I managed to get a hold of advance episodes of the new American version of The Office, the BBC’s modern sitcom classic that featured mockumentary-style realism and the most painful, awkward comedy you’ve ever (loved to have) been subjected to.
So, the question is: does the Yank version measure up? Or does it fall in line with the recent spate of cross-Atlantic sitcom immigrants, such as Coupling, which made me want to snuggle with sandpaper?
The answer is: The Office, American-style, is refreshingly funny, and shows a remarkable amount of potential to get even better.
The success lies in the translation. Instead of even attempting to replicate the true-to-life pauses and empty dead air that play against British societal politeness and mores, the new version, deftly co-Executive Produced by Ricky Gervais (as unique a performer as you’ll ever see, he played boss David Brent in the British version), smartly targets American audiences: the editing is sharp, the jokes well-timed, the production value top-notch, and the performances for the most part are funny and spot-on.
The Office is the story of banal office life in a banal industry (the paper trade) in a banal modern city (new version: Scranton). Steve Carell, a favorite to any fan of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, quickly makes the show his own as boss Michael Scott in a commanding, often funny performance. He plays the role smarter than Gervais-as-Brent, and where Gervais used his physicality as a comic weapon (I’ll never look at someone adjust their tie in the same way again) Carell uses his eyes and his natural sarcasm to great effect.
Jenna Fischer is the other standout thus far, and also plays her role with a bit more intelligence than her British counterpart (Dawn the receptionist). Fischer’s withering looks at the camera as Carell plays for the cheap seats are laugh-out-loud funny, and I’m thrilled to see that level of sophistication and subtlety in the early going of a new sitcom.
That said, The Office is clearly a sitcom, and works hard to generate the laughs-per-minute required by American audiences as compared with the more leisurely, and therefore more realistic, BBC version. Luckily, the laughs hit home often enough, particularly in the second episode, “Diversity Day,” in which the cast really begins to find its sea legs. Word has it that the pilot was a revamped version of the original British-version pilot, and it shows. Situations, camera angles, and even mannerisms (Tim the sales rep is screaming to rip through the belly of Jim, played by Jim Krasinski, early on) closely mirror the original version, with changes made in the content of jokes, if not the jokes themselves.
I’m curious to see how The Office will play out. The original, as classic as it already is, only totaled 12 episodes over two “seasons,” with one special thrown in to tie up the loose ends. There’s much to be explored among this new, talented cast (even the minor parts stood out), and it will be exciting to see if the momentum ball can keep on a-rolling.
The Office premieres on Thursday, March 24, on NBC.