Monday, December 27, 2010

6. The Office [U.K. vs. U.S.] (World's Self-Appointed Best Boss, Two-Fold)

“You know, a lot of these people, this is the only family they have. So, as far as I’m concerned, this says, 'World’s Best Dad.'”
-Michael Scott, picking up the World's Best Boss mug he no doubt bought himself; 
"The Merger" (U.S. version, Season 3, Episode 8)

Run time: 9 July 2001 – 27 December 2003 [UK] / March 24, 2005 – present [US]
Created by: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
Adapted by: Greg Daniels
Broadcast via: BBC / NBC

While Curb Your Enthusiasm may have been ahead of the comedic curve, it certainly was not ever really the apex of it. That distinction goes to two separate shows, both of which happen to be called The Office. It originally started as a British mockumentary that lasted two seasons and spawned two Christmas specials, and then it was adapted for American audiences to critical acclaim and mass appeal. Both feature some of the most harrowing and hilarious portraits of sadsacks and doldrums ever televised, led by perhaps the most self-delusional man to ever hold a managerial position (at least in their respective continents).

Initially created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (who would go on to make the excellent HBO series Extras), The Office is set up as series about the day-to-day drudgeries of a branch of office employees. In their version, Gervais and Merchant created the fictitious Wernham Hogg Paper Company and stuck it in Slough (a borough of Berkshire county in merry old England), then let the social trivialities and defects of human character shine within the claustrophobic space of an a suburban office complex. Gervais played David Brent, the general manager of the Slough branch who sees himself as a fun-loving and free-spirited Renaissance man who just so happens to be a boss as well as a friend. Despite seeming friendly, aloof and popular, he is boorish, pretentious and a walking calamity. And his coworkers’ misery is our entertainment, which earned The Office Britain’s first Golden Globe ever in 2004 when it beat out the all-too-American Arrested Development, Monk, Sex and the City and Will & Grace. That’s right: in 2004, Monk and Will & Grace were considered killer comedy. It was a landmark show that influenced a wide variety of comedies to come on both sides of pond, and it was one of those shows that was quick, brilliant and gone before the world could truly recognize how lucky it was to have it.

I grew up with the belief that the Brits excel at awkward comedy. They invented both acting and politeness, so it’s no surprise that they have such masterful control of subverting social situations into completely inappropriate “behaviour” for our amusement. But knowing this could not prepare me for what I was about to get when I met the Slough branch, and especially their manager. I fell in love right away, and told other people that it was one of the funniest shows I had seen. I had a hard time believing I’d find one better (granted, this was before I had seen Arrested Development), which got me a little defensive when I heard that Hollywood had gotten their hands on the property.

A couple years after the sun set of the British king of comedies, Greg Daniels (who previously wrote for Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and King Of The Hill) decided to turn it into an American thing, which could have been disastrous as most American remakes of imported stories tend to be. I first believed that I wouldn’t like the American version nearly as much as those silly Brits had already done with their original. But Daniels assembled a top-notch crew of writers and cast of players, turning The Office into a successful American enterprise that has so far produced seven hilarious seasons. While there may be an eighth, the news that Steve Carell (as the multi-award-winning Dunder-Mifflin Scranton branch boss Michael Scott) will not be returning for another has many unsure just what to make of The Office’s future. While there are many great characters to keep the vehicle going, a rudderless ship simply won’t make for quirky office shenanigans.

Of course, the American version is not the only spin-off. Series have popped up in France, Germany, Israel, Quebec, and even Chile. But the American has become iconic, perhaps even more so than the British original (Much like America itself? Just kidding, Brits!). And it has roused more out of us emotionally for its ongoing story arcs and multitude of mundanely funny characters (though many are now contending that the show hasn’t been the same since Pam and Jim got married). I can’t decide, in all honesty, which is the technically better show. But both are fantastic forays into the world of character-based awkward sessions that make the viewer cringe and cry laughing at the same time. If you’re averse to British accents, go with the American version; if you prefer things fresh and OG, give the Brits a chance.

