As promised, I watched the premiere of The Office on NBC tonight. (Remember that I am coming into this with only word of the legend of the BBC version; I have not seen the series on which this American rendition is based.) So evaluating it for what it is, I thought the show was very good. Not great but certainly far from the dispiriting feeling one usually gets after watching what passes for scripted comedy these days on network television.
What did you think? I want to hear from devotees of the BBC show as well as neophytes like me. I also want to hear what you think about the state of office culture today and what this show is trying to say about the way most of us work.
Click on the link to read my full review.
Here's the moment that The Office made me think that this is a show worth watching: There's a doofy guy unlocking his desk, to remove and reattach his phone receiver. It's a nothing moment, a throwaway, but it reveals something about his character and it's one of those goofy but true things that if it happened where you work, you'd be gossiping about it over the cubicle walls and on IM for weeks.
There were at least 10 other moments of the absurdity and all-too-true slices of office life, quietly and subtly captured and effectively displayed, during the show.
Pam the receptionist, who is brilliantly played, has most of them. She's talking about her love of illustrations, particularly her watercolors, and then the shot, just in an instant, goes to her using liquid paper to white out a mistake on a form. Brilliant! My other favorite moment of hers came when her boss, played by Steve Carell (more on him in a moment), does this stupid impersonation of the Six Million Dollar Man running and after the embarrassment and shock wears off, she just slowly drops her head, shakes it slightly, and rests it in her hand. Nicely done.
The other standout character is Jim, one of the paper salesmen. The sexual tension between him and Pam is extremely well done and subtle, unlike most sitcoms where the Sam and Diane school of bickering wisecracks tends to be the predominant means of expressing chemistry between two characters.
So what was disappointing for me were the wild swings into over-the-top goofiness. Steve Carell, the lead character playing the regional office manager, is all too often unhinged. His numerous ticks and spasms into outright performance are annoying and discordant. I can't help but think that Carell thinks this is what his fans expect of him. He was a big hit in that Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty going over the top, he won acclaim on the Daily Show for some of that shtick. When he's quiet, though, as he usually is when he's alone and speaking directly to the documentarian, he's great. At the end of the scene where he does his silly Six Million Dollar Man routine, he upbraids Pam for one of those snippy under-her-breath comments, walking obliviously back to his desk, proclaiming her "unprofessional." Just great.
I would have appreciated even more of those and less of this first episode's overreliance on practical jokes of all stripes. They were funny (especially the Jell-O one), but it shattered the realism of the rest of the show to see that much tomfoolery in such a confined space. Perhaps that was just a twist of this episode, but if it continues as a plot device, it'll get old fast.
I like the show and think it has something to say about the aridity of so many offices, the fear and loathing of workers facing an insecure future, and the vapidity and impotence of most middle management. If NBC hasn't lost its entire audience of urban professionals interested in smart comedy, then I think the show has a shot. I fear the worst though as far as audience reaction. The Office is largely plotless, you don't have even obviously delivered punchlines to jerk you up from paying bills or reading a magazine, much less a laughtrack. I'm not suggesting that the show should have these things, but decades of having that rat-a-tat-tat drummed into you make the rhythm of this show a challenge for a mass audience. It's the same reason Arrested Development, which is incredibly well done, has failed to attract a large number of viewers.
I'll be interested in your reaction and what the ratings say. Especially next week once the show loses the cushion of The Apprentice filtering in an audience.