Tuesday, September 18, 2007

For HighTouch: Why the American Version of "The Office" is so much better than the British

First of all, to get this out of the way, let me just admit that I am a huge fan of the British series "The Office." In fact, I resisted watching the American version because I just didn't think it could live up to the British.
It is a well known fact in my household and in other parts of the United States that the Brits are just funnier than Americans. In general, this is true. I think it is caused by their flavorless cuisine and their far superior beer, but it could also be attributed to the sogginess of their environs, which leads to wet socks, and everyone knows that causes one to make dry and acerbic comments. I'm sure there are Brits who are not funny, but I don't know what rock they are hiding under. Let me also say that one of my favorite office moments is when Tim puts Gareth's stapler in gelatin (since it's England it's not Jello, or maybe it is).
That said, the American version has far surpassed the British version, in my heart if not in reality. Partly this may be a function of the length of the series. The American version is beginning its fourth season, and the British version was only two, plus the bonus special. The additional seasons have allowed for more character development.
In the British version, the minor characters remained minor characters, colorful, funny, but never wholly human. In the American version, as the seasons have progressed, minor characters have come to the front, so that "The Office" is not just the story of Michael, Dwight, Pam and Jim, but also the story of Toby, Phyllis, Angela, Kevin, Kelly, Ryan, Creed, Oscar, and Roy (etc. I know I'm leaving some out). And this, I contend, is what makes the American "Office" a superior television product. If a series is to survive, it can't simply be funny. It must be funny, yes, but it has to be funny with heart. I know veteran readers of this blog will balk at my use of this word, but I mean it. "The Office" has been engaging my emotions, and not just on the Pam and Jim front. (I will admit here that I was obsessed, in every sense of the word, with Pam and Jim when I finished watching Season 2 and was waiting for Season 3 to come out on DVD. I googled the actors and found out all I could. I looked for pictures online. What was I going to do????)
The greatest surprise, and reward, of Season 3 has been the emergence of my favorite sub-character: Toby. And the fact that Roy becomes more than just the "bad boyfriend." And the episode when Michael shows up at Pam's art show and buys her watercolor of the office building for the office is truly touching. And this is what elevates Michael Carrell's character above his British equivalent. Even though David Brent is witty, and, we guess, ultimately a nice guy, we get to see that Michael is a nice guy; in spite of his being an ass in many situations, ultimately he does care about his employees. And I think the decision to humanize Roy was a good one. He moves beyond the stereotype of the boyfriend who only cares about sports to become a person.
And Toby! My favorite scene is when he must accompany Michael to New York for the salary negotiation. Ryan and Kelly are fighting in the cubicle next to his and Michael tells him he has to go with him. When Toby asks why, Michael says, "I'm going to hit you in the head with a hammer." Toby listens to the fighting for a minute, then picks up his bag and follows Michael.
I notice that I have not yet mentioned the cringe factor, which adds to the appeal of "The Office" but I fear I have overstayed my welcome. I'll leave that for another post.

10 comments:

Lisa B. said...

Yes! This is exactly what I was looking for! The kind of writing about television that makes you want to sit down with the writer (you) with bowls of salty yet not too unhealthy snacks and chat about the show. And then, to watch it, in giant swaths, taking breaks only to refill the snack bowls and go to the bathroom. You and I, Dr. W., should start our own television criticism site. There is a pressing need. A call, if you will, to write. I think this could be more important, if you think about whom it might potentially affect (the masses who are hungry for better writing about television), than teaching.

theorris said...

I would argue that the two series are completely different and should not be compared. Ricky Gervais was going for something similar but completely different with his rendition of the lead idiot, for example. I will admit that I have not watched enough of the American Office to make a complete judgment. I don't really watch regular TV, I guess, aside from the odd Discovery Chanel show that attracts my attention. In general I wait for DVD compilations.

ErinAlice said...

Okay I may be one of the last people in America, if not on the planet, that has never seen, not even one, episode of the office. I haven't seen Entourage either-this all may reflect badly on me but I am actually considering renting Entourage so I can watch it from the beginning. I must say that reading your critique makes me want to watch, that and the fact that I heart Steve Carell. I am not sure if I will ever get around to it, maybe I will be watching reruns of it late at night years from now (which is how I ever watched an episode of Seinfeld or Friends). Yea well with that comment it is now apparent how much of a tv loser I am so with that, I sign off. I think I have some tv watching to do.

susansinclair said...

Tee hee..."a well known fact"...

lis said...

steve carrell as michael makes me want to pull my teeth out.

hey, if you start that television criticism site, I want to contribute. I know my tv. maybe we should--a group blog.

Dr. Write said...

In a bad way? Sometimes being without teeth is good.
I can't believe you don't heart Steve. C'mon!!
What should we call our TV blog??

middlebrow said...

Steve Carrel in the 40 year old virgin? Come on lis! Lower your standards a bit. Come on down to my level.

I understand that Carrel can be annoying at first, and I suppose elements of his brand of comedy are obvious. But there are moments in The Office where Carrel achieves comedy sublimity. Really.

I agree with Dr. Write on this one. I loved the British Office, but love the American version more. And I'm not just saying this because I'm married to Dr. Write.

Lisa B. said...

Steve Carrell is cringe-comedy KING in The Office. Of course, in his way, so was Ricky Gervais. That show was funny and also extremely painful to watch. But I agree with Dr. W.: I love the American The Office, and for all the reasons she says. The episodes Diversity Day and the one about women (near the end of season 3) are so classic. And also not far from reality, if anyone has ever undergone Diversity training. Talk about wanting to pull your teeth out.

Limon de Campo said...

Erinalice, you are not alone: I have also not seen a whole episode of The Office, but I have seen clips...when I was at an academic conference on professional writing.

[I slink away in shame]

lis said...

I don't necessarily mind the cringiness of Carrell (Gervais had that too), but there's just nothing to love about him to balance that cringe. Carrell's Michael wants to make me cringe. It's too obvious, too much. Gervais was just more believable.