, a Second City vet who cut his teeth as the second-best beat reporter on The Daily Show, takes over as the paper company manager who is too excited by his own jokes to realize that everyone hates him. Carell is inspired casting as Michael Scott, showing his ability to balance pomposity and earnestness with almost as much slick charm as Ricky Gervais. Like David Brent, Michael Scott is energized by the "documentary" camera that tracks his adventures. "I'm a student of comedy," he boasts. His fellow workers would probably give him a D- in the class.
The first episode of the American version of The Office is a direct lift from the first episode of the British version, with the jokes rewritten for the Yank audience. The show begins to find its own voice in the second episode, which is easily the best of the six-episode premiere season. Michael turns "Diversity Day" into a feast of discomfort, not comprehending that the diversity seminar the staff must endure was his fault to begin with. He struggles to prove how free of racism he is by, well, mentioning race constantly in the most inadvertently awful terms he can. The results (including his awful Chris Rock impersonation) are hilarious. Worse, when the seminar falls apart, Michael tries to prove how enlightened he is by running a seminar of his own, introducing it with that classic and well-known quote from Abraham Lincoln, "If you are a racist, I'll attack you with the North." Yes, Michael Scott is a moron. But his awkward sincerity is wonderfully funny, and Carell nails the character.
The Office is not without its serious flaws, however. While Carell is great fun, his supporting cast is noticeably less interesting than in the British version. For example, Dwight Shrute is never as devilishly entertaining as the whinging Gareth Keenan, with those inane references to his alleged military skills. Instead, Dwight is a collection of violent quirks that become increasingly creepy as the episodes progress, as if this is the guy you have pegged to go on a shooting rampage by the series finale. Turning the third episode over to such a character, when Michael passes off responsibility for picking a corporate health care plan to Dwight, is meant to draw laughs out of his megalomania. But it just is not that funny. Similarly, the pathetic romance between Tim and Dawn at the center of the original show has less spark in the hands of John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer, in spite of their best efforts.
All the performers are fine, and the scripts try hard. As I watched the show, I wondered why I was just not laughing, apart from the great "Diversity Day" episode. Perhaps my familiarity with the Ricky Gervais version is a distraction, but given how much I like Steve Carell here, I doubt that is the real problem. I wonder if it is my sense of the American version of The Office as an open-ended sitcom. The British version had a sense of enclosure: It took place over the course of a fairly short time over a set number of episodes. There was a sense there of a real arc to the character development. The awkward silences and pained looks of embarrassment were very British, with the supporting players living the roles of tolerant office workers who endure the antics of their boss because, well, that's just the way things are. It is hard to imagine American office workers not seething more openly. With the American version, we know that Michael's atrocious behavior will have no long-term consequences. He will always squeak through. Dwight will never have that nervous breakdown. Jim and Pam will never get together, or if they do, the relationship will be as bland as in any sitcom that resolves its romantic conflicts during its run.
Or maybe the problem is this: Steve Carell is just too good for this show. He seems tied down, with only 20 minutes or so per episode (less, given the time spent on supporting characters) to light up the television screen. I wanted the camera to get back to him—unlike in the British version, where I enjoyed all the characters. I hope the second season of the show either allows Carell to cut loose more or develops the supporting characters in some more interesting directions.
The first season of The Office runs only six episodes and squeezes neatly onto a single DVD from Universal. The individual plots are not terribly important: Like its British counterpart, this is a show where the plot situation is merely an excuse for character-driven humor, whether it is through Michael's efforts to boost morale by hosting a birthday party that manages to humiliate the poor birthday girl, or through a basketball game against the warehouse crew that falls apart due to Michael's macho posturing. Universal includes an hour of deleted scenes that mark the key difference between the British version and the American version in terms of comedy timing: Most of the meandering character bits and frustrating pauses that made the BBC version so uncomfortably funny (and a full half-hour per episode) were snipped from the American version to make room for commercials.
Universal also includes five commentary tracks (two for the pilot, and three for various other episodes). John Krasinski, Rainn Wilson, and B.J. Novak ("Ryan the Temp" on the show, as well as writer of "Diversity Day") appear on all five, usually with producer Greg Daniels. Steve Carell shows up a few times. Along the way, they are joined by pilot director Ken Kwapis, Jenna Fischer, and various writers and producers. None of the tracks is essential, but everyone seems to be having a good time.
The Office is pleasant but not "appointment television." If you happen to catch it on NBC, you might enjoy it for a half hour. But with the far superior British version available on DVD, there is no particular reason to rush out for this first-season collection. The "Diversity Day" episode is a gem, though, and shows the comedic strengths of Steve Carell. I hope the supporting characters find their edge through the second season, if The Office is going to succeed in its American incarnation. If not, then at least Carell can use this as a springboard for a long and fruitful career.
This court orders Michael Scott to take sensitivity training. On the other hand, if he ever learned his lesson, he probably wouldn't be as funny. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Tracks for "Pilot," "Diversity Day," "The Alliance," and "Basketball"
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