With the monumental nod that was Ricky Gervais’ much-hyped cameo on this week’s episode of the American version of The Office (a clip that is now trawling its way over every streaming video website on the net), when has been a better time to reprise the debate about the merits of each version?
It has become a perennial point of ferocious contention, gaining only more ambiguity with the continued success of Steve Carell’s American iteration of Ricky Gervais’ brainchild mockumentary show; which version is the better one? To try and shed a little light on finding an answer, we provide an analysis of the differences between the two very different – but both uproariously hilarious – versions.
The original Office basked in the art of turning cringe-inducing embarrassment into veritable comedy gold; the brazen, self-important arrogance with which Gervais’ Brent carried himself created some of the decade’s most eminently watchable car-crash TV, while the uniformly excellent supporting cast – especially Mackenzie Crook as slimy “Assistant to the Regional Manager” Gareth Keenan and Martin Freeman as his apathy-imbued foil, Tim Canterbury – anchored Brent’s insufferable mugging and cleverly satirised the drudgery of the office life.
Carell’s equivalent is an often broader, though no less valid excursion, fitting a mainstream American comic mode – it’s full of wacky, over-the-top physical gags and some wild buffoonery from Carrell – while also often boasting the same knife-edged gallows humour of the source material; the embarrassment is ratcheted up to almost uncomfortable levels, and there are a ton of daring running gags (namely Creed’s deviant exploits) that give the show the dogged rewatchability of something like Fox’s superb Arrested Development. The very first season tried too hard to hew close to the very British tone of the original show (copying plenty of dialogue almost verbatim, sounding awkwardly misplaced in the mouth of an American), though thankfully this was course-corrected by the time a second season rolled around, and Carell found a way to carve out his own unique niche.
Each show’s comic appeal is indicative of where it grew up; Gervais’ more restrained, subtle approach reflects the tone and tendency of popular British comedy as a whole. Carell’s more effervescent, exaggerated version holds a mirror up to how different American and Brits – at least stereotypically – are as people; Brent’s more subdued, considered brand of arrogance fits the archetypal British reserve, while Carell’s look-before-you-leap man-child is a more harmless, witless beast, easy to dismiss or even pity, and to many Brits, probably fits their stereotypical assertion of what it is to be American (misguided though it no doubt is).
The danger that Carell’s version has faced is “jumping the shark” at the behest of some of the more implausible, kooky plotlines – particularly Michael’s affair with tasty superior Jan Levinson and the indictment of fast-rising temp Ryan – a challenge made more difficult by its continuing length (Gervais’ Office ran for a mere 14 episodes, whereas to date Carell’s has aired ten-fold), and the fact that Carell is leaving the show this season.
David Brent vs Michael Scott
On the basis of their comic styles, British viewers – cherishing our beloved comedy as we do – are liable to defend the original version to the blind hilt, yet if there is any level on which the two shows see eye-to-eye, it is the quality of the performances, most prominently, the principal turn.
There’s no mistaking the strength of Gervais’ performance as the intolerable Brent, yet he finds a perfect match in Carell, who crafts a careful balance between heartfelt oaf and blabbering idiot that makes him both annoying and somewhat more likeable than Gervais’ equivalent. However, these small changes in character do create a subtle difference in tone between the two shows; Brent is, as one of his employees referred to him, a “wanker”, while Michael Scott garners some sympathy through a) being so gob-smackingly stupid that he is nigh-on impossible to hate, and b) having the occasionally selfless thought. Given that the original show was very much about a difficult boss and the soul-decaying nature of the work therein, the American equivalent gives the impression that it might actually be a not-horrible place to work (at least for a while), and therefore as a satire or critique it would seem less pointed and barbed. While Brent is an oft-mean spirited, potentially offensive failed jester, telling misguided “jokes” in the pursuit of self-adulation, Scott lacks the same ferocity, for better or worse.
While in the key stakes Brent better skewers the mundanity of the office experience, the American equivalent unquestionably better shines in the supporting character department, owed to the fact that they are developed beyond the fairly simplistic archetypes of the original show – the fat, quirky accountant and the nympho consultant-type that’s the boss’s chum, for instance – and have coalesced into distinct entities in their own right. That several of the most prominent back-up actors – chiefly B.J. Novak (troubled “temp” Ryan) and Paul Lieberstein (Michael Scott’s self-perpetuated foe, Toby) – have written countless episodes of the show only heightens the intimacy and surprising attention-to-detail paid to the world existing outside of the characters’ direct narrative strands.
