Things I’m Supposed To Love But Am Less Crazy About: “The Office” (UK)

Ask any hipster; the stuff that nobody but they have seen is infinitely cooler than the stuff everyone else knows about.

And if you talk television, one of the things hipsters and the too-cool-for-thou all agree on is that the British version of The Office is sooooo much better than the American version (which just signed off the air after nine seasons).

They’re wrong.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen all fourteen episodes of The Office (UK).  It’s funny.

In fact, it’s almost too funny. 

And that’s part of the rub.

The Brit original, starring Ricky Gervais – who’s credited as creater for the series on both sides of the pond – aired for two six-episode seasons on the Beeb, along with a two-episode “retrospective” that tied up all the loose ends that’d been left. 

The series – there as here – was about what happens when you pack a bunch of very disparate people into the artificial environment of the modern office.  Also, about Ricky Gervais’ flair for the outrageous. 

The show reminds me of “Fawlty Towers” – John Cleese’s classic seventies-era BBC series about a bumbling, henpecked hotelier.  In “Fawlty”, Cleese’s protagonist, Basil Fawlty, would spend each episode spiraling down a vortex of self-induced and ever-more-absurd social pratfalls, aggravated by Fawlty’s arrogance and provincialism, ending inevitably in a classic volcanic meltdown.  It was ingenious stuff; the comic tension building as Fawlty’s ineptitude and duplicity built on each other to almost superhuman levels of absurdity.  There’s no way to explain it.  If you haven’t watched it, find it and do. 

And you might just find as I do – that you can only watch Fawlty every couple of years. Fawlty Towersis to comedy what Fourth of July is to fireworks; if you do it every day, it loses its impact. 

Gervais’ British Office is the same.  The David Brent character is like Fawlty – it’s all so gloriously over the top that the comic tension is almost unbearable. 

And it is the show.  Oh, there are other layers, nuances in the show – but they can only get developed so far in a show that only lasted fourteen episodes.  The “Tim and Dawn” romance is rushed and perfunctory, basically to give a breather from Brent’s antics. 

It’s hilarious – and, likeFawlty Towers, it wears me out. 

Which is fine.  But sometimes I want more…

…which we’ll come back to in a bit here.

8 thoughts on “Things I’m Supposed To Love But Am Less Crazy About: “The Office” (UK)

  1. Totally agree, Mitch.

    British sitcoms are just vastly different in structure – and both The Office and Fawlty Towers are prime examples of shows that pack in what would be years-worth of content for an American series into a handful of episodes. As Time Goes By (Judi Dench’s old quasi-dramatic sitcom) is another example. Over the 13 season run, the show aired 67 episodes. That’s about three seasons in the U.S.

    My major problem trying to watch The Office now is that so many shows blatantly ripped it off that, odd as it is to say, the show feels unoriginal and somewhat dated. I feel less so about Fawlty, although that might be because no less than three attempts were made to import a version of the show to the US (Chateau Snavely, Amanda’s (with Bea Arthur, ugh), and Payne (with John Larroquette, further ugh).

  2. I also linked Fawlty Towers and the original Office in my mind. Funny, but too uncomfortable in extended doses. I came to that realization because, as a Python fan, I really wanted to follow FT, but couldn’t do it so I tried to figure out why. When Office came out I laughed but realized it fell into the same box. I’ve never watched the U.S. version.

  3. British sitcoms can get away with having no characters that are likable.
    I think Ricky Gervais has a nasty mean streak. He’s funny, but a little of Ricky goes a long way.

  4. All,

    That may be the point I was skittering around in my piece; Office UK was basically Ricky Gervais riffing on his mean streak, and a bunch of other stuff to set it off. Office US had to develop some other arcs.

    My favorite comparison? Office UK spent 14 episodes ratcheting up what an insufferable boob David Brent was; as Ringer notes, they didn’t have time for much more. In the US, Michael Scott (the Carell version of Gervais’ character) was in insufferable boob who, over seven seasons, developed some other facets. The cool part was that the US version was so well-written that those other facets snuck up on you.

    I’ll direct you to the “Michael Scott Paper Company” four-episode arc toward the end of Season 4. Crazy funny, with a surprise at the end that completely floored me the first time I saw it.

  5. I’ve never had a desire to watch either version of The Office, partially due to an innate repulsion to the concept and pretentiousness of hipsterdom (strangely enough, I find more drawn to things that started out NOT popular but gained a cult following in later years, like Arrested Development, or A Christmas Story, or the Back To The Future trilogy), but I might look into it. After I find time to finish and then re-watch season 4 of Arrested Development.

    RE: British Sitcoms for geeks, The IT Crowd was very satisfying over the 4 (Brit) season run. If you find Big Bang Theory amusing, and “get it”, you’ll probably like IT Crowd.

  6. Bill,

    Office US actually flirted with cancellation its first season, and really caught on late in Season 2. And the show isn’t “hipster” at all; in fact, one of the show’s running gags is the ongoing travails of the office’s resident hipster, “Ryan the Temp”.

    I forget if it was you who directed me there, but I’ve seen the whole run of “The IT Crowd”, and love it…

    …except, for some reason, for the first episode of Season 1, which almost put me off the whole thing. I stuck with it, and loved it – I’ve been watching a few of them over lately. I might need to re-watch that first epi just to see if I was having a bad day or something.

  7. Also, as I surfed while watching “The IT Crowd”, I saw that there’d been an attempt to launch an American version. There was a pilot, starring Richard Ayoade (“Moss” from the BBC original) and Joel McHale. There’d been an order for a season, but NBC execs didn’t like the pilot and scrapped it before Epi 2 could go into production. Apparently the pilot has gotten out online; I may have to go looking for it.

  8. Forgot that Martin Freeman was in the UK version of The Office. So glad he’s moved on to much bigger and better things in Sherlock and The Hobbit.

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