Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Office, American Edition: Two Seasons of Genius and some other pretty good stuff…

It sounded like a terrible idea.

It’s an idea the TV studios in the States have had multiple times: take a program popular “across the pond”, and remake it for American sensibilities.  It has worked several times with reality programming, but nearly all the attempts at adapting drama or comedy have failed.  The British way of thinking about this kind of programming is just very different from the American.  Where American studios and networks want to find something that works and run it for years, the BBC is content to take a good idea, develop it, get 12 good episodes out of it or so, and then quit while they’re WAY ahead.  It has worked numerous times: Fawlty Towers, Life on Mars, Spaced (a show I couldn’t quite get into), and several others.

But when it was announced that NBC would be adapting the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant creation The Office, it seemed especially egregious.  Would that style of humor-in-awkwardness-and-pain translate?  Everyone was pretty sure it would be lame.  And actually, for a short while, it kind of was.

But the producers did one smart thing right off the bat: casting.  When it was announced that Steve Carrell would play the Ricky Gervais role, everyone went from, “No way this is a good idea,” to “Huh.  Good choice.  Could be interesting.”  Carrell wasn’t yet particularly famous–if he was known at that time, it was either for The Daily Show or his scene-stealing performance in Bruce Almighty.  Then they cast a bunch of unknowns for the other major parts–the normal guy in love with the receptionist (someone for the audience to root for and relate to), the weird or dorky guy who sits next to him, and the receptionist herself.  The  producers were smart to sort of create their own dorky guy instead of merely imitate the one from the British version, because the other three leads, at least at first, would be very similar to their UK counterparts.

NBC gave The Office a six episode run for its first season.  The pilot was released.  Though not the only episode to use ideas from the British Office, it is the only episode to follow a British script nearly word for word.  Because British sitcoms are a full 30-40 minutes and American only 22, it is shortened, but hits most of the same beats and jokes as the original.  And it almost works.

There are some problems.  The biggest, I think, is that Carrell’s Michael Scott is a bit too much, a bit over the top.  It’s clear he hasn’t quite figured out the character yet and might be leaning too much on what Gervais did as David Brent.  And, while the first five new scripts have some very strong moments, they haven’t fleshed out the characters enough to make it interesting.

Some things hint at the greatness to come.  The most well-known is Michael’s Diversity Day exercise, where he makes everyone imitate racial stereotypes in order, I guess, to try and expose that there are, in fact, stereotypes.  But I can think of two I like better, both from the episode about health insurance.

1. Pam and Jim making up diseases to submit to Dwight.  Pam says she is inventing new diseases, and tells Jim, “let’s say my teeth turn to liquid and then drip down the back of my throat.”  And Jim, without a beat, replies, “I thought you were talking about making up diseases.  Because that’s spontaneous dental hydroplosion.”  It’s a scene that both actors play with a real ease and chemistry that hints at how well they’re going to work together.

2. The conclusion of this episode is one of my favorite Office endings ever.  Michael, in a feeble attempt to stay in the good graces of his staff even as he is forced to cut down their health plan, has promised a “surprise” at the end of the day.  After failing to secure a free weekend in Atlantic City, he brings in ice cream sandwiches, but when an incredulous employee asks if that was the surprise, he says, “No…” and puts himself in the position of having to come up with something better.  And what happens when the day ends, and the staff gathers around for the surprise that Michael doesn’t have…well, it’s awkward.  And awesome.

So, after the 6 episode run, no one was sure the show would be back.  The ratings hadn’t been great, but not terrible either, and it fared a little better critically than many people expected.  There wasn’t anything on at that time quite like it, and after tossing it around, NBC decided to give it a full 2nd season.  It was a decision they’d soon be very happy about.

Seasons 2 & 3 of The Office are their genius seasons.  Though not perfect, they are television classics.  I feel the show has shown some weaknesses in the 4th and 5th seasons.  I like the 5th a little better than the 4th.  Both have some amazing moments and some lame ones.  The 4th season is a little bloated in its opening run of hourlong episodes, with Michael becoming a bit too cartoonish, a bit too Homer Simpson-ish.  His gift basket idea, driving into the lake, and his inability to remember that Jim and Pam are dating just don’t seem in character to me.  And season 5 doesn’t give enough for the peripheral characters to do, and some characters (Ryan in particular) act in ways that make them seem like different characters altogether–going through changes that don’t quite make sense.

But here, then, are the top reasons why I love the Office from season 2 onward, the reasons I think it works so well.

1. Michael–I am surprised to say that one of the strongest things about The Office is Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott.  Surprised not because of Carrell, but because I don’t generally like or enjoy Michael.  But as I think about it, this is one of the most complex and brilliant characters on television.

Michael is a terrible boss.  He’s arrogant, he thinks everyone loves him, and he thinks he’s hilarious.  His attