Paper View

John Phillips on the US version of The Office

First published February 2008

Of all the things I saw on my TV over Christmas, what do you think I found the most heart-warming? The billionth showing of Del falling over in a wine bar? The trillionth of Eric Morecambe’s artistic differences with Andre Previn? No, it was when Steve Carell’s face popped up in a trailer stating Paramount Comedy was to start showing NBC’s version of The Office, or as it’s sometimes rather stuffily billed outside its home nation, The Office: An American Workplace.

I’d be the first to admit I’m a bit of a xenophobe when it comes to comedy. Until fairly recently anything that came from the land of the free would be guaranteed a hard time if it tried to work its way into my limiest of limey hearts. The Office had a tougher task than most. When it was first broadcast on BBC3, it lacked the one thing that usually accompanies a US import, a good reputation – on either side of the ocean. The first series did badly in the States, and was only saved by network executives who showed an unusual level of faith in the show.

It didn’t look like the British public would be any more receptive. UK Office fans were perfectly accustomed to the programme making them cringe, but now they were doing it with genuine horror. “How could they even consider taking this most British of sitcoms, and remaking it for America?” we asked. “Surely they’ll destroy it”. Sure enough, the first episodes took a real kicking from British viewers who were never really going to give it a fair chance. It was like we’d invented a new blood sport, waiting to give the adaptation the most brutal kicking we could muster. We didn’t want The US Office to even exist, and if it really had to, we wanted it to fail, if only to confirm our belief Americans can’t translate our comedy without turning it into a meaningless load of schmaltzy, moralistic crap. We half-expected Carell to enter each episode to the sound of a whopping studio audience, and end it by recapping the moral he’d learned. Ugh.

Back then, I was as dismissive of The US Office as anyone. It didn’t help the first episode was a near word-perfect copy of the UK version, making comparison all too easy. For anyone raised under the Union Flag, it just seemed deeply wrong to be watching someone other than Martin Freeman putting someone other than Mackenzie Crook’s stapler in jelly – or indeed, “jello”. It was pitiful to hear the receptionist call the boss a “jerk” out loud, rather than venomously muttering “wanker” under her breath, the way she was supposed to. Honestly, damn their insolence! As the credits rolled, we switched off, proudly puffed out our chests and collectively said, “There. We knew they’d cock it up. We bloody knew it! Rule Britannia!”.

Unfortunately, those opening 23 minutes seem to have defined the British opinion ever since. According to many, the show will forever be a toned-down rip-off of the “proper” version. So, as a reformed cynic, I’m beginning a campaign to get the people of this country to realise The US Office is actually every bit as good as the original, and that the two compliment each other in a uniquely beautifully way.

For the beginners, let’s just get the basics out of the way. Where the British are used to the Slough branch of Wernham-Hogg – populated by David, Tim, Gareth and Dawn – simply replace this with the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of Dunder Mifflin – populated by Michael, Jim, Dwight, Pam and a few additional characters, many without equivalent in the original. The style is still that of a documentary, complete with talking head inserts. Easy, eh? Well yes, though you’d be surprised how the two versions have come to diverge over time.

Let’s explode myth number one. Beyond the lousy first episode, The US Office does not recycle British scripts. From the superb second episode onward, you can see the show’s genuine determination to plough its own furrow. True, there are scenes that echo the UK programme to varying extents, albeit usually placed in different contexts to the original. True, the overlying theme of the show is familiar – the prospect of the branch closing, and its subsequent merger with another – but it is remarkable how much the US version branches off from the original. Indeed, British viewers who start watching the US series from series three or four will probably be severely confused by the fact semi-familiar characters have followed very different story paths to their UK counterparts.

It’s easier said than done, but in order to appreciate NBC’s The Office, you have to force yourself not to think about the British series – and in particular resist the temptation to ponder how Gervais and co would have delivered each line.

Obviously, the single most important element of this, and every other version of The Office, is the boss. Gervais and Merchant have acknowledged that, through the course of the British run, David Brent’s character was deliberately tweaked to make him appear less nasty, and more like a misguided buffoon. Michael Scott, the US counterpart played by Steve Carell, continues this process further. Like Brent, he is clearly a lonely individual desperately seeking validation from those around him. Like Brent, he is shown to have a very small circle of friends, most of whom regard him as someone to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Like Brent, he believes himself to be funny and likeable, even going to the extent of attending improv classes, where his combination of over-eagerness and chronic lack of imagination leads him to be shunned by the rest. So far, so good.

Where Scott differs is his vulnerability is made far more apparent to both the viewer and the other characters. With less of Brent’s tendency for one-upmanship, and more inclined to wear his heart on his sleeve, going to ludicrous lengths in order to secure the approval of others, Scott proves himself to be a quite fascinatingly complex character in his own right.

Some of the most agonising scenes come when he receives a relatively mild compliment, and twists it in his own mind to believe his “admirer” is his new best friend. Whereas Brent’s “devotion” to his staff was clearly only part of the persona he wished to project, Scott is a genuinely nice man, blighted with a hopeless inability to grasp the complexities of human nature. While both react badly when they find their peers do not regard them the way they had imagined, Scott’s frustration are more childlike, as opposed to Brent’s childishness.

Perhaps by virtue of having so many more episodes at their disposal, the US writers allow Scott a much greater depth than Gervais and Merchant gave their character. His failure to grow up is explained as stemming largely from a troubled childhood as a mummy’s boy, and a stormy relationship with his stepfather. References to his younger years, including a clip of him appearing on an old kids’ TV show, paint a heartbreaking picture of his inability to make friends, and explain his desperation to be liked by the staff. His immaturity gives him an enormous and quite poignant affinity with young children, making him a hit with his colleagues’ kids in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”. Elsewhere, a brief relationship with a divorced mother leaves him with a sincere yearning for a family, and he signs up to a dating website using the less-than-ideal username of “Little Kid Lover”.

It has often been questioned, with some validity, how David Brent ever rose to his position. Here, however, the question is comprehensively answered, as we are regularly reminded Scott had been a superb salesman, who was subsequently promoted to a post way beyond his abilities. When given the chance to revert to that role, he inevitably impresses his peers.

While Brent is largely denied any redeeming features until the final episode, Scott’s wide-eyed naivetĂ© brings with it a certain amount of personal charm, allowing the development of storylines that would be inconceivable in the British version, including a tumultuous on-off affair with his superior, and equivalent to the Wernham-Hogg’s Jennifer, Jan. A complex relationship, their mutually destructive tendencies serve to place Scott into the age-old dilemma of feeling unhappy when it’s on, but then rejected and lonely when it’s off. Memorably, his obsession with Jan reaches a peak when he uses the staff appraisals to interrogate his employees about the possible sub-text of her mundane voicemail message, the staff shrewdly indulging him in order to put him in a good mood.

Possibly the most telling example of the fundamental difference between Scott and Brent comes when the branch merger is announced. Echoing what happened in Slough, the Scranton office is due to close and be merged with the Stamford branch, only for a last minute reprieve. In this case, the manager of Stamford suddenly announces he’s used the situation to secure himself a better-paid job with a rival firm, effectively forcing the plan to be revised, and his own branch to close. In a talking head, Jim (US equivalent of Tim) says, “Say what you like about Michael Scott, he would never do that”. Fair enough, but by condemning his staff to redundancy in order to further his own career, the other manager is doing precisely what Brent fully intended at the end of the first UK series.

It’s doubtful the writers intentionally created such a glaring contrast of the two bosses, but as a viewer of both versions, you simply cannot disagree with Jim that aping Brent’s behaviour in this situation would not be in Scott’s nature.

Moving on to the supporting cast, the Tim/Dawn dynamic is faithfully reprised by Jim and Pam. John Krasinski’s portrayal of the former is particularly fascinating in early episodes. Whereas Carell had famously never seen more than a few minutes of the UK show before accepting the job (and reportedly avoids watching it now in order not to influence his performance), Krasinski was a devoted fan of the UK series. This probably explains why his early portrayal of the everyman salesman is so strikingly similar to Martin Freeman’s, right down to the choice of haircut. As time has pressed on, Jim unsurprisingly loses the sense of sheer misery that so defines Tim, and becomes rather ambitious. While Tim turns down the chance to take Brent’s post, Jim actively seeks promotion, effortlessly ingratiating himself with the firm’s corporate bigwigs at every opportunity, taking a new job that sees him relocate briefly to the Stamford branch (where the subsequent merger sees him move back to Scranton as Michael’s number two), and competing directly against Michael for promotion to a corporate position. It’s all a long way from the attitude of, “If this were my career, I’d have to jump in front of a train”, inherited directly from his British counterpart in episode one.

