Tuned In

The Learner Is Now the Master

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Last night, the godfathers of the American sitcom The Office babysat the kid, as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, creators and writers of the British version, guest-wrote an episode of the remake. We owe them a thank-you–not for showing us Americans how it’s done, but for demonstrating that, in its third season, the American version is now a better series than the already-excellent original.

(This would be a good place to note that my colleague Lisa Cullen, in her new workplace-issues blog Work in Progress, states her preference for the British over the American version. Yeah, Lisa, well, I prefer defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension systems! How do you like them apples?)

I re-watched some of the British series earlier this week, for the first time in over a year, and everything praiseworthy about it still stands. But that series, in retrospect, was far less an ensemble and much more a showcase for Gervais’ tour de force performance as cringemaking boss David Brent. Neither Steve Carrell nor, probably, anyone else, could match that performance, and many of the early American reviews focused on that comparison, overlooking that the adapters had created a new show with its own sensibility and a broader focus.

If Greg Daniels and company had tried to recreate the British show, down to its melancholy tone, dark humor and the stiff-upper-lip mores of Brent’s co-workers, they would have been rightly pilloried, and would have failed critically and commercially. The British series produced only 12 episodes and a final special; in its arc, David Brent is ultimately fired, disgraced, and (slightly) redeemed. The new version was made with a longer American TV season in mind and no endpoint. Michael Scott could not be the incompetent monster that Brent was and plausibly stay employed for the series. Michael is still an ass, but a more complicated one, able, at times, to show empathy and even to be good at his job.

Ultimately that was an improvement. Brent was a brilliant creation, but he could also be a little much, and Gervais at times took him to such extremes of ugliness, mean-spiritedness and social ineptitude that he seemed not just obnoxious but mentally ill. That difference showed in last night’s episode, where Gervais seemed to be writing Michael Scott as if he were David Brent. The first scene, where he made an extended, crude joke about a nursing mother’s breasts, played just a little too long and too ugly to fit Scott’s character. It’s a fine line between David Brent and Michael Scott, but the fact that the line exists, and that you can detect when it’s been crossed, is testament to how the American writers have made the show their own.

Also, converting the show to a longer-form series meant that the new show has a cast of supporting characters far deeper and more thought-out than the original. The BBC Office had other memorable people, sure, but the storylines were essentially David, Tim, Dawn and Gareth. Any of a dozen or more characters in the American Office could carry an episode–Oscar, Kelly and Ryan have, and who isn’t dying to see a Toby- or Creed-centric episode? And ironically, Gervais and Merchant’s script was by far at its best when they were writing the supporting characters. (The scene where Toby talks Michael down from imprisoning his staff in the conference room was deft and generous in a way that the sharper-edged original probably could not have been, and they wrote brilliantly for Angela, who has no real analogue in the British version.)

The greatest achievement of the new Office is really intangible–they’ve given it an American sensibility, a distinct mix of sarcasm, energy and even optimism that separates it from the resigned, mordant (and appropriately British) first edition. You can see it even in the most similar characters: the British Dawn, for instance, has a darker, more depressed nature than the sardonic, mousy but irrepressible Pam. The NBC show is the TV equivalent of a Fountains of Wayne song: the lyrics may be downbeat ("Hours on the phone making pointless calls / I got a desk full of paper that means nothing at all") but you still tap your toe to the music.

The American Office deserves credit for not trying to be British, for being a remake that is not a copy–and to be fair, Gervais and Merchant (who are, after all, executive producers of the new show) have given it just such credit. The sitcom has reached the point where it can go on without them, but maybe Gervais could come back anyway. Next time, though, as an actor.

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