American “Office”: lesser than original

John Kemp

NBC’s newest comedy in its primetime lineup, “The Office,” is awkward and rather unfunny, especially when viewed beside its British counterpart.

The counterpart, also called “The Office,” aired in England from 2001 to 2003, and consisted of 12 splendid half-hour episodes and two longer Christmas specials.

That show, created by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais (who played the officious lead character, the office boss, David Brent) was immensely popular, winning nearly every comedy award for which it was nominated.

Gervais has received several offers to write more episodes for the BBC, but he’s refused. However, he didn’t refuse NBC’s offer to remake “The Office” for American TV, using the same format, similar characters and similar plots.

Was this a doomed idea from the beginning? Not exactly.

The British show worked so well because it was a pseudo-documentary (akin to “This Is Spinal Tap”) that many people could identify with, showing life in a generic, gray, dreary business office, with funny situations and characters. It appealed to anyone who had worked in an office or knew someone who had, and for everyone else, the dry, subtle, awkward humor was enough to enjoy every episode.

Unfortunately, the traits that made the British show so likable have translated poorly in the American version. The humor is no longer subtle. Steve Carell, playing the new boss, Michael Scott, uses many of Gervais’ lines from the original show, but instead of acting with subtly and ease, he overacts and yells too much.

Gervais’ character was pathetic but likable; you pitied him but didn’t hate him for the stupid things he said. Carell, on the other hand, is so obnoxious that you can’t sympathize with him at all – he’s just an unlikable, poorly written TV character.

The other employees in the new “Office” – all of whom were charming, silly and unique in the original – also overact. The documentary feel of the original is gone, even though there’s still no laugh track, and the hand-held camera shakes and swivels. And since it doesn’t feel real, the new “Office” is just plain awkward but not in any way funny; the characters seem phony, the situations seem strained and the acting seems forced.

One of the only ways the American show might succeed is if the writers ditch all plot similarities to the British “Office” and come up with their own jokes. They’re already doing this in the most recent episodes, at least to a small extent. The second episode had several situational bits that were not in the original. But even the comedy that’s different doesn’t seem fresh or very funny because the actors are trapped in characters they can’t aptly portray.

I’m guessing the American “Office” won’t be around very long. But there’s no need to fret. Every episode of the British “The Office” is available on DVD.

If you’ve seen the American version and liked it, I still recommend you see the original, as it’s one of the best examples of TV comedy to come out in a long time.