The Office: Season One Review
American versions of UK shows have a habit of being utterly pointless. While a few have managed to avert disaster, most either end up a pale photocopy of the original lacking all its colour and life (the US Men Behaving Badly), or as a misguided attempt to Americanise something that by its very nature is peculiarly British, the televisual equivalent of trying to fit a round peg through a square hole (the Paul McGann Doctor Who). Dramas tend to do a little better than comedies – one recent example being the US Queer as Folk (not as good as the original, but sensibly adjusted for a stateside audience) – but where laughter is concerned, most translations have died a quick death. (The worst example I've ever seen is the Americanised Fawlty Towers, Payne starring John Larroquette – never was a show more aptly named.) It does of course work both ways: the UK version of The Golden Girls, for example, dying a quick death, although we do have a fondness for transplanting trashy game shows and giving them to Bruce Forsyth to host. We may share a common language with our neighbours across the Pond, but we certainly don’t have the same sense of humour – us Brits prefer something that feels real which mixes the pathos and cynicism of real life with the farce of the old music halls, while Americans generally prefer happy groups having good-natured squabbles and learning life lessons at the end of each episode, the metaphorical difference between England’s drizzly climate and the West Coast’s perpetual sunshine. There’s a fascinating study to be made one day on how the differences between what makes us laugh reflect our different cultures – America’s basic conservatism vs. Britain’s latter-day liberalism – but the very fact there is this difference means most efforts to translate British premises for an American audience are bound to failure, in the same way someone who dresses for the Scottish highlands is going to look out of place on the Californian coast. America doesn’t want to be reminded of how miserable life can be in a humorous way, we don’t want to be force-fed saccharine morals all the time.
Given these generalisations, it’s surprising that Greg Daniels, one of the architects of King of the Hill (as well as a co-producer on The Simpsons during its glory years) considered The Office worth developing. Despite its surprise double win at the Golden Globes, its Godot-like premise of static lives going nowhere centred around the tragic monster of boss David Brent, is hardly the usual feel-good diet regular American fare consists of. Certainly, if The Office had come to prominence ten years ago, I doubt it would have got beyond an initial pilot, but things are slowly changing: recently the freeing (some would say corrupting) influence that is cable has brought to the US new styles of television, daring to suggest there is more to life than simple black and white. From cop shows such as The Shield, through to the black cynicism of Curb Your Enthusiasm, writers, and increasingly big audiences, have begun to dare to explore the Dark Side, more willing to allow their television watching to be challenging as well as entertaining, uncomfortable rather than relaxing. In that regard a US version of The Office would just be a continuation of something started with the likes of The Larry Sanders Show, with the encouraging bonus that it would be broadcast on a major network, NBC, as opposed to the more peripheral delights of HBO, current home of Larry David. However, despite the fact these steps forward have been made, there was never any chance an American Office would be anywhere near as excruciating as the British version. This portrait of life behind an anonymous desk is painted in much broader strokes than its British progenitor, with many of the sharp corners filed away to be more palatable.
And that’s its main problem – it’s simply not brave enough to stay true to its painful roots. This is most apparent in the handling of the equivalent of the Tim/Dawn romance. In the UK version Tim is a loser, pining away for the girl he knows secretly he can never have. His humour is a defence mechanism against the injustices of a world that has given other people the good looks and the opportunities in life he has never had, and we feel for him every time he looks across to the reception area, or makes Dawn laugh just before her boyfriend turns up to whisk her away. While the situation remains the same in this version, the playing of it is such that we feel neither sympathy for Jim, as he’s known here, or believe even for a moment that in the end he’s going to get the girl, who here is called Pam. Not only is he good-looking and witty, he’s also a mean sportsman (in one episode he thrashes the boyfriend in a game of Basketball, something Tim could only ever dream of doing). He’s not vulnerable, and the basketball episode shows that the creators don’t really get the dynamic of his character at all. It could be argued that the writers are going for a slightly different vibe with the situation, but I don’t buy it: everything else is a virtual facsimile of the British version (even down to having Eccentric Fat Man popping up in the background) why isn’t this? Regrettably, as with most photocopies, the copy is often paler than the original: the scenes in which Jim and Pam are flirting before the boyfriend show up are mechanical rather than heart-felt, and don’t tug at the heart strings at all.
It’s also impossible to have any audience sympathy with the David Brent character, here called Michael Scott and played by Steve Carell. It’s hard to recall now how one felt about Gervais’ Brent at the end of his first season, given how events subsequently developed, but I suspect that even at that early stage there was more to it than just horror and loathing, which are the only emotional responses it’s possible to have with Scott. While he suffers the same level of embarrassments – there’s a toe-curling moment in one episode in which he gathers his staff to announce a morale-boosting treat and then can’t think of anything – there is no sympathy evoked. When he chases after a girl only to have her ending up with Jim there’s just a sense of relief this horrible man didn’t get his lecherous claws into her. Does this man inwardly know how awful he really is, as Brent does? Perhaps but we aren't allowed to see it, a crucial difference. We get all the bluster and none of the (hidden) tears, and as such he becomes simply a grotesque, a caricature rather a real person.
When he was cast in the role, Steve Carell says he decided not to watch any more of Ricky Gervais’ performance as he didn’t want to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, his movements. Although some of his remarks on the DVD commentaries suggest he might have seen more than he says he did, this was an eminently sensible decision on his part and as such Scott is a character who manages to be both like Brent in his actions but completely different in how he comes across. Again, the performance is broader than Gervais’: Scott tends to yell a lot more in an effort to get a laugh, his attempts at humour go on longer (see, for example, his impression of the Six Million Dollar Man), and, as previously mentioned, he doesn’t play the vulnerability that surely the character needs. Physically Scott has more of a natural presence when he walks into a scene - whereas Brent sucks the life of any place he enters, Scott doesn't. He's not a little fat bloke from Reading, he's a confident comedian from America, and Carell can't quite lose that. But it’s an amusing performance all the same, not as nuanced as Gervais but enjoyable in its own right, and far better than could have been expected.
