The Office, as originally envisioned by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant for the BBC, is from the vantage point of an unseen film crew documenting modern office life. However, in picking the employees of the Wernham-Hogg paper company, they struck an unexpected gold mine of off-kilter humanity. Gervais’ branch manager David Brent, in particular, was a cringe-inducing wonder as the boss who thinks he’s cool, funny, and beloved, but who’s actually offensive, clueless, and more than a little sad.
Fans met the news of an American adaptation with outright skepticism, but while Kirk vs. Picard-style arguments rage on as to which series and which branch manager, Gervais’ David or Steve Carell’s Michael Scott is better, it’s safe to say that the American version of The Office has lost little of the original’s sense of unease in its portrayal of the American workplace. Thankfully free of a laugh track (which would kill most of the show’s humor born of awkward silences and pregnant pauses), the American version has been with us so long that the documentary crew’s point of view feels like second nature, and very much our own. The characters’ quirks are so familiar that they might as well be talking to us.
The British series ran for two six-episode seasons (and a two-part Christmas special). Season Three of the American version nearly doubles that with 22 episodes all on its own. So, despite the fact that much of the show’s humor draws from the claustrophobia of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch, the American version acknowledged early on the need to move out to other settings. Otherwise, the drudgery of Dunder Mifflin might have become the viewers’ as well.
It’s a choice that Gervais has said he wouldn’t have made, but it has certainly worked wonders for Carell and company. It’s odd to think that the Scranton office, the birthplace of so many awkward silences, inappropriate comments, and Human Resources nightmares, could be anyone’s comfort zone, but the employees’ trips to a Duwali celebration, a wedding, a local pub called Poor Richards, the mall, and even a lakeside company retreat all show that, nestled in their own little 9-to-5 cocoon, the Scranton crew weren’t realizing their full awkwardness potential. The show’s most radical departure, though, was the addition of the Stamford office.
As season three starts, up-and-coming golden boy Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) has transferred to the Stamford branch, where he works alongside ticking time bomb Andy (the Daily Show‘s Ed Helms) and initially suspicious Karen (Rashida Jones). Before long, though, the Stamford and Scranton branches merge, unleashing Michael’s behavior on an unwitting and quickly declining roster of new employees.
Throughout it all, Michael’s still up to his clueless antics. The season certainly starts off with a bang, with “Gay Witch Hunt”, in which Michael unintentionally outs accountant Oscar and then spends the rest of the episode enlisting right-hand man Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) in a clandestine mission to determine who else in the office is gay, before calling the entire office in for one of his infamous sensitivity meetings. In “A Benihana Christmas”, Michael and Andy show up for one of two competing office Christmas parties with two Benihana’s waitresses. Unable to tell them apart, Michael ends up marking one of them on the arm, like most of us do with our plastic cups at a party. In “Phyllis’ Wedding”, Michael sees his role in Phyllis’ wedding as being more important than the bride herself, and actually gets jealous when Phyllis’ wheelchair-bound dad steals his thunder. And then there’s Michael’s unrelenting hatred for hangdog Human Resources Director Toby (although Toby does get his say in one of the DVD extras).
Everyone suffers under Michael, but traditionally its only Jim and receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) who take strides to maintain their sanity, usually in the form of knowing looks of amazement during meetings, or through pranks on uber-serious Dwight. Season Three contains some of Jim and Pam’s greatest harassment of Dwight. Tops on the list might be convincing Dwight that he’s receiving faxes from his future self, but Jim convincing Dwight that he’s turning into a vampire (in the Joss Whedon-directed “Business School”), and convincing Dwight that you can buy gaydar online (“Gay Witch Hunt”), are right up there. Undeterred, or unaware of any of this, Dwight carries on with his dreams of grandeur, even instituting a reward system called “Schrute Bucks” for employees who please him during a brief but tyrannical reign as branch manager.
One of the show’s ironies is that Michael and Dwight, hapless though they might be within the office or in most social settings, are actually top salesmen. When temp-turned-new-salesman Ryan invites Michael to make a presentation at his business school, a student reveals that Ryan has predicted Dunder Mifflin’s demise, and an angry Michael informs the class that the smug Ryan is someone who has yet to make a single sale. Dwight approaches sales with the same militaristic fervor as everything else in his life, and it pays off for him (maybe that’s one of the reasons why, when Jim gives Dwight one of Benito Mussolini’s speeches to deliver when he accepts a sales award in Season Two, Dwight delivers it so enthusiastically that he gets a standing ovation). But no one on the show is perfect. Jim, for all of his coolness, shows little ambition. Creed is a pathological liar, a kleptomaniac, and maybe even a sociopath. Kevin’s dead-eyed leer can be super-creepy. Even Michael’s boss, the professionally driven Jan, turns out to be a self-destructive nutcase.
And for all of Michael’s foibles, for all of the unintentional psychic suffering he inflicts on his employees, the Dunder Mifflin crew usually rallies around him, especially when the forces of the outside world press in (like when an entire Chili’s restaurant starts to turn on Michael during his excruciating, stereotype-laden presentation of his self-created “Dundies Awards” during Season Two). No matter how idiotic Michael acts, his employees pull him back from the precipice of, well, realizing that he’s a doofus.
In the upcoming Season Four, The Office will try out numerous hour-long episodes. Judging from the quality and quantity of the deleted scenes on the Season Three DVD, they can pull it off. Multiple deleted scenes accompany each episode and most of them are extremely funny. The DVD set also contains a fairly amusing video tribute to Dwight Schrute that portrays him as an action hero, the “Lazy Scranton” video that Michael and Dwight made to introduce the new employees to Scranton, and excerpts from NBC’s 2006 Primetime Preview that, pulled together, make for a funny mini-episode. They’re just a drop in the bucket, though, compared to the wealth of cringes and laughs contained throughout Season Three.