Fast Company

The Office: Brilliant Satire or Tired Facsimile? Discuss.

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.

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13 Comments

  • Candice

    This show is genious!

    Each of the office characters even the small ones like Angela (the Christian Nazi), Kevin (The Slow Big guy), Merideth (The sweet forever single lady), Stanley (The Monotone Black Man), and Philis (The Shy but eager woman) were cast perfectly. Sometimes just a glance from one of them has me on the floor laughing.

    And Pam and Jim are just perfect together, thier sexual tension is so slight, but somehow it is still powerful. I can't wait to see what happens with them. They are my favorite part of the show.

    As well as Jim's jokes on Dwight. So Funny!

    Serriously. I wish there were more people who watched this show. Because if you arn't your missing out.

  • Matt

    Having never seen the BBC version but having worked in 3 or 4 very large corporations, this series hits home almost as well as Office Space. I do have to agree with most of the comments about Carell, though, as he's often over-punctuating the subtle humor. I also agree that his one-on-one time with the camera is usually the best ("it's incalcacable.")

    I also add that I have worked with virtually every one of these caricatures. I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned Angela -- the office fixture easily offended by just about anything ("that's inappropriate, Kevin.", "Green is whorish.") I've known a few of those in my day.

    I hope they can keep it up, though I would like to see Carell toned down a bit. No company would really tolerate anyone that obviously incapable of doing the job and who offends everyone around him (including his bosses).

  • tom

    I only watch American Idol (because I got the flu and was hooked ever since) and The Office. He's my previous boss to a tee. A real jerk who thinks he's funny, clever, and your best friend. That same job also had it's Schrute.

    Simply amazing!

  • Matt

    I just saw the first episode of the US Office today. I enjoyed the British version immensely, but I'm afraid I have to say I very strongly disliked the US version. Maybe if I hadn't seen the British version first I might have liked it. Steve Carell is just too over-the-top and obnoxious. He doesn't give you the feeling that he's accidentally offending people like Ricky Gervais did.
    I think they should have tried harder to make it different than the British show. As it is now, it looks like they are imitating the Brits right down to facial expressions on some characters. (namely the US actor who's playing the role of what was "Tim" on the UK show)

  • Andrew

    The American version is brilliant, hands down. The writing is superb. I love all of the characters. Each episode just gets better.

    This show is hilarious and it is the best network comedy on right now.

  • Nathanjay

    I'm English, loved the English version of the office, decided to download the US version after seeing a few clips on Entertainment Now or some other 3am filler show. Watched the first 3 episodes with my mates, this is what we call P!SS FUNNY. Very impressed with the writing, the last 10 minutes of the Healthcare episode is genius, the way the tension builds to the boss revealing his 'surprise'. Cant wait for episode 4

  • Desert Island Boy

    Here's where Carrell's character is most like American bosses. They think way too much of themselves. And that's where Carreel nailed it.

    I do thinkit's hilarious that he's come full cricle from doing commercials as the straight guy for FedEx to being the focus of unintentional comedy.

    For the record, I'm also investing a few packs of Jell-O.

  • John

    My problem with Carell is that he is a bad fit. With Ricky Gervais, you always got the sense that David Brent was really too clueless to know that he was being daft/offensive/ridiculous. With Carell, and this is to his credit, he seems too clever to really be doing these things; it's as if he's in on the joke, which doesn't work for his character. Overall, it might not be fair to compare the US show and performances to the British version, but they bring it on themselves by directly lifting bits (including almost verbatim the original Dawn-Tim tension for Pam and Jim in the new one). So, a decent start. We'll know more once they shift to original scripts after essentially offering a "best of" the first episode of the UK version last night.

    PS -- I had to try twice to post this because I was told "Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: s-e-x." (that last word elongated by me to avoid the same trouble as before. Hence, my reference to a specific kind of tension above between Tim and Dawn was left less specific.

  • Jerry Stevenson

    I watched a few episodes of the original, and I thought this version was very good -- definitely showing a more American side to 'The Office'. Carell does get a bit too wacky at times, but overall, I think American bosses who think they're funny (when they're not) are also louder and more amplified than the offices I've been around in the UK... So that makes sense, in a certain respect. Raine Wilson (the creepy guy also in Six Feet Under) was spot on as the office mate most likely to go postal.

  • Steve Portigal

    "the big problem is that the daily show guy just isn't ricky gervais. he's great at doing this week in god... "

    Too bad that's Stephen Colbert not Steve Carell. Except for a well-timed guest appearance on The Daiy Show this week, Carell hasn't been on the show for several years, pre-dating, I believe, This Week in God.

  • david

    I liked Carell - I've had bosses like that, who think they are being funny. Mostly their cringe-inducing.

    When he said 'We work hard and we play hard' to the temp guy, I winced... whenever I hear a boss say that it's usually my cue to update my resume.

    I haven't seen the original but plan to get the DVD.

  • LP

    I doubt they're planning to replace Carell just yet but he seems to be the focus of most of the critical attention.

    Gervais did say he wanted this to be an American version about American life - so is this just the actor or is this what US bosses are really like? Straw poll: which one is your boss most like, Gervais or Carell?

    If they do replace him, the King Of Queens' Kevin James might be an interesting call. Not for the physical similarity to Gervais so much as the mastery of physical comedy and acting skills. He easily stole "Hitch" off Will Smith - and I haven't cried and had to chew my knuckles to stop drowning the movie with laughter like that in years.

  • marc

    i watched it and laughed a bit. it's no simple life if that's what you are wondering.

    i did watch the original and loved it. this wasn't as bad as i thought it would be. luckily, the jello joke works in both shows (something funny about jello me thinks). the big problem is that the daily show guy just isn't ricky gervais. he's great at doing this week in god... but i'm not sure he can pull this show off long term.