Furthermore, the heightened budget of the American show allows some knowing – if potentially bombastic and self-congratulatory – guest appearances, the best to date including The Wire alumni Amy Ryan and Idris Elba. Will Ferrell is reported to star in the final four episodes of the current series, and while this has colossal comic potential, the star power could simply overwhelm the actual substance of the episodes.
In the UK version, the lesser characters are more background noise than anything – aside from rotund DJ-accountant Keith’s eerily honest monologues about fanny packs and errant sexual escapades – whereas the array of US equivalents are memorable by both name and personality, as is more than can be said for the glut of drones in Gervais’ show.
Tim/Dawn vs Jim/Pam
One of the more distinguishable elements of each version of The Office is the portrayal of the central love interest, in Tim and Dawn (UK), and Jim and Pam (US). In both versions, the female receptionist character is a somewhat downtrodden, ill-appreciated struggling artist, though Pam never succumbs to the ennui-induced fatalism that plagues Dawn, who remains confined to her reception-bound existence until Tim finally takes the initiative in the Christmas Special.
Pam, though struggling under the same dead-end job, is far more assertive and self-confident, making her generally easier to like in those earlier seasons, though it makes the tonal change of her character in later seasons all that more surprising. The pranks become more mean-spirited, and she and Jim essentially seem to feel above their colleagues, compared to the rather playfully acerbic antics of Tim and Dawn. Whether this change in character was intentional remains a mystery; to some, it is a brave diversion (after all, characters must change and grow, especially working in that office for so long), and to others, it may seem sacrilegious.
Gareth vs Dwight
A truly tough one to call on the basis that both performances and characters are so strongly constructed, the boss’s glorified errand boy does in both versions assume a false sense of authority – albeit for very different reasons in each – to hilarious effect, and in both versions is tortured incessantly by Jim/Tim.
One instance in which the distended format really aids the American show is characterisation, and as such Dwight is naturally further developed, impressively without sacrificing much of what makes his essence so hilariously compelling to watch. While Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth is a military brat who falsely asserts that the office should be run like a concentration camp, Dwight is cut from a quirky sub-culture of American society; an NRA-approving, Amish farmer whose oddball persona seems to derive from his peculiar social standing compared to that of his colleagues.
While Crook is superbly cast as the man-child that he no doubt must be – who can forget those absurd suspenders? – Rainn Wilson as Dwight demonstrates a more conniving and essential feral intelligence that makes his character go the distance of the show’s 100+ episodes, for there’s the distinct feeling that Gareth would quickly succumb to caricature had he been around for another series or so.
The Human Element
For all of the wonders of casting and excruciating humour, what would they truly be without a potent dramatic arc also? The original Office fed on the Tim/Dawn love story for its welcome dose of humanity, and the American one of course has Jim and Pam, though through the very different conception of the two shows, these dynamics wound up panning out in ways again more indicative of the aforementioned restrained British-ness and more verbose Americanism.
Through the show’s mere conception, the Jim/Pam love story wound up unspooling over a far longer period, a double-edge sword which at once makes us more familiar with the characters, though also caused the writers to struggle for tension and dramatic situations the longer things dragged on, to the point that it became almost frustrating when compared to the contracted simplicity of Gervais’ version. Ultimately, the original burns brighter for shorter, and is the more resonant of the two, in part because Tim and Dawn seem separately so less happy than Jim and Pam do. There is more at stake emotionally, more to care about, whereas the pairing off of characters in the U.S. show – Andy and Erin, Dwight and Angela etc – dilutes the impact at the expense of some soap opera-inspired schtick.
Each popular version of The Office serves to fit a particular comic mode, suited to the popular demeanour and tastes of its native audience, naturally; the British one is a work of kitchen sink realism that’s more acerbic and cynical (as is true of Brits typically), while the American offering has virtually dispensed with the docu-gimmick now, and is warmer, features a prettier cast, and is more infused with pathos (not a concern of Gervais’ perhaps until that Christmas-time reunion episode) as well as having a higher opinion of people generally (whereas in UK one, there’s the very foreboding feeling that these people are eking their way through life in a crummy job). It’s unsurprising that Brits prefer their version generally – not only as it’s first, it’s “their baby” (not to mention the only British comedy show in 25 years to win or even be nominated for a Golden Globe), and the humour fits their bleak out look better – while the U.S. one is more attuned to American sensibilities.
Both, however, are excellent, and it’s been encouraging to see the U.S. version mature after a middling first season. I just hope they tie it up soon because though the supporting players provide plenty of raucous fun, Carell is the show’s heart and soul, and a final-season derailment would put the debate over which show is best to bed once and for all.
SOUND OFF: Which version of The Office do you prefer?
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This article was first posted on January 30, 2011