Of the others, John Krasinski’s Jim is the weak link, being far too self-assured for his own good – whereas Tim stumbles into a relationship Jim has no qualms about chatting the girl up. Rainn Wilson’s marvellously named Dwight Shrutte (the Gareth of the group) is much better, both looking and acting the part well while Jenna Fisher’s Pam is attractive to look at but again doesn’t have the tragic element to her that perhaps she needs: she looks at Jim longingly but as soon as her boyfriend appears she goes all girly and seems to forget everything else. The one area that arguably does improve on the original is the background characters, those that have a couple of quirks and that’s it. Only six episodes in and we already feel like we know a bunch of them: Philip, Oscar and so on, while the actors playing them (and who share their names) quietly seize their moments and become almost as memorable as the leads (several of whom are also writers, including BJ Novak, who gets a nod in the opening credits as a character, but doesn't do much in the episodes themselves).
Any British review of this series finds itself in some difficulties. This is a show not intended for those of us who have already seen the original, and as such any criticism comparing the two shows is arguably missing the point. America will look at it and judge it on its own merits: we can’t help but judge it on its parent, which is undoubtedly far superior. As a show in its own rights it does everything perfectly well: it has a generally talented cast who do their best, a decent set of scripts that evoke both amusement and embarrassment at the appropriate junctures, and is put together very well (as in the British version, the spying-camera-man is an integral part of the story-telling). I certainly enjoyed watching it, and will look forward to the next season, but my enjoyment was almost completely relaxed: there was none of the tension which made Gervais and Merchant’s original so compulsive. Ultimately the premise of The Office hinges on the monstrous central character, and here he is slightly too one-dimensional to succeed. We dislike him, but we don’t pity him, while there’s not sufficient interest in Jim and Pam to merit spending much attention to them at the moment. Whereas the story in Stoke was developed by nuance and insinuation, here there is a lot more underlining of the relevant gags - for example, we only became aware of Brent’s inherent racism as the episodes wore on whereas Scott's gets an entire episode devoted to it early on (and, just in case we don’t get the point, his boss informs him it’s all because people have complained about inappropriate comments that he has made.) Ultimately, it's not as subtle as it could be (although, next to something like Will and Grace, it's in a different league) and is certainly not to be compared to Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it's early days, and is a brave effort by a mainstream network. I look forward to seeing where it goes in Season Two. Not nearly as disastrous as it could have been.
All six episodes of the first season are presented on one single-sided dual-layered disk, which comes in a jewel case with clippers to fasten it shut. On first putting the disk into the player one is presented with trailers for up-coming Universal DVD releases: fortunately, these can be skipped at any time by pressing “Menu” on your remote control. (For the record, the trailers are for Columbo, Northern Exposure Emergency! Macmillan & Wife, McCloud, Murder, She Wrote and The Rockford Files.)
The menus themselves are a bit cluttered. All are static with appropriate illustrations of office life, with motifs such as pads of paper, pens and so on. The main menu is sensible enough, with four options: Play All, Episode Index, Bonus Materials and Languages. The Episode Index, however, is messy: on selecting it, three of the episodes can be selected, as well as the options: Play All, Episode List, Menu and More. This seems a bit like overkill to me: surely a simple list of the episodes and the option to return to the main menu are all that is required? The Episode List especially is superfluous – all it leads to is a list of all six episodes, with no option then but to return to the Episode Index menu… which lists all of the episodes. Once one has selected an episode from the Episode Index menu a further submenu appears, with a synopsis of the episode, as well as more superfluous options: Play, Languages, Episode Index, Bonus Materials and Menu. Surely there was a simpler way to go about things, although I suppose a cluttered menu is fitting for a DVD about a cluttered office.
With all these submenus one could at least expect the episodes themselves to be broken down into chapters, but no, each twenty-two minute episode has only one chapter, which is annoying. That said, all episodes are subtitled, although none of the bonus features are.
It’s a little pointless to call the video of a faux-documentary comedy unexciting but the transfer here is just that, flat and boring. It's okay to watch, although there is occasionally the hint of softness about the image and the odd trace of minor digital artefacting. Bland.
We only get a 2.0 track, which isn't much in this day and age, although again I suppose it reflects the pseudo-fly-on-the-wall feel of the show. Fine for what it is.
Five commentaries, with four of the episodes covered. The Pilot gets two, with overlapping participants, which is a little wasteful, but the quality of these is actually pretty decent. Whereas some television show commentaries end up being a goof-off with the cast, here the actors actually talk about shooting the episode in question, while the writers and producers talk about the series in general (and compare it to the British one). If there was one criticism to make, it's that some of the commentaries have too many people - one episode has nine, which is rather excessive for a twenty-two minute episode (although, to be fair, they do acknowledge this).
Over fifty minutes of scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, from all six episodes. There's lots of stuff here that's as good as what ends up in the episodes (perhaps on the Season Two DVD we could have some re-inserted?) and are often very amusing.
It's faster than the British version and not as layered, but taken on its own merits this show is good fun, populated by a (generally) talented group of actors and with some occasionally sharp writing. This release is pretty decent: there's a generous number of commentaries (with all the major players in the show which is always nice) and deleted scenes - there's not much else this early on that could have been included. If you're a fan of the original, it's worth checking out: don't expect too much and you'll be pleasantly surprised.