[18 June 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Maybe the greatest moment of any incarnation of The Office comes during the final minutes of the UK version’s Christmas special. After spending almost the entire duration of two 45-minute episodes hopelessly trying to find a date for his office Christmas party—ultimately relying on an Internet match-up service that provides him with several hilariously inappropriate reactions to blind dates—a noticeably attractive woman shows up at the Slough branch of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company to finally meet Ricky Gervais’ David Brent for the first time.
Naturally, much like Steve Carell’s Michael Scott finds love with Amy Ryan’s fantastic Holly Flax in the US version, the woman falls for David and after the audience spends two series and a two-part special watching him suffer for so long, the regional manager-turned-faux-rock star finally catches a break. After accompanying her in a taxi for a ride home, he politely waves goodbye without any sense of irony or misfortune. It isn’t until he returns to the party that the moment occurs. The obnoxiously brilliant Chris Finch—a character who clearly hit the age of 17 and never decided to keep maturing—begins to chide Brent about his date, even though it’s clear she far exceeded anyone’s expectations for the kind of woman David might be able to attract.
“Chris,” David says to a man who is best described as only a giggling child. “Why don’t you Fuck off.” And it’s the last time we see him interact with a man he often held in high regard throughout the preceding 13 episodes.
It’s affecting because of how victorious the moment seems. The subtle and pathetic decline of David Brent that the show was so genius at portraying with each episode finally comes to a head, and we see him stand up for himself without caring about the repercussions. He achieves a tiny victory in subject, yet such a gigantic leap forward in practice. For as profane as those words are, it’s one of the most heart-warming instances the show ever offers. Sure, he might be detestable, and yeah, there’s no mistaking the fact that he was the Boss from Hell, but the whole sequence touches on exactly how much the viewer wants to see him win, even if it’s just once. His date that night may never call him, but damnit if he can’t be happy for the few hours before that reality has to hit him.
Such is one of the many examples of why the original UK version of The Office is far superior than its American counterpart: it simply has a more realistic heart. Throughout all 14 episodes of the British series, we never once believe that what we are seeing couldn’t ever happen in an actual office. The US version, however, is smothered with unbelievable antics, outlandish pranks and too-good-to-be-true scenarios. That’s not to say it’s a completely forgettable television program—such secondary characters as Creed, Angela and Oscar, among others, provide a broad spectrum of stories that continue to make the US version of The Office worth viewers’ time. But better quantity has never promised better quality, and with that in mind, it’s hard to argue against the original version of the show being the best.
Or, well, that is unless you were The Guardian‘s Mhairi McFarlane back in 2007.
“I know to many this will be lunacy or heresy, or both, but here goes - I prefer the American version of The Office to ours. Just as clever but more enjoyable, The Office: An American Workplace has grown to be something far greater than a competent facsimile”, he wrote. “... As Time magazine pointed out, it’s not a copy, it’s an interpretation - and the losses soon pale compared to the gains. Its genius is to keep the core dynamic of stupid boss, his sycophant, and the romantic stalemate of the receptionist and the nice guy, and add a supporting cast who equally earn their screen time”. (“I Prefer The American Version Of The Office”, by 18 May 2007)
Genius? That’s a bit much.
Sure, the inclusion of more characters allows the writers to experiment with a larger amount of stories, jokes and scenery, but such elements being the basis for an argument of superiority between the two is both short-sighted and ignorant. Stephen Merchant and Gervais crafted their series around the stereotypes the common workplace offers the common man and the common woman. It was a play on culture more than it was character. Arguing against it because it didn’t have as many pieces as its most prominent counterpart is sort of like saying that the Small-Scale Experimental Machine—or as some may know it, the world’s first stored-program computer—works quicker and smarter than the latest Apple model only because of its wide array of buttons. Is it aesthetically more interesting? Of course. But does it have the depth of capability that the most recent Powerbook offers? Of course not.
The brilliance of Gervais’ and Merchant’s creation revolves around authenticity and originality. Less we forget that it was this particular incarnation of the show that spawned more than 60 countries to emulate the same program in its own culture, not to mention the countless mockumentary-style series that have since turned up on our television screens constantly since their brainchild initially went on the air. The Office single-handedly made the act of awkward a mainstream practice. Long pauses, deliberately bad jokes, politically incorrect statements, the weird glances and off-putting looks given to a camera aimed at “documenting” what’s going on. The UK’s version of the show was the first to implement those tricks in a generation of entertainment, and the mainstream has yet to look back (I’m still confused as to why Modern Family is shot in such a way, for instance—who’s filming that documentary?).
“As a fan who watched the American version first, it was hard for me to imagine a more amusing character than Michael Scott”, Michael Lutz at Yahoo wrote five years ago. “Steve Carell was hilarious on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and, in fact, I originally tuned in to NBC’s version of The Office because of him. However, Gervais is a master of subtlety in his portrayal of hapless boss David Brent, and he makes you realize how truly over the top Michael Scott is. When you compare the two it is clear that Gervais’ character is a bit more ‘realistic’ and Carell’s Michael Scott is more of a caricature”. (“The Office: U.S. Versus British Version - Which One is Funnier?”, by Michael Lutz, Yahoo, 5 June 2007)
Herein lies the more important reason why the UK version outshines its imitators: The atmosphere Gervais and Merchant creates within their rendition is simply more authentic than the others. Even comparing Jim and Pan with Tim and Dawn ultimately renders the latter a more real portrayal of most of what an in-office love story always proves to be. Sure, the Hollywood ending forces the word “most” into that last sentence, but up until the final moment of the final episode, their relationship simply feels a lot more believable than Jim and Pam’s.
Ahhh, but you see, such is imperative when considering the two portrayals together. At 14 episodes (including the two-part Christmas special), Britain’s The Office did the one thing too many television programs never think of doing: It ended at its peak. The biggest reason America’s The Office fails is because of its longevity—there are only so many inappropriate moments one can take before deciding the whole operation has become cumbersome. Even more so, the love story at the crux of these series is spun so far forward in the US version that the backbone of the show is deemed irrelevant. Gervais’ series ends with the guy (Tim) barely getting the girl (Dawn) while its American counterpart brought Jim and Pam together ... and then added an extra five seasons (with more to come). What has always made the program so appealing is its back-door romanticism. The shows aren’t truly about David Brent and Michael Scott—they are about the love story that subversively hangs in the balance of each episode. Once that plot is resolved, the appeal and intrigue is compromised and the story as a whole is deemed redundant.
The website Squidoo has a page dedicated entirely to this debate. On it, you can find ten possible reasons why the US version is better than its most popular competitor and nine possible reasons why the UK version is superior. The reasons can then be voted on by readers and from what I understand, the results are listed in real time. Examples for the American version include 1. “Easier to understand the humor”, 2. “Pam is hotter than Dawn”, 8. “Michael is a worse manager than David” and 10. “Rainn Wilson”. Among the British version’s reasons are 1. “More sexual humor than allowed on U.S. television”, 3. “It’s the original”, 8. “The British version won two Golden Globe Awards (an American award) for Best Television Series and Best Actor” and, of course, 9. “Dawn is hotter than Pam”. (“The Office - Is The US or UK version better?”, by Staff, Squidoo)
While fun, the elements included with the argument fail to outline the most obvious reason the original version of the show is better than not only the American adaptation, but presumably all the other copy-cats out there: Its intellect. Revolutionary is too grand a word, though it’s the first one that comes to mind when considering Gervais and Merchant’s calling card. The act of dumbing the argument down to these surface level aspects is the most poignant argument one can make in favor of the UK rendition—its creators were the first of a generation to understand how to successfully incorporate simple mainstream values with smart, layered undertones. It’s not that David doesn’t have a heart—it’s that his heart is misguided and weak. It’s not that Dawn is the most beautiful girl to ever walk the streets of Slough—it’s that you can see how genuinely confused she is when having to confront her feelings for Tim. It’s not that Gareth won’t shut up about being the the know-it-all he so often longs to be—it’s that his search for acceptance is undermined by his ignorance and hope.
These are not easy things to wind together when creating a television show. To think that Gervais and Merchant did it without the benefit of the now-over-used mockumentary template featuring a bad boss and the inter-connected elements of an everyday workplace—a template that they essentially invented and created for the modern day, by the way—should be the subject of an applause louder than Gervais’ bombastic laugh. Brent’s breakthrough moment with Finch is indicative of what makes the UK version of The Office so superior—it’s defiant, it’s obscene and it’s subtle.
Most of all, it’s sincere. And regardless of whichever version of The Office you prefer to venture into, the one thing you can’t deny is the amount of heart that is constantly pumped through the walls of Slough’s paper company branch. It’s a heart that is as heavy as it is meticulous and it’s a heart that was the first of its kind.
Kind of like David Brent. And kind of like Ricky Gervais.