What Have You Done With My Office?

NBC body-snatches the BBC series.

Remember that scene near the end of Annie Hall, when Woody Allen (as Alvy Singer) tries to recreate a fun date he once shared with his ex-girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton), chasing live lobsters around the kitchen in an attempt to catch them and boil them for dinner? He gamely tells the same jokes that made Annie giddy with laughter, but his new girlfriend just leans against the counter, smoking and staring with deadpan incomprehension. That’s sort of how fans of the BBC series The Office will feel about the new American remake premiering tonight on NBC. The harder it tries (and even, at times, succeeds) in amusing us, the more melancholic we’ll feel, remembering how magical things used to be.

No, really, it’s just as good. I swear.

I don’t think this is just snobbery, the “one-upmanship of memory” that Alessandra Stanley speaks of in today’s New York Times review of the American Office. It’s love. The Office’s fans love their show with a fierce conviction, and I doubt most of them will take kindly to the idea of simply transplanting the alienated crew of Wernham Hogg paper company to new digs in Scranton, Pa. For those still in mourning for the BBC series (which wrapped up earlier this year with a two-hour special), seeing the roles already recast with American actors is like waking up to find your beloved has been abducted, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style, and replaced by a random stranger. Luckily for NBC, the constituency of hardcore Office-heads hardly represents a significant audience demographic in the U.S. That leaves two categories of potential viewers: those who have never seen the BBC version, and those who have seen it and didn’t like it. Since it’s hard to imagine the latter bunch choosing to tune in (“Gee, that British show with the deliberately bad jokes and the long, excruciating pauses was really dull, but let’s give this Yank remake a spin!”), NBC is probably placing its bets on the vast majority of Americans who will experience tonight’s pilot as original, even groundbreaking programming. Unlike me, they’ll be able to judge it on its merits alone.

And The Office is not without merits. Steve Carell, a former correspondent on The Daily Show (he was invited back for a guest segment on that show last night, in what must have been an effort at cross-promotion), is truly funny as the hopelessly unfunny boss, now renamed Michael Scott. No living human could reproduce the precise blend of vanity, pathos, and smarm that Ricky Gervais, the co-creator and star of the British series, brought to the character of David Brent, but Carell wisely re-imagines the role from the ground up; his version is less a buffoon than a dickhead, with the knitted brow and aggressive physicality of Ben Stiller. He also wears his self-loathing closer to the surface than his predecessor did; where Gervais was wrapped in a cocoon of self-regard, Carell seems constantly on the verge of a temper tantrum, or possibly tears. Carell understands the needy, unlovable Michael Scott from the inside out. But some characters belong to the actor that created them; stepping into such a role, any other performer is as doomed as a singer covering a Bob Dylan song.

Besides Carell, almost every other casting choice is a gross miscalculation. The smoldering office romance between Dawn and Tim, which was the emotional motor of the British series, has been downsized to a pallid flirtation between Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Jim (John Krasinski). The writers intelligently abandoned all hope of finding someone with the bizarre physiognomy of Mackenzie Crook, who played the office toady Gareth in the original series. But his replacement, Dwight (Six Feet Under’s Rainn Wilson), lacks a comic hook of his own. He’s annoying, yes, but generically so—the kind of office scourge who operates a paper shredder at top volume inches from his co-workers’ desks and chats with the boss in insufferable management-speak.

Tonight’s pilot episode repeats, almost joke-for-joke, the first episode of the British series, as the boss calls a meeting to announce an impending round of job cuts, sowing suspicion and fear in the normally deadening atmosphere of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Future episodes will cease to rely so heavily on pre-existing scripts: In next week’s, “Diversity Day,” a racial-sensitivity training session degenerates into an ethnic-slur-slinging free-for-all. The superiority of the second episode to the first is an indication that this show may get better with time. NBC must be betting that The Office will attract the kind of viewer that used to watch Seinfeld (and is now failing to watch Arrested Development); it’s a sitcom for people who are totally over sitcoms.

In an interview about a new series he’s developing, Extras, Ricky Gervais recently said, “I’d rather it be 1 million people’s favorite show than watched by 8 million who thought it was OK.”  This quality-over-quantity philosophy may work in a country with a partially socialized television system (it did at least once, with the original Office on BBC), but it’s at odds with the business practices of American network executives. As explained by a media analyst discussing NBC’s battle to win back its long-held slot as the great sitcom network: “It’s hard to be unique and appealing to the mass audience at the same time.” If the American Office does manage to pull off good ratings, the irony is that it will be hailed as one of the most original shows on television.  … 12:10 p.m.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Prozac Nation, the film version of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s bestselling memoir starring Christina Ricci as the author, has been kicking around Miramax’s shelves for nearly five years awaiting release. Last weekend, it finally premiered, without fanfare, on the Starz! cable channel, where it will be playing for the next few weeks before its DVD release later this spring (click here for schedule.)

