Alibi V.14 No.14 • April 7-13, 2005 

Idiot Box

Job Insecurity

“The Office” on NBC

Translating British sitcoms to American airwaves is nothing new. We forget that TV Land classics like “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son” and “Three's Company” were all borrowed from the BBC. But now, unable to come up with a single original idea, poor Hollywood is turning back to Britain with imploring eyes. Although, as the recent crash-and-burn of NBC's “Coupling” (an Americanized version of the BBC hit) will attest, it's not so easy to beg, borrow and steal from overseas these days.

NBC, determined to milk England's cow for all it's worth, is testing out a remake of the cult Britcom “The Office.” Thanks to airings on BBC America, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's mockumentary-style comedy has built up a sizable (and quite loyal) following. At first, any talk of an Americanized remake was met with stiff cynicism. But once the cast started shaping up, some Doubting Thomases started to come around.

The show premiered on Thursday, March 24, amid the remains of NBC's Must See TV. It landed a solid 7.5 rating, beating out NBC's other offerings of “Joey” (with a 6.0 rating) and “The Apprentice” (with a 7.2 rating). Unfortunately, when NBC moved the show to its regular Tuesday night timeslot the next week, ratings plunged precipitously to a 4.1--making it dead last behind FOX's “House, MD,” CBS' “Amazing Race” and even ABC's lackluster “Rodney.”

How to account for this sad second performance? Well, the show does its level best to emulate its European counterpart. Steve Carell (“The Daily Show,” Bruce Almighty) takes over for the iconic Ricky Gervais as “the boss from hell.” Carell's Michael Scott differs slightly from Gervais' David Brent, however. Scott is more hard-edged. He's still a clueless middle manager trying desperately to curry the favor of his slacking workers, but lacks the stench of middle-aged pathos that Gervais so deftly injected into his character.

Though all the office dynamics remain the same, the American version seems to play up punch lines a bit more. The American version tries to retain the original's “uncomfortable pauses,” but this amounts to little more than a long beat after every punch line. The original wasn't afraid to inject genuine discomfort into the proceedings. You cringe just as often as you chuckle at Gervais' original.

Even if the actors aren't quite as perfect as in the BBC version, “The Office” does get points for breaking the rules of sitcoms. It doesn't look exactly like your typical American sitcom--which could be what turned off the average audience member after that first curious viewing.

Personally, I was ready to give the American version a fair shake. Carell is a funny guy, and the show seems willing to take a few primetime risks. ... Then, unfortunately, I sat down and watched the entire two-season run of the BBC original again. There's just no holding a candle. Gervais is too good, and the show (which works best as a limited run series) is too innovative to be replicated.

I'm betting this American branch of “The Office” gets downsized sooner than later.

“The Office” airs every Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on KOB-4.