A Universal Workplace?

Recently the original British sitcom The Office received a retrospective courtesy of the  BBC, a documentary with interviews from media types from the inside and outside of its production and if anything, seeing it on UK screens proved how missed such a show was.  Seen it its full a few years after the dust is settled, the Office still retains its delicate characterisation, its immaculately forged scalpel like wit, and its probing ability to overload our finely tuned senses with its asinine performances and scenarios.  But most importantly, watching the Office again restates its permanence as a ground breaking show, a milestone for television.

So perhaps it is worth noting that the American adaptation of the show – we’ll call it The Office US – has begun its sixth, yes sixth, season on American network NBC.  Most of us are used to hearing of successful British shows being unsuccessfully adapted to American television – Peep Show, Spaced, Coupling, Men Behaving Badly and Gavin & Stacey have all had their clones – but The Office US is a golden exception.  While us British would like to think our original produce too clever, too, well, British, for reproduction, we can’t deceive ourselves forever that we alone on this Earth are the chief proprietors of sharp wit and heavy irony.  And let’s not forget, the office is not an environment confined to Albion.  There are German iterations of the Office, a French Office, a French-Canadian Office, even a Brazilian Office.  I’ve not seen them though, so I’ll shut up about that.

The Office US though, has garnered not just enough ratings to satisfy the need for six seasons, but it has also faired incredibly strongly with the critics.  But the differences of each show soon emerge.  Due to the British style of production – and Gervais and Merchants infamous dedication to detail in its creation – the Office exists merely as 12 half an hour episodes with a Christmas special.   The Office US however has around 100 episodes throughout its duration.  Of course, if one were to compare the series on the base statistics, a 100 episode run seems like the hallmark of a successful show and that of 12 a failure.  But that’s obviously tosh; the British Office was never intended as more than what it was – a taut, meticulously crafted sitcom that gave all it needed.  The Office US is driven by its commercial value for NBC, and so was its creation in the first place, but our stigma with commercial ratings obsessed television should not cloud our thoughts concerning its quality – although I would recommend the uninitiated just “soldier on” with the first couples of episodes as they are pretty much shot for shot reconstructions of the British version.

Soon the US remake began to walk on its own two feet, it became its own entity and became all the better for it.  Instead of remarking on how Steve Carrel as Michael Scott is hardly as foolishly sinister and lonely as David Brent, how John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer as Jim and Pam are more obviously good looking than Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis as Tim and Dawn are, and how much more OTT the compulsory office nutcase (Dwight Schrute/Rainn Wilson) is, you should just accept that it is a very different beast from the original and Michael Scott is a very different boss from David Brent.

Sure, they are both indecisive and irresponsible managers, but whereas David Brent reaks of the nastiness and self-regard we usually find with bastard businessman on the London tube, Michael Scott sits in an envelope of self-contentment, with a brand of naivety and innocence brilliantly played by Carrel.  Unlike Brent, whose private workspace guarantees his status, it is Scott’s relationship with his workers that guarantee his.  And over the course of the six series, Scott really warms to his employees and they (to an extent) to him.  Of course, the general impetus for maintaining the shows many seasons lies with making Scott more redeemable, more likeable, but that only takes you so far.

For there is something useful in comparing the two shows in relation to the idea of the workplace as seen in Britain and in the States.  Why are two shows from either side of the Atlantic, about the same environment, so different?  Is it not strange that countries who share similar business practices and the same language have so different experiences? For example, the Office of Wernham Hog was the portrait of slow death, the continually perpetuating nightmare with a spindly chair.  You saw the grim environment of the industrial estate on the cusp of the Great London Vacuum sucking the lives out of people and it reflected the decaying souls of its workers and employees.  In the Office (US) of Dundler Mifflin, it…well it actually seems like a nice place to work.  Sure, everybody gets at each others throats after a while, stifles the odd cough and watches the more eccentric members of the Office do something outrageous, but compared to the quiet misery of watching David Brent with his po-faced smile, beaming at the lifeless husks working under him after another of his jokes falls flat, its all a bit of fun.

Take the case of Tim and Dawn.  Tim, through the course of the series’ confessionals, intimated that he felt his life should be more than what it was, that an escape from the Office was needed before it was all too late.  Dawn too, needed an escape.  She wanted to be an artist, a children’s illustrator nonetheless, and yet was trapped by the prospect of marrying her fiance, the proto-bastard Lee, also a worker at the warehouse below the Office.  This is mirrored in The Office US – Jim questions his place in life, Pam paints on the side and is engaged to a warehouse proto-bastard – but whereas Tim and Dawn escape the Office together to start afresh, Jim begins rising up the ranks of Dundler Mifflin management and Pam seemingly buries her dream of being an artist after getting a  job as a Dundler Mifflin salesman.

The Office US is an inclusive place.  It releases itself from Gervais and Merchants vision of the Office as a place full of misspent creativity and wasted talent  fairly quickly and replaces it with one where the workplace is one that you can raise a family around (Jim and Pam get engaged, Pam gets pregnant), where the American family unit can proliferate.  The Office at Wernham Hog was simply a coffin buried somewhere, to escape from.  Where does this diametrical difference come from? Are the attitudes to the Office environment really that different across the pond?  I’m not entirely sure, but I can say that while The Office US will never replace the startling brutality of awkwardness that the original unearthed so well or, in simple terms, replace our faith in the originals pedestal, it certainly is very good and well worth the watch.

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