Defending NBC’s The Office

A British import the network didn’t mangle.

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Steve Carell, John Krasinksi, and Rainn Wilson from the American version of The Office

Americans love to fix what ain’t broke so that they can avoid repairing that which is in desperate need, like the rickety old network sitcom. We have a history of tinkering with British shows— Queer As Folk, Coupling, Big Brother—only to suck the charm right out of them. So, when NBC announced plans to Americanize Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, a seminal mockumentary about office life at the Wernham-Hogg paper company in the English town of Slough, fans were bracing themselves for blasphemy. And yet the writers at the NBC’s The Office have done something unprecedented: With the exception of the pilot, which was a predictable re-enactment of the British script, The Office (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. ET) has artfully looted Gervais and Merchant’s show for jokes and characters while at the same reinventing itself into something truly, well, American.

Until The Office came along, the American networks had yielded only dreary office comedies like The Drew Carey Show, Just Shoot Me, and Suddenly Susan—all of which bore little resemblance to a workplace outside a Hollywood studio. (The best comic treatment of office life may have been Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space.)The original Office resonated with both American and British viewers because of its sly evocation of the absurdity of the workplace. Producer Greg Daniels (Judge’s co-creator on King of the Hill)borrows Gervais’ and Merchant’s battles over workspace boundaries, surreptitious and seemingly doomed flirtations between co-workers, office gags involving dildos and prank calls, and the ever-present threat of layoffs. But Daniels also factors in our cultural idiosyncrasies: Americans don’t usually go out for pints every night—we’d be considered alcoholics if we did. Instead, the Sloughs of America—i.e., Scranton, Pa., which is home to the American Office’sDunder-Mifflin paper company—have been overrun by mournful chains like T.G.I. Friday’s, Bennigan’s, and Chili’s, the place where Dunder-Mifflinites hold their unofficial office functions.

The man at the center is Michael Scott (Steve Carell), who wisely chose not to ape Gervais’ inimitable oaf (and still managed to nab a Golden Globe just like his English doppelgänger). Michael shares his British mate’s arrogance, self-absorption, and cluelessness, but he possesses his own brand of vanity, as well as a wonderful tendency to be sinister toward his colleagues. The latter is apparent as early as the second episode, “Diversity Day,” in which Dunder-Mifflin employees are subjected to two excruciating cultural awareness seminars after Michael performs a Chris Rock routine on “the two different kinds of black people.” The second of the two seminars is an impromptu forum run by the clueless perp himself.

Michael will push right in to your office, your party, your personal space. The sounding of a fire alarm brings out his survival instinct: He brazenly shoves his underlings out of the way so that he can be the first out of the building, safe and sound. Michael attempts to stick his bandaged, seared foot (which he burnt on a George Foreman grill) into the MRI machine scanning the concussed head of his assistant, Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) in “The Injury.” And he sexually harasses every woman in his vicinity, be it the bemused receptionist Pam Beesley (Jenna Fischer); the plump, fun-loving Phyllis (Phyllis Smith); or Michael’s boss, Jan Levinson-Gould (Melora Hardin), the subject of his wrath after the two make out following a drunken evening at, yes, Chili’s.

Most notably, NBC’s Office takes note of differences in work ethic. Not only do desk jobs dominate our lives on this side of the Atlantic, they define us. At Dunder-Mifflin more so than at Wernham-Hogg, we see the employees socializing almost exclusively with each other—these guys don’t appear to have friends outside of the company, except for their spouses or lovers. The resident temp at Dunder-Mifflin, Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) tries to assert his boundaries in the office when he says with a mixture of disgust and trepidation in “The Fire”: “Stanley is the crossword puzzle guy and Angela has cats. I don’t wanna have a thing here, you know? I don’t wanna be the ‘something’ guy.” But he falls prey to Dwight, who christens him “The Fire Guy” when Ryan accidentally starts a kitchen fire by sticking a piece of pita bread in the toaster.

The American Office requires a greater degree of claustrophobia to set the drama in motion. And, here, we’re more intimately acquainted with the staff, if only to ease the edge off of Carell’s scene-chewing performance, which could become unbearable without comic foils. As Dwight, his volunteer henchman, tells the cameraman in “Office Olympics”: “We’re like one of those classic famous teams. He’s like Mozart, and I’m like Mozart’s friend. No, I’m like Butch Cassidy and Michael is like Mozart. You try and hurt Mozart and you are going to get a bullet in your head courtesy of Butch Cassidy.”

Given the general inanity of NBC’s primetime schedule, it is something of a miracle that the network didn’t manage to ruin The Office. Perhaps it learned a valuable lesson from past British remakes like Coupling (a show that dissolved as quickly as it premiered, in 2004), which, ironically, was a riff on the very American Friends. It wouldn’t have been the first time Brits improved upon one of our own cultural inventions—they gave rock ’n’ roll a makeover and now they’ve helped save the sitcom from itself.