November 8, 2005

Rocky trip across the Atlantic for NBC’s The Office

It just doesn’t work. That is the phrase most would use to describe NBC’s The Office. The show is based on the successful British mockumentary series of the same name. Apparently in the journey across the pond, the humor of the original show was left somewhere in the Atlantic.

Transferring television programs from one country to another is a risky business. Just imagine an American or French version of Monty Python. I wouldn’t want to live in a world that would tolerate such comic sacrilege. Most remakes attempt to capture the brilliance of the first show, but usually end up falling painfully short. NBC’s The Office has been just such a disappointment. Nevertheless, someone should have seen this coming.

BBC’s The Office was the brainchild of comedians extraordinaire Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Much of the series’s success can be attributed to Gervais’s portrayal of David Brent, the dim-witted regional manager of a paper company. The show pivoted on the awkward silences resulting from one of Brent’s inappropriate comments (like patronizingly telling a black worker that while he loves Denzel Washington, his very favorite actor is Sidney Poitier). Following all his jokes, Brent was the only one in the office laughing. Gervais crafted his character through subtle nuances and the moronic arrogance intrinsic in his role. David Brent was a man who had been promoted to the level of incompetence.

In rare cases, shows do end up succeeding when they are adapted from England. There is no better example than All in the Family. Norman Lear based his show on Johnny Speight’s groundbreaking British satire, Till Death Do Us Part. Lear retained the qualities of the show that made it brilliant while inserting aspects to the program that made it uniquely American. He did so without losing what made Till Death Do Us Part such an effective satire. Alf Garnett, the classic London racist, was morphed into Archie Bunker, “everyone’s favorite bigot.”

No one would argue the cultural impact of Carroll O’Conner’s portrayal of a blue-collar, working-class American. Like The Office, nothing was out of bounds. All in the Family struck a chord with the American public the same way Till Death Do Us Part affected British audiences. Although the executives at NBC are pleased enough with their version of The Office to extend its second season from 6 to 13 episodes, the program has no chance of reaching such iconic status limited to groundbreaking shows like All in the Family.

It’s just not funny. While the work of Gervais was linked to Carroll O’Conner, Steve Carell (who zealously plays David Brent’s American equivalent, Michael Scott), channels the spirit of Brick Talmund from Anchorman: Legend of Ron Burgundy. Carell’s acting is forced and rather contrived. Gervais allowed the idiocy of Brent to be both understated and unquestioned. The insecurity of the boss has been lost on Carell; his imbecilic character acts more like a mental patient than anything else. Conversely, Gervais defined his role as that of an insecure, obtuse, oblivious and—at times—likeable galoot.

NBC’s The Office should be renamed The Zoo. It’s a show geared towards people like Michael Scott, not true lovers of comedy. The original captured the tension and camaraderie ever-present in the ensemble; in the remake, subtlety is absent in all characters.

So go out and buy The Office from the BBC and witness what’s missing in the U.S. version. It is will be obvious from the very first scene. When Gervais laughed—and his coworkers looked on in awe—the audience laughed along with him. Unfortunately for NBC, as the audience dwindles, Carell will really be the only one left laughing.