When The Office first aired in England, a colleague at work told me about it. In between laughs, he related the bit about how Gareth tells Donna not to be intimidated by him even though he is her boss. She denies that he is, and it degenerates into a Yes-I-Am/No-You’re-Not argument. It seemed amusing enough for a polite smile, but I wasn’t inclined to make a point of watching it.
Then, a couple of years later, after I had moved to the USA, a friend from home sent us a video of the complete first series, which we converted to NTSC and watched. In fact we saw all six episodes in one sitting, laughing out loud in many places. The current annoying buzzword is “edgy” and I suppose The Office is very edgy. Being used to British TV, and the greater latitude permitted to broadcasters, especially after the 9.00pm watershed, I wasn’t too surprised by the direction the programs took. My wife, brought up on US network TV, found herself watching through her fingers in many places, or even staring at the floor. Each of us, in our own way, became fans, and as all the best fans do, we became obsessed. We would quote lines to each other. Out of the blue we would say things like : “What about the bit where Gareth tells what his greatest fantasy is?” and we would share a chuckle. When the second series came out, we got a tape of it from England to have converted as soon as we could. In fact when BBC America began to broadcast it, we were seasoned fans and almost looked down on these parvenus who were just discovering our show – with commercials yet! Eew!
The final act came with the two 45-minute specials that ended the canon (is that the right word?). They left us with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness. No new episodes to come, but we could gfo back and watch th e fourteen ones we have over and over. Mind you, good British shows, especially sitcoms, are frequently knocked on the head when at the height of their success. There were only twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers after all, and only seven of Knowing Me, Knowing You. A notable exception was Are You Being Served? which seemed to go on forever, and the reruns must have a half-life greater than most radioactive waste you’ll ever find.
Anyway, The Office was our show. We loved it, and watched it over and over. We praised Ricky Gervais for creating it. We enjoyed introducing our friends to it and we shook our heads uncomprehendingly when people said that they didn’t like it. Okay, so David Brent talks about a real or imagined near miss with testicular cancer, but is that a reason to switch off?
It was then announced that NBC would be making an American version, and we cringed. Why? Didn’t they know that was the kiss of death? Look at the crap attempts to do an American version of Fawlty Towers. And Men Behaving Badly. And most recently, the much heralded and swiftly cancelled Coupling. It doesn’t work, folks! British TV will often embarrass or even offend if there is a good laugh to be had. US network TV wants everyone to feel warm and fuzzy and nice, especially those who subscribe to old-fashioned family values, and crap like that (Actually, when a transatlantic adaptation does work, people tend to forget where the originals came from, because the US versions stand on their own – look at All In The Family and Sanford & Son and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Only the failures are remembered as transatlantic transplants).
So my wife and I were filled with foreboding. We felt very protective towards our show. We were so afraid that we would be presented with a bunch of unrealistically attractive people merrily bouncing wisecracks off each other to the accompaniment of a laugh track, and all of them really good friends, on hugging terms, in spite of the trials and tribulations of their white collar existence.
We need not have worried. The US version, now in its third season, easily stands on its own. The very first episode was an adaptation of the first British episode, with a few cuts to allow for the eight minutes of commercials in the half hour show. The characters were familiar, but different. For Tim, Dawn, Gareth and David Brent we found Jim, Pam, Dwight and Mike Scott. In both cases, action took place in the regional office of a paper manufacturing company. Both bosses were men who had reached positions just above their levels of competence, who were completely unaware of their own limitations, and who desperately want to be liked. The others broadly mirrored their British counterparts but not in every detail. Jim is not just Tim with an American accent. Dwight is an overgrown adolescent, like Gareth, but far more angry and aggressive. The rest of the office staff are there too, filling the background magnificently, with a few omissions, like Donna and Finchy. Instead we have Angela, poisoning the atmosphere with every sour faced grimace she makes.
Congratulations most of all to Steve Carell who has made his own man – Mike Scott. Like David Brent, he is always referred to by both his names. Like David Brent, he is an infuriating, sad little man, always that little bit out of his depth, and we don’t imagine him ever changing. We know that when Jim, Pam And Dwight finally leave Dunder-Mifflin, they will promise to keep in touch with him, but they won’t.
The US version will never be as edgy as the British one – they will never be able to do the black man’s cock joke, for example, or the girl in the wheelchair abandoned in the stairwell. But bearing in mind the constraints they have to work under, NBC have taken our show and have grafted it onto their own requirements and the result is most pleasing.