There comes a time in every comedy fan’s life when they must ask themselves that crucial question: which Office do you prefer? Oh, and – SPOILER ALERT – I will talk about major plot points of both series.
In 2001, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s BBC mockumentary began airing in Britain. It was widely acclaimed and quickly spread from country to country, rightly becoming the show that everybody was watching, quoting and loving to bits. It lasted just fourteen episodes (two seasons and a couple of Christmas specials) and went out absolutely on top. Every episode is a classic and every line is memorable. In this way, it is a kind of Fawlty Towers of its generation.
Above: In my opinion, the best episode of The Office
So, when it was announced that NBC was going to do an American version of The Office, people were right to be concerned. American versions of ‘foreign’ humour don’t always hit the mark (Men Behaving Badly, Kath’n’Kim) and it was hard to imagine it working. First of all, Ricky Gervais was perfect as David Brent, and it’s not a role that should be mimicked (although his influence is clearly seen in just about every new comedy made). Secondly, you can’t just manufacture chemistry. The cast of the original Office got it pitch perfect, every time. How can you assemble a bunch of actors for a US pilot and expect the same success? It’s impossible. Ludicrous. I don’t know why they even bothered.
But it worked. Somehow, it worked. After a clunky first episode, which used almost exactly the same script as the original, the US Office settled into its groove. Jim proved to be a fantastic American Tim. Pam, although nothing at all like Dawn, brought her own dry charm to the role, and Dwight proved to be arguably even funnier than Gareth Keenan (“Cock”). And last but not least, Steve Carell, who is hilarious in everything, got the balance of being David-Brent-with-a-splash-of-Americana just right. They did it. They re-made a classic and it was almost as good as the original.
Then, it got silly. Not ridiculously silly, but… silly. It took a long time (about three and a half seasons, I would say), but the magic ran out and it went from being a great show to a good one. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s worth watching and better than most shows out there, but allow me to outline where I think it went downhill:
1. Michael’s character is inconsistent
With David Brent, you knew exactly what you were getting from one episode to the next. His neediness was there for all to see and it felt real. With Michael Scott, there is an inconsistency there which may come from the fact that not all episodes are written by the same people. At times he is a somewhat charming, smooth-talking salesperson who can sweet-talk people into signing on the dotted line, and at other times he is a complete bumbling idiot who will follow a GPS to the point of driving it into a lake.
Michael Scott doesn’t need to be liked
2. Jan’s mental breakdown is too sitcom-ish
Can you imagine Jennifer Taylor-Clark in a relationship with David Brent? Or getting a boob-job? Or starting her own scented candle company? Neither can I. I think that the US Office relies too much on romantic relationships between its characters and the whole Jan and Michael relationship always felt a bit unrealistic to me. “It’s only TV,” you might think, but if you look at the original Office, I think each character is portrayed with honesty and realism. They didn’t need to delve into any real storylines because they didn’t need to extend it out for scores of episodes. So, while it’s a lot of fun to watch, it detracts from the quality of the show.
3. Jim and Pam got together
Just like when Lois Lane finds out that (spoiler alert) Clark Kent is superman, the tension disappears and everything becomes less interesting. This is why people get together at the end of romantic comedies. The UK Office did well to end the Tim and Dawn saga in a totally satisfying and understated way. Nobody wants to go back and watch a Tim and Dawn spinoff series called The Canterbury Tales. Actually, I would watch it, but that’s not the point.
Some people have said to me that they think the American series has more heart, but again, I must disagree. It has heart, sure, but it is the sustained realism of the original Office that gives it its heart. Moments of sincerity are few and far between, so when David pleads for his job, or when Dawn opens her secret Santa present from Tim, there is more of an emotional connection. I can’t help but cry when I watch those scenes.
I am grateful to the NBC and everyone involved for making a US version of The Office. In a way, it’s having your cake and eating it too. You’ve got the pristine, unspoilt UK version to watch whenever you need a fix of comedy perfection, and you’ve got the US version, which, although it’s not quite as juicy and tender, still tastes delicious and keeps on giving and giving… and giving. (Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have only watched up to the end of series 4 so far but I think I’ve seen enough to form an opinion.)
I am well aware that these opinions may not be shared by everyone (mainly Americans) and I would be happy to hear where you think I have gone wrong. However, for me, the victor is clearly the original UK version. In my opinion, it changed the way TV comedy is done, and for its originality, its hilarity and its timely exit, it deserves to be recognised as the better of two excellent versions.
UK or US Office? I prefer a flan.