A good, simple score for each series (the cheerful, affable British theme or the rousing yet funereal American version both perfectly set up the madness of the world we are about to enter) opens with not too much lag, but not too much alteration. Also, I was disappointed that the glowing supporting cast didn’t get its proper due in the opening of the U.S. version (there was an episode or two where they are shown and credited, but this mysteriously is not the norm).
BEST CHARACTER: Creed Bratton (played by Creed Bratton)
There is no question who the boss is in either series, and both Gareth Keenan and Dwight Schrute deserve their own spin-offs (or alternate universes where they are the boss). But line-for-line, the single most consistently funny player in both of these worlds is Creed Bratton, the senior resident played by Creed Bratton who has seen it all, and is now coasting by doing as little as possible (so little that he doesn’t even remember what his job title is). Always around to offer an extra dose of comedic creepiness (except for when he’s concerned about being caught for wrongdoing), Creed it an actual office mate’s worst nightmare. But safely removed, in the comforting confines of our home viewing environment, Creed is the best Office mate around.
The Office: Series 2
BEST SEASON: 2 [for U.K.] / 3 [for U.S.]
The second British series kept chugging along as it explored more deeply the then-pioneering art of office discomfort and malapropisms. And it ended the show on a completely brilliant and high note (though there were those two aforementioned Christmas specials). The American version, meanwhile, took a little longer to get going at full speed. My favorite is season five, but season three was the game changer. Finally firing on all cylinders, the third season gave us even more for the highly quotable supporting players, as well as introduced us to the wonder that is a cappella aficionado Andrew Bernard (played by the now mega-famous Ed Helms).
BEST EPISODE: “Training” (Series 1, Episode 4) [U.K.] / “Weight Loss” (Season 5, Episode 1)
The training day from hell will not feature Denzel Washington or PCP, as it turns out. It will feature David Brent interrupting the meeting's facilitator at every chance and eventually breaking into song (he strums a guitar and sings his own compositions, including the classic “Free Love Freeway”), with Tim realizing that he is living in his own worst hell (he does try to break free, the first of many failed attempts). And on the American side of The Atlantic, the fifth season started with a tremendous bang. Pam and Jim became engaged (as she's away at art school, hailing the return of former-temp-former-CEO Ryan), Michael and Holly were the cutest onscreen couple ever (check this out if you don't believe me), Andy was somehow engaged to Angela (and oblivious to the fact that she’s still sleeping with Dwight), and the entire staff was trying to lose more weight than the other Dunder-Mifflin branches (to varying degrees of success). Holly also found out that Kevin is not, in fact, retarded (not clinically speaking, anyhow).
BEST MOMENT: The kiss (“Gay Witch Hunt,” Season 3, Episode 1)
When Michael accidentally outs gay accountant Oscar, he attempts to cover his tracks by staging a sensitivity training session about homosexuality. It ends up (like all of Mr. Scott’s bungling attempts) a big mess, especially when the boss tries to kiss the embarrassed Oscar. In an ordinarily tightly scripted show, this bit of improv proved just how gifted and committed Steve Carell was. Ricky Gervais may have created the character, but Steve Carell showed us just how far he could stretch that role. And all of this lead to my favorite Oscar line (after he is awarded paid vacation time in lieu of suing Dunder-Mifflin), “Kids, sometimes it pays to be gay.”
BEST “THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID” UTTERANCE: “It squeaks when you bang it…” (“Crime Aid,” Season 5, Episode 4)
The show boasts many fine moments that spark Michael Scott’s desire to rebut with “That’s what she said,” and a fair amount of them are actually appropriate to the situation (if not appropriate to office etiquette). In the fifth season, the office is broken into, so the branch holds an auction to raise money for new supplies. Having been supplied with a toy gavel that makes a noise on even the slightest impact, Michael Scott’s surprised reaction is a thinking-out-loud moment (“It squeaks when you bang it. That’s what she said.”) so nonchalant you might not hear it the first time.

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