Ricci rescues Prozac

A variety of factors have contributed to Prozac Nation’s run of ill luck, from bad advance buzz to the negative publicity generated by Wurtzel’s tacky comments to a Canadian newspaper shortly after September 11. After rhapsodizing about the “sheer elegance” of the towers’ collapse (“It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone’s head. … It was just beautiful”), Wurtzel concluded airily, “I just felt, like, everyone was overreacting. People were going on about it. That part really annoyed me.” The studio got so much bad press about the interview that they held the film back till the incident blew over. But perhaps Jason Biggs, Ricci’s co-star in the film, got at the most important reason for the film’s underachiever status when he told the press, “”I just don’t know that the center of the story is a very endearing and likable character.” As if to prove Biggs’ point, Wurtzel herself was less tactful in a recent assessment of the film, telling the New York Times, “As you should have figured out by now, it’s a horrible movie.”

I kind of like the fact that Elizabeth Wurtzel’s supreme bitchiness, her near-paranormal gift for divining the most offensive possible thing to say, backfired so grandly on the studio that was trying to tap into that very quality. Like the clueless, well-meaning boyfriends that stumble into Lizzie’s black-hole orbit in the film, Miramax made the mistake of assuming that it could somehow skim off just the good part of Lizzie’s story: The freshman-year downfall, and slow climb back to sanity, of a sexy, self-destructive Harvard party girl. Wurtzel herself has a word for this: in her second book, Bitch, she coined the term “mental-health pornography” in a discussion of our culture’s obsession with beautiful, suicidal women. The producers of Prozac Nation were mental-health pornographers; all they wanted were a few crazy-girl money shots (and one topless scene, Ricci’s first.) They wanted Christina Ricci as an edgy, yet appealing anti-heroine. Instead, they got a loose-cannon author mouthing off to the press about global terrorism, and a lead performance so ruthlessly truthful it hobbled the film’s market viability.

For all the drama around its long-delayed release, Prozac Nation is not all that terrible a movie. It’s certainly no worse than Sylvia, another recent film about a depressed writer-lady, in which Gwyneth Paltrow played a doomed (yet curiously radiant! And WASP-ily indomitable!) Sylvia Plath. Unlike Paltrow’s, Ricci’s performance has nothing self-congratulatory or softening about it. Her Lizzie Wurtzel isn’t a “difficult woman” (to crib from Bitch’s euphemistic subtitle)—she’s a total f***ing bitch. Maybe even a c**t, or a t**t. Oblivious to the mere concept of other people’s existence, she lies, whines, pouts, and rages, all the while hoovering down drugs and male attention with equal voraciousness. Seconds after hurling herself sobbing into the arms of her immature but loving mother (the eternally compelling Jessica Lange), she’s pulling away to shriek, “I’m not your goddamn monkey!” at earsplitting volume. After casually seducing the boyfriend of her inexplicably patient college roommate, Ruby (Michelle Williams), La Lizzie offers an excuse for the ages: “It was, um, an accidental blowjob?”

Granted, Prozac Nation is an extremely silly movie, but let’s face it: self-dramatizing middle-class girls who stay up for days on end writing Harvard Crimson articles about Lou Reed (“I feel his cold embrace, his sly caress”) are inherently silly people. In the film’s best moments, the director Erik Skjoldbjaerg (who made the gloomy Norwegian thriller Insomnia) gets this, and gets at the ridiculous, touching pathos of adolescent self-reinvention. On her first day at Harvard, Lizzie sits down on a cardboard box to strategize with her roommate about their college personae: “We’ll be like these beautiful literary freaks … brilliant and dark and sexy.” As they laugh and puff reflectively at their cigarettes, she adds in a sardonic voiceover, “The trouble is, I was deadly serious.”

Whenever the film takes Wurtzel’s tragic posing seriously, it flounders. But at times, the relentlessly intelligent Ricci manages to turn the author’s cruel wit inward, allowing the viewer a glimpse of how awful it would be to be, well, someone so awful. Ricci’s brave, astute performance makes Prozac Nation better than it has any right to be, but it’s no great injustice that the film never made it to the big screen. Conoisseurs of mental-health porn (like consumers of the other kind) often find their biggest kicks on cable anyway. … 11:50 a.m.