The British sitcom “The Office” stands as a unique anti-comedy — its best moments rely not on good jokes, but on the oppressively revolting silence inspired by horrifically bad ones. The brilliance of the show was that it transformed this nausea into something hilarious, cathartic, and addictive.
Aspiring to replicate this experience, NBC has remodeled “The Office” for American audiences. Currently in its second season, the American “Office” is a successful adaptation of the British original, as long as one keeps the disclaimer “for American audiences” in mind. The difference between the two is that the British version is like literature, while the American is like a bestseller: the former is an acutely sublime refraction of the mundane, while the latter is a pleasant mediocrity likely to be enjoyed and forgotten.
Like its British counterpart, the American “Office” revolves around the overpowering personality of a small business manager who styles himself a popular entertainer when he is in reality merely a discomforting philistine. Boss Michael Scott (Steve Carell) craves the social validation afforded by laughter, and much of the show’s action is driven by his pursuit of it. Among his captive audience is the entertaining but enervated nice guy Jim (John Krasinski), whose quixotic romance with the affianced receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) constitutes the main subplot of the show. Rounding out the cast is the sinister yes-man Dwight (Rainn Wilson), who provides an unwitting outlet for Jim and Pam’s job-related boredom, as well as several secondary characters such as the forbearing temporary worker Ryan (B.J. Novak) and the judgmental accountant Angela (Angela Kinsey).
The main obstacle faced by the American cast is playing characters that have already been played to excruciating perfection. They do as admirable a job as is possible, but their relationship is that of talent to genius. The American incarnations of the “Office” characters are compelling and emotive, but ultimately straightforward epigones of their deeply resonant predecessors. Whereas the British boss David Brent is the sum of our collective social transgressions, a chilling reminder that we are not always as charming as we envision ourselves, Michael Scott is a blundering idiot and an asinine inconvenience.
Where we find ourselves empathetically mortified by Brent because he recalls our most deeply embedded humiliations, we laugh at Scott because we know he will make for a good anecdote later. The result is that, while the American “Office” is very funny, and worth watching for that reason, the British version would be worth watching even without a single humorous moment.
Where the American “Office” triumphs is in comparison to other American sitcoms. Simply put, with FOX’s recent abandonment of Arrested Development, “The Office” is the best comedy on network television. Each episode provides the viewer with multiple instances of irrepressible laughter that unfold in a refreshingly organic manner. The mockumentary style and banal circumstances make the show’s jokes seem less like ones tailor-made by disinterested Hollywood wits and more like those that one remembers best from conversations with friends. “The Office” is not a sneering intellectual’s approximation of our petty lives; it is our petty lives, and is amusing as only they can be.
“The Office” is also singular among American sitcoms in that its most meaningful sentiments are communicated not via dialogue, but rather through the body language of its protagonists. For example, when Pam learns of Jim’s waning interest in his bromidic girlfriend Tracey, the slight upward twitch around the corners of her mouth tells us more about her feelings than any combination of words could. The efficacy of this technique stems from the fact that we ourselves, bereft as we are of the calculated professional reflection that imbues most cinematographic emotion, reveal our most personal feelings through involuntary action. From this comes the alarming realization that if we can read the secrets of the characters in their movements, someone else might be able to do the same to us. Just as the mockumentary style invades the privacy of the “Office” personalities, our experience of it undermines our own sense of privacy. This creates the level of self-consciousness powering much of the show’s social critique.
All this accounted for, the American “Office” is off to a relatively strong start. What remains to be seen is whether the show’s structure will weather the endless serialization that inevitably haunts successful television shows in the U.S. The British original was perfect in part because of its encapsulation. Comprised of just twelve episodes and an extended special, the British “Office” was characterized by a symphonic unity; to add or subtract anything would be to lessen it. To extend it into a syndicated series would be inconceivable. The American “Office” is already on its twentieth episode, and NBC has committed to a 22-episode third season. The show has retained a consistent quality thus far, and can perhaps continue to do so because of its comparatively middlebrow nature. Still, the fear remains that the interactions of a played-out “Office” will become as monotonous as they are in real life, ruining one of the better shows on television. We can only hope that the American writers can infinitely escalate the cataclysmic rudeness of Michael Scott, as well as the romance of Jim and Pam, already at its breaking point, to new heights. Alternatively, we must hope that NBC will either end the show gracefully or cancel it. Our hopes for the show thus mirror its best experiences: knowing it will end badly, we pray for a swift conclusion, while at the same time morbidly wanting it to drag on.