Receptionist Pam, meanwhile, is probably the finest example of how the US writers have managed to expand a character. Whereas Dawn was relatively mute in her appreciation of Tim’s endless pranks, one of the joys of Jim and Pam is seeing their perpetual one-upmanship in trying to push the envelope of how much fun can be wrung out of every situation. With Pam taking a more active role in their friendship, we get much more of a convincing sense they are true soul mates. Comparing the two, Tim’s yearning for Dawn becomes even more tragic, magnifying the notion his infatuation arose simply because she was often the only friendly face he would see all day. It’s a good example of how the US series can make you better appreciate the subtleties of the UK version, as while our two transatlantic everymen watch their receptionist heartthrobs with their warehouse-worker fiancĂ©s, there is a definite sense that, while Jim longs specifically for Pam, Tim simply longs for somebody – anybody – to fill the gap in his life. With this perspective, Tim’s role in the show becomes a dramatically powerful examination of how lonely and unhappy people react when there’s a friendly face around, while also giving us our first inkling that The US Office steers the format away from the overwhelmingly bleak overtones of the original and back towards that of a “traditional” sitcom. Talking of which …

If the transition of the receptionist role shows the US writers at their best, then the transition of the Assistant (to the) Regional Manager is surely the opposite. Dwight Schrute, with his Amish background, vast array of ludicrous family traditions, overly aggressive manner, and almost religious devotion to Michael, simply comes across as too much of a caricature compared to Mackenzie Crook’s gloriously understated Gareth Keenan. For me, this is the ultimate test of a viewer’s loyalties – if you can watch Dwight staring into camera and talking of his survival skills without longing for a little of Gareth’s eye-shifting self-consciousness, then you’re a better person than I.

Series three’s branch merger heralds the introduction of Andy Bernard, effectively giving the show two rival Gareths battling for Michael’s favour. Hell, Andy’s first appearance is swiftly followed by Jim repeating the jelly prank on him, just so we get the point. While both are funny enough, neither quite get it right, and Dwight especially seems to be permanently placed just that little too far outside of The Office‘s otherwise reasonably-realistic feel.

The US series was always planned to run for a lot more episodes than the original ever did, and so the writers took the sensible step of giving the show a much wider supporting cast. The majority of these characters are entirely original, the only exception being Kevin, who is very loosely based on Wernham-Hogg’s Keith. Kevin shares his accountant role with Angela, the judgemental and sour-faced killjoy who enjoys a highly secretive affair with Dwight. Then there’s Oscar, who as a gay Mexican, allows Michael plenty of Brent-style faux pas, such as their classic exchange at a diversity training workshop:

Michael: “Is there a less offensive term besides ‘Mexican’ that you prefer? Something less offensive?”
Oscar: “Mexican isn’t offensive”
Michael: “Well, it has certain connotations”

Probably the finest additions to the cast are Creed and Toby. Creed, the oldest worker at the branch, is similar to Dwight, in that he pushes at the limits of believability – but he gets away with it largely because he’s a purely comic character, with very little dramatic involvement to speak of. His deadpan eccentricities seemingly stem from the 1960s, where his bohemian lifestyle as a hippy musician, coupled with a vast intake of drugs, has left him with very little sense of reality or morality. As one of the branch’s quality control officers, his finest moment occurs in “Product Recall”, when he fails to notice a batch of paper with an obscene watermark. He covers his error by carefully contriving to pin the blame on a woman from the paper mill, resulting in her dismissal. Not content with this, Creed then organises a collection for the fired woman, and pockets the takings himself. Crucially, he is blissfully unaware that much of his behaviour appears strange, claiming, “I’m a pretty normal guy. I do one weird thing. I I like to go in the womens’ room for a number two”.

By contrast, Toby, played by writer Paul Lieberstein, has a very important dramatic role, in that he provides Michael with the kind of nemesis Brent had in Neil Godwin. As the branch Human Resources representative, Toby has semi-authority over Michael, or in Michael’s words, “Technically, he works for corporate, so he’s really not a part of our family. Also, he’s divorced, so he’s really not a part of his family”. The fact that Toby is the one who, with resigned willingness, protects the rest of the staff from Michael’s misguided ideas, and is moderately well liked by them in return, leads to a wonderfully funny relationship, with Toby bearing the brunt of Michael’s childish resentment and bullying.

One of the show’s most exquisite moments comes in series four’s “The Deposition”, when Toby offers a forlorn Michael the hand of friendship over lunch. Michael’s lack of maturity leaves him totally ill-equipped to deal with his rival’s openly emotional description of his parents’ divorce, and silently walks away, cruelly pushing Toby’s lunch onto the floor as he does so.

As has been mentioned, in terms of style, the show does come as something of a culture shock to those accustomed to the BBC version. While the mock-documentary theme still has a strong role to play, this version drifts back towards traditional sitcom with soap opera elements thrown into the mix for good measure. As such, whereas it is easy to (wrongly) assume the dialogue of UK version is semi-improvised, here the whole show has a much more scripted feel. Occasionally, scenes will even flout the format completely, by showing characters acting in a way that they would clearly not do given they should be aware of the camera’s presence. At other points, the documentary crew will be seen manipulating events, for example, in a scene the camera rushes to Pam’s desk and alerts her to the fact Dwight is eating the chocolate she had previously seen Angela buy, deepening her suspicions of their burgeoning relationship. Again, these are not criticisms, but are certainly barriers UK Office fans have to overcome, particularly given the original was known for pioneering a realistic style of sitcom.

Surprisingly, given the number of episodes of the US version, it has yet to really wander from its core subject. The vast majority of episodes remain resolutely set in and around the characters’ professional lives, and rarely venture away from that. Those that do drift – such as stories centred on various employees’ parties and the like – are generally weaker. Fortunately these are few and far between. As with the original, some of the finest episodes revolve around relatively minor occurrences – Michael’s inability to face making unpopular decisions (having to cutting the cost of the office’s health care plan, he dumps the task on an ever-eager Dwight), or his attempts to cover up his mistakes (accidentally emailing an incriminating photo of himself and Jan to the wrong address, resulting in its rapidly forwarding to almost the entire company). Occasionally, though, storylines can drift into silliness, such as Dwight taking Ryan to his family’s farm for a course of heavily metaphorical lessons in salesmanship, or “Safety Training”, in which a very promising first half degenerates when Michael climbs onto the roof of the building, melodramatically planning a cartoon-like jump into the safety of a hidden bouncy castle in order to demonstrate the effects of stress. Yeah, it’s as daft as it sounds.

An episode that is particularly telling of how much the US series has diverged from the original is “The Convict”. Not a great instalment by any stretch of the imagination, it deals with the discovery a black employee who moved to Scranton with the merger has a criminal past and has served a jail sentence. Michael’s attempts to calm his staff’s concerns are OTT even for him, creating the persona of “Prison Mike” to help make everyone more understanding of life behind bars. Likewise, his constant striving to prove himself the least-racist person in the office seems slightly forced and out of place. The significance is that the episode is written by one-off guest writers, none other than Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who appear slightly lost in trying to write for this other boss. As a result, an episode that could have been the perfect balance of the two versions’ strengths, ends up significantly less than the sum of its parts, and demonstrating the extent to which the team behind the US version have made the show their own.

What I find particularly rewarding about watching the two versions of The Office is that, whichever I’m viewing, I constantly spot little things that make me appreciate both takes all the more. They accompany each other almost symbiotically, and give a great insight into the differences in British and American humour. By US standards, for example, The Office is quite dark and edgy, yet the one thing British Office fans most lament is the US series isn’t dark or edgy enough. American storylines are far more clear-cut than ours, the writers clearly feeling they have to spell things – most notably, Jim’s crush on Pam is laid on much thicker in early episodes.

Beyond comedy, it also gives an insight into the difference between working in the UK and US. American reviews of the UK series often question how much time we spend in pubs and nightclubs, the existence of quiz nights, or of having Comic Relief events in work time. By contrast, we might question whether events like those seen in “Booze Cruise” and “Casino Night” really exist, not to mention the rather bizarre Pretzel Day.

When a sitcom becomes a success, there are two main options. Keep it running and running indefinitely, or take the Fawlty Towers approach and ensure a short spread of high-quality episodes. Famously, Gervais and Merchant took the latter option with the original series, but with the US version, The Office now manages to exist both as a long running sitcom, and a short-but-sweet series. With the two being so different, there is now the luxury of being able to work through the DVDs of one version, then being pleasantly surprised by the differences each time you switch to the other.

Somehow, the US writers have achieved what seemed impossible. They took what we thought was the most British of British comedies, and managed to produce a show which respected the original, yet created a very strong sense of its own identity. While it may lack the darkness that characterises the British show, it does manage to be just as funny If not more so.

Now, I really must get around to learning French and German so I can see how the other three versions compare. I’ll get back to you on that one. I wonder what their words for “jelly” are …