When NBC announced that it had secured the American rights to the
brilliant BBC comedy, "The Office," there was equal measure of wincing and
guffawing. It was like Britney Spears announcing she was redoing the Billie
Holiday back catalogue. Or like action director McG claiming he was going to
re-envision "Citizen Kane."
Remake "The Office"? On NBC? Shudder.
Suffice it to say, there was a lack of confidence. After all, this was a
network that managed to bring the British hit "Coupling" to these shores, air
it nearly verbatim with American actors and somehow still suck the humor
completely out of it. NBC, in fact, has a history of miscalculating British
genius for an American audience. And lest it slip anyone's mind, the network
hasn't put anything truly funny on the air since "Scrubs" -- and yes, NBC,
that includes "Joey."
But now, well, this is slightly embarrassing: The American version of
"The Office" is not only funny, it creatively pays homage to the original (the
first episode is the British version nearly verbatim) and then, in subsequent
episodes, comes up with completely separate scripts that define the NBC
edition as unique and audaciously clever in its own right.
The soul-sucking Wernham Hogg paper supply company in dank Slough is now
the Dunder Mifflin paper supply company in equally bleak Scranton, Pa. All the
original characters are present, with names changed and attributes more
Americanized. The background co-workers are equally as beaten down and
depressed looking. Ambition is stunted. Making it until 5 p.m. is still the
main goal. And yes, that lonely, ringing phone remains.
If you're a loyalist (as most critics are) and even the concept of a
knock-off is offensive, consider this: You can still buy the BBC version of
"The Office" on DVD and enjoy the wonderfully dry, painfully realized look at
dull office life working for a dull company in a dull town. It will remind you
that "The Office" is simultaneously depressing and joyously hilarious, a kind
of "Dilbert" meets "Curb Your Enthusiasm" by way of "This Is Spinal Tap."
But let's not obscure history, here. Even in England, "The Office" was
not a show for everyone. And many Americans, spurred on by critics on these
shores, turned to BBC America and, well, didn't get it. Others got it -- but
didn't like it.
Who expected, then, that NBC would, in adapting the original, keep the
most daring aspects -- the deadly serious mockumentary spoof style, the lack
of a laugh track, the presence of awkward silences and inherently nervous
Nobody, that's who.
What NBC has managed to do with "The Office" is make something true to
the original while expanding on the vision and completely avoiding the dour
stupidity of the current American sitcom. That, in case you haven't figured
it out yet, is nearly miraculous.
In fact, NBC's "Office" gets better in future episodes once it distances
itself from the British script of the pilot. No good can come of mimicking
brilliance. As the show's boss, Steve Carell is wonderful, but suffers in
comparison to the original's Ricky Gervais. Carell's character, Michael Scott,
is a different kind of obnoxious oaf than Gervais' David Brent. Gervais played
Brent as delusionally unexamined, a boss with no clue that he was incompetent
and annoying and that everyone secretly loathed him. Carell (of Comedy
Central's "The Daily Show") plays his version of the lead with more grating
self-importance, an above-board annoyance he's aware of and uses to bully
those around him. It's a wonderful performance, and enormous credit must go
Once past Thursday's pilot, where co-workers Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and
Jim (John Krasinski) and receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) seem less
interesting or developed than their British counterparts, they subsequently
begin to grow on you, to define themselves, to "pop," as TV executives like
Ah, but back to the original sentiment of the first paragraph. What
happens when a network as easy to deride as NBC actually comes through with
something not only inspired but aggressively risky? It may appease critics,
but will anyone watch? Make no mistake about it, "The Office" is unlike most
other American sitcoms. The pacing and punch lines and humor are bravely off-
kilter. But different -- even when it's lovely and thrilling to behold --
often fails to connect with the masses. Look no further than Fox's "Arrested
Development" or NBC's own "Scrubs" for proof.
The fear here is that "The Office," despite its impressive reincarnation
in America, may be a tough sell. Its humor is dry and odd. The subtleness so
fretted over by lovers of the original is boldly intact. And you probably
don't need to be reminded of how subtle plays in Peoria.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle