Contains spoilers for The Office (US).
Remakes are a dicey proposition, especially when it comes to the genre of comedy on television. The US and the UK have remade several of each other’s shows over the years with mixed results. Who’s the Boss became The Upper Hand, Married…with Children became the disastrous Russ Abbott vehicle Married for Life, while the US had tried remaking Red Dwarf, Men Behaving Badly, Coupling and Gavin and Stacey to disastrous effect, either running for an incredibly short single season or barely getting past the pilot episode.
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office premiered in the UK to low ratings on its debut in July of 2001, but quickly became a cult favourite, with its two-part Christmas finale ending up premiering on the more mainstream BBC 1 to massive ratings. The series would end up being adapted and remade in many other territories, so it was no surprise that its mockumentary format would end up making its way to US television.
Produced by NBC, and developed by King of the Hill co-creator Greg Daniels, (who had made his name prior to that as one of the key writers of The Simpsons), there was much curiosity as to how The Office’s mix of cringe humour, documentary-style filming, and observational comedy (delivered through its mix of humour, poignancy and ‘talking heads’, itself spoofing the fly-on-the-wall documentary format that had dominated UK television in the 90s), would translate to a mainstream American television network.
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While US television had seen major successes, both at home and internationally, with studio-bound sitcoms, the format achieving incredible success in the ’90s at NBC with Friends and Frasier, (the latter a spin-off of 80s phenomenon Cheers), there had been a creative turn in the 2000s. There would still be studio-bound sitcoms, with CBS achieving a major commercial success with The Big Bang Theory, but there was beginning to be a turn towards a more cinematic style of television comedy with the original version of The Office and the cult success of Arrested Development.
While the latter never achieved high ratings, it was a massive critical success and ensnared a large cult following with its use of running jokes, satire of US media, politics and big business, and star-making turns from its ensemble cast. But the series relied more location filming, intricate edits, a documentary-style format and jokes that frequently welcomed repeat viewing when purchased on DVD.
Along with the original British version of The Office, it would see a tonal and production shift in how comedy series would be produced, and it was this format that would translate to The Office: An American Workplace – as it would become known in British television listing magazines – and within the series itself during its final stretch of episodes.
Debuting mid-season on NBC in 2005 for a short run of six episodes, the US version of The Office didn’t have the best of starts; its pilot episode was a remake of the UK pilot and was met with lukewarm reviews, with many questioning its existence. Things did pick up a little bit more with its second episode and one can see the series get better over the course of those six episodes, finding its feet as it goes along.
Of course, only being six episodes long means it got caught somewhat short when finding its footing, but one could see from the start of the second season the emergence of a more confident show and one that would free itself much more readily from the confines and shadow of the UK original.
From the beginning, the series was made up of a writers room made up of great talent, not least of which was Mindy Kaling who would contribute many of the very best episodes of the series, but who would also star amongst the series gifted ensemble as Kelly Kapoor. Also doing double duty as writer and star were BJ Novak as temp Ryan, and eventually they would also be joined on camera by another writer, and later showrunner, Paul Edelstein, who would recur throughout as Head of HR Toby, who would famously be on the receiving end of much hatred from lead character Michael Scott.
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It was the latter that many critics and commentators were interested in when the series premiered. The character of David Brent and Ricky Gervais’ portrayal became the most iconic and famous element of the original series, with much of the its trademark humour resting on the Brent’s behaviour and verbal blunders. For the American series, the character was renamed Michael Scott and portrayed by Steve Carell, who had made his career as a correspondent on The Daily Show and a scene-stealing turn in the Jim Carrey vehicle Bruce Almighty.
There was a slight ambivalence to Carell’s performance at first, but as the series continued his performance became a massive highlight. Unlike Gervais’ portrayal of Brent, there is an underlying sympathy to Scott. Yes, there are times when the character can be somewhat selfish or an absolute doofus – to put it mildly, but the lovability of Carell means that you never hate Michael for too long. By the time the seventh season came along and Carell exited the series, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Scott takes off for a new life with Holly, played by a very charming and funny Amy Ryan.
There were, of course, certain structural similarities to the British show, such as the use of ‘talking heads’, but the biggest retainer that the US version made its own was its equivalent to Dawn and Tim, played by Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis in the UK, and renamed Jim and Pam here and portrayed by John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer.
American comedy series have always been good at doing ‘will they/won’t they’ romances, from Cheers to Friends, and with longer seasons than the six-episode seasons of the British sitcom, the American version had a longer and more epic canvas to play with, and more time to cherish the chemistry between the two characters. Of course, being an American series, we get a big wedding episode; a sixth season highlight, spurred on by one of the most brilliantly subtle and gorgeous marriage proposals in television history (a gas station in the rain has never been so romantic, trust me, while it all being done in one take made it even more perfect) and the performances from Fischer and Krasinski throughout may very well be the best work that either one of them ever does.
The series would be nothing without its supporting cast, and by the time it found its feet, each episode would have a potentially scene-stealing highlight from either Riann Wilson as the brilliantly strange beet farmer Dwight, Brian Baumgartner as Toby (chilli, anyone?), Kate Flannery as Meredith, Angela Kinsey as Angela, Oscar Nunez as Oscar or, in what might be the greatest comedic work of any actor from a comedy series in the 2000s, Creed Batton as the incredibly weird, strange, possibly dangerous character of the same name whose talking head segments may very well be some of the greatest comedy ever produced.
No long-running series such as this is without its imperfections. At nine seasons, and with its lead actor leaving during the seventh, there is a feeling that it should have finished when Carell decided to leave, and it could be said that his exit is an emotional catharsis for the series that it struggles to match. Season eight brought in several new actors, including James Spader, who never felt like he fitted beyond his brilliantly weird cameo in the seventh season finale. Catherine Tate made a wonderful addition, but the series’ reliance on Ed Helms’ character Andy as a Michael substitute never really worked.
Some jokes have also not aged well and its likely newcomers to the series in today’s climate may find Meredith’s drinking problem a little problematic, or Jim’s pranks on Dwight as just bullying, but the good far outweighs the bad, and the series does deliver a great finale come the end of the ninth season that wraps everything up nicely.
The later seasons are hit and miss for sure, but at its peak, it remains one of the best comedy series ever made and may – whisper it – be even better than the series that it originated from.