The Offices

I was going to leave blogging about this until I had finished watching all the episodes, but I’m currently on an Office marathon, and it is getting too amusing/interesting not to note here. After watching the first two episodes of the UK version last week, I decided to take it seriously and systematically go through the UK original followed by the American remake; I thought that would throw up some interesting comparisons to draw. I finished the original series on Sunday, and due to the fact that episodes are only twenty minutes long, I’m now up to the second season of the American version.

I suppose the first thing to say is that both series are utterly hilarious: watching the two seasons of the original had me in raptures. David Brent is still an obnoxious tosser – possibly the biggest wanker ever to hit UK TV – yet he is also a sublime comic creation on a par with Basil Fawlty or Victor Meldrew. He is arrogant and repugnant, yet there is a type of naivite to him which is almost tragic: he has no idea how outclassed he is by those around him, and in the end you can’t help pitying him. Watching the episodes in one go, though, it became clear that the program was not just about Brent. The supporting cast – if I can call them that – play a major role. Brent may think he’s the star of the show (which is kind of the joke) but the characters around him play off this repugnant creature, developing their own personalities, backgrounds and narratives so that by the end the program starts to feel like a serious series. While they all still have comic moments, people like Gareth and Tim eventually turn into characters we actually care about, which is ultimately what made The Office so great and influential.

I can already see the same thing happening in the American series. Before yesterday morning, I had never seen anything of The Office (US) but luckily it’s all on Netflix. Having just watched the first two seasons (there’s a lot more of the American version than the British one) I can already see the same dynamic of repugnant, arrogant boss surrounded by the same collection of slightly oddball employees. I find it interesting that this is essentially the same program, but reset and remade for an American audience. It was created to fit American tastes and use American cultural references. Has any other television show been rebooted like that? We thus see references to things like American healthcare and laws which aren’t in the UK original. It has the same initial concept and underlying structure, yet the program has been entirely remade using American material, as if the original program wouldn’t do and needed to be remodelled and presented as American.

That is not to say it isn’t funny: Brent’s substitute, Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) is just as up himself as his British prototype; the supporting cast still bounce off him in the same natural yet hilarious way. The show has just as much to say about office dynamics and human nature. I’ll probably write more when I finish watching the entire series, but it is fascinating to see how America adapted a classic bit of British comedy to suit it’s own cultural norms.

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