The Office

Whatever your thoughts on the new American remake of the already legendary British sitcom The Office, you have to give NBC credit for picking the right man for the job. Whether you’re an outraged devotee of BBC America or a mildly intrigued broadcast TV junkie, it’s clear Steve Carell is the only television personality in America who could come close to filling the shoes of Office co-creator and star Ricky Gervais.

A longtime correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Carell has for years been a reliable comic actor, and The Office is a showcase for a great comedic talent — as evidenced by how quickly the U.K. version catapulted Gervais to international fame. The difference is that Gervais also had terrific writers (namely, himself and co-creator Stephen Merchant), as well as a rock-solid supporting cast. For Carell to make a similar splash, it’s going to take some work.

Gervais’ David Brent is a singular comedic creation: a petty-minded middle manager for a paper supply outfit who consistently mistakes for affection his employees’ tolerance of his witless pranks and lousy impersonations. The persona Carell perfected in his time on The Daily Show is not too far removed from Gervais’. While no television character outside of Basil Fawlty can match Brent’s almost infinite threshold for humiliation, Carell in “journalist” mode, a mode that stretches to his supporting work in the movie comedies Bruce Almighty and Anchorman, shares some of the necessary attributes: an inflated sense of importance; a minimal understanding of his actual insignificance; and a willingness to shred what remains of his dignity in a colossally misguided attempt to salvage it.

As Michael Scott, Carell is somewhat hamstrung in the series pilot by dialogue and actions taken, for the most part, straight from the script of the BBC series premiere. These actions are still funny, to be sure. Notably, Carell has one sparkling moment near the pilot’s end when he “punks” the office receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer), leading her to believe that she’ll be the first casualty of the downsizing threats emanating from corporate headquarters; the near-frightening expression of self-congratulation on Michael’s face as he stifles a chortle is vintage Carell.

Elsewhere in the pilot, however, he seems tentative, a term that also describes the work by supporting actors. They appear overly conscious of both the tedious need to establish the series’ key relationships and the long shadows cast by their British precursors. Fischer comes off most effectively, both appealingly winsome and appropriately anxiety-plagued as a woman in desperate need of a change in career and fiancée. The major instance of miscasting is Rainn Wilson as Dwight, the resident thorn in his co-workers’ sides. In the British version this figure (there named Gareth) was a surprisingly complex mixture of bluster and meekness, pathetically eager for David Brent’s approval, yet secretly convinced of his own innate superiority. In the U.S. version, Dwight is simply a bully and a blowhard. His moronic pronouncements (about, for instance, his experiences as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy) aren’t credible for a second. And in a production that foregrounds the awkward, “realistic” silences that permeate the average workplace, a certain level of verisimilitude might be expected.

It isn’t until The Office‘s second episode, “Diversity Day,” that Carell, at least, takes some risks. Helpfully, the writers’ imaginations are fired up as well, because “Diversity Day” lampoons American industry’s obsession with fostering the appearance of workplace equality and inclusiveness. Reprimanded for racial insensitivity in the workplace (stemming from an unfortunate attempt to replicate a Chris Rock standup routine), Michael conducts an impromptu diversity workshop, for which employee attendance is mandatory (except for one wisecracking minion, who is informed by his boss that “This is an environment of welcoming, and you should just get the hell out of here”). Michael soon goads — for “therapeutic” reasons — a bewildered Indian employee with an outrageously offensive imitation of an Indian convenience store manager, earns a hard slap for his trouble, then condescendingly corrects the firm’s lone Black worker on the pronunciation of “collard greens” (“We don’t call them ‘collard people'”).

Here the comic stakes are high, and so the resulting laughs are more heartfelt than the cheap yuks evoked by gags about missing staplers. The Gervais version profitably but only occasionally mined for laughs in David Brent’s latent racism and sexism (usually submerged beneath a host of airily liberal platitudes). In “Diversity Day,” these attitudes take center stage, and Carell milks more guffaws out of white American ignorance than you thought was still possible.