February 27, 2006TV ON DVD
The Office: An American Workplace Season 1
I loved The Office in its original form, as a BBC sitcom chronicling an uneventful regional branch of Wernam Hogg Paper. Creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant led audiences into the world of white-collar drudgery, and invited them to marvel at the fabulous creatures therein; they took the hopelessness and banality of the workaday world and made it into a punch line — Kafka on goofballs.
Gervais played the now-legendary role of firm manager David Brent, a creature more monkey than man with requisite amounts of gibbering and feces hurling. Joined by sweet receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis), her secret admirer Tim (Martin Freeman), and weasely sycophant Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), Gervais and Co. created what is arguably the best sitcom of the past five years.
|In the original, Brent nicknames the corporate shrew "Camilla Parker-Bowles"; in the new version, she is "Hillary Rodham Clinton." The entire episode is like a bad xerox.|
The characters also remain essentially the same — boorish Brent transforms into Steve Carell's Michael Scott; Tim turns into Jim (John Krasinski) and still has a crush on the receptionist, now Pam (Jenna Fischer). Obnoxious Gareth becomes annoying Dwight (Rainn Wilson, who portrays a militant Dungeons & Dragons nerd perfectly).
NBC has a long history of ruinous English imports, and for the first couple of episodes, it seemed The Office was poised to join Coupling on the Good On Paper scrap heap. But as the series progressed, it nimbly began to step out of the shadows of its predecessor; once the writers stopped the tepid retread of jokes from the original, they found that their show and their characters had charms of their own.
The show's working title was The Office: An American Workplace, and, indeed, it hits when addressing issues, like multiculturalism, relevant to the American corporate world: one of the later episodes has Dwight forcing the staff to disclose their medical conditions so he can choose the cheapest health plan — the employees respond with ridiculous diseases like "hot dog fingers," "government nanorobots," and "anal fissures." Oh, wait . . .
Greg Daniels, who adapted the show for NBC, made a smart move by taking advantage of these uniquely American cultural tics, allowing the show to go places the English version couldn't. In later episodes, Michael organizes an office basketball game and manages to offend nearly everyone in the process; during the aforementioned sensitivity training, Michael displays his sensitivity by asking his Hispanic accountant whether he'd like to be called something other than "Mexican" — something less offensive, perhaps? It is hard to imagine these bits working in the soft, homogenized office of David Brent.
|Michael Scott is less manic, less deranged, than Brent, and a teensy bit more competent: in a show that could arguably run triple the length of the original series, it would become harder and harder to believe a boss with Brent-like deficiencies wouldn't be fired.|
Carell's chemistry with the rest of the cast is superb, but for my money, nothing beats the interactions of Jim and Dwight. Jim treats Dwight less like an annoying co-worker and more like an animal deserving of study; in one of the deleted scenes, Jim sends Dwight into a typing frenzy by continually guessing his password ("Frodo" . . . "Gollum" . . . ).
Their chemistry, in fact, outstrips the chemistry between Jim and Pam, whose romantic spark is more like a sputter. I hate to keep comparing, but the relationship has none of the sweet desperation of Tim and Dawn, whose interactions were so charged with longing and regret they were recently named by The Onion A. V. Club as one of that publication's top ten television couplings.
But these, ultimately, are minor quibbles. Besides the season itself — which is well-crafted and entertaining — the one-disc set offers deleted scenes and commentaries. The deleted scenes are mostly small bits of character interaction, all of them quite funny and all cut, I suspect, for time. The commentaries are by the writers, and while interesting, are not essential.
One can only hope as the excellent second season continues — you are watching, aren't you? — the show will continue to cultivate the fertile soil of American corporate culture. Enron, anyone?
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