Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way ...

More signs of early senility: I could've sworn I've written on this topic before. No matter -- I actually have something to add. Unless, in fact, I also wrote THAT part before. Anyway ...

Certain people -- the same ones who confuse cynicism with intelligence -- love to set themselves apart with cultural snobbery. These are the people who insist Saturday Night Live hasn't been good since (Ferrell, Hartman, Belushi). Today, they're also the ones who insist that the BBC version of The Office is better than what you see on NBC.

Given that, it's a bit of a shock that the NBC Office found an audience of any size. They were never going to win over the hard-core snobs, and they weren't going to get the Fear Factor crowd. That leaves only mid-range snobs like me, and there aren't that many of us. My take after limited viewing of the BBC version and unadulterated drooling over the NBC version was that the hard-core snobs needed to give it a rest. Fortunately, enough people have agreed with me that, with the help of perfect lead-in My Name is Earl, The Office is doing well enough to stick around. In fact, they've already made more episodes than the original, since British comedy-makers tend to quit while they're way ahead.

Today, I had a chance to see a bit more of the Beeb's version -- in fact, I caught the last episode and a half, which tied up the storylines (until the "reunion," which I've recorded to watch later). Of course, I liked it. But it's also apparent from watching why a U.S. version was a pretty good idea.

Though I got more of a feel for the rest of the cast in these episodes, the Beeb version revolves around Ricky Gervais far more than the U.S. version revolves around Steve Carell. That's not such a bad thing -- Gervais' David Brent is a classic caricature of a middle manager with a deluded sense of self-importance. If Gervais and company had done 50 episodes instead of 12 (plus the special), perhaps he would've worn thin.

Carell had big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively, but I think he gets a bit of help because the rest of the cast is better developed. Gareth is a believable office irritant, but Rainn Wilson has been able to show layers of idiocy and evil in Dwight. Some of the Eurosnobs insist that Pam (Jenna Fischer) is too pretty to be the receptionist stuck in an awful relationship, but don't we all know someone like her? (Maybe it's just an American thing that many pretty women with personalities and brains can still end up with knuckle-dragging alpha-male wanna-bes?) Her British counterpart, Dawn, just doesn't register -- she's given so little to say that I don't think I'd recognize her voice. Tim seems likable, but Jim is a joy to watch as the puppetmaster who controls the proceedings far more than the supposed bosses realize.

This isn't a complaint about the BBC version, and it's certainly not a complaint about the cast. They have the masterful comic timing you'd expect from a first-rate BBC comedy, and they're able to pull off subtleties of expression. The point is that the basic premise of The Office lends itself to far more comedy than Gervais could pull off in 12 episodes, as good as they are. By spreading the wealth among the cast, the U.S. version is built better for the long haul, all the better to make it through the three or four seasons that will leave it ripe for future DVD sales and possibly syndication (though five has always been the magic number there). They'll just need to figure out how to resolve the Jim-Pam storyline -- even Cheers had trouble sustaining Sam and Diane's on-off relationships and probably wouldn't have succeeded if Frazier hadn't entered the mix.

The other major difference is that the BBC version is considerably darker. The jokes are more obscene than U.S. censors would allow, and as a result, they're meaner. The cinematography is bleaker, perhaps to make it seem more believable as a fake documentary. And the overall tone is sadder.


The last episode, which leaves several of the main characters miserable, probably wouldn't go over well with a U.S. audience. It's well done and astoundingly concise -- I kept looking at the clock thinking, "They can't possibly wrap this up in five minutes." The key scene is brilliant: Tim (Martin Freeman) is sitting down and talking to the camera about Dawn, explaining -- likely for the umpteenth time -- that they're just friends. It's clear from his face and delivery that he isn't even convincing himself. He stops in mid-sentence, says "excuse me" and takes off. The camera awkwardly turns, leaving a blur of scenery before catching up with Tim in the hallway. He asks Dawn, who had announced earlier that she was moving to the U.S. (irony!) with her fiance, to step into a side room, and he fumbles to turn off his microphone. We can barely see into the room through the blinds.

The result: Dawn hugs Tim, who walks back out to his desk. He picks up his microphone, turns to the camera and says, "She said no." In the other storyline, which I found less satisfying, David Brent begs for his job back and is turned down -- as blustery as Brent is, you can't help but feel a little sympathy for him.

It's a bit of a bait-and-switch. This show is usually described as a classic putdown of overbearing bosses. It succeeds on that level, sure -- in both versions. But there's also something very sweet about it. The Handbags and Gladrags theme music reinforces the sweetness, sounding a few sympathetic notes. The English have always excelled at rebelling against drab circumstances, finding beauty in whatever way they can -- in Brent's case, it's presiding over an absurd kingdom like a kid with a plastic castle; in Tim's case, it's seeing Dawn as a reminder that there's more to life than this crappy job.

For once, U.S. producers copied a British show well. They didn't "Americanize" it by making it more crass; on the contrary, it has to be tamer unless they shift it to HBO. They built on the strengths of the show and developed variations. It has an English soul with American cameras. Now that I've seen a good bit of both, I appreciate each version all the more.

So will you start watching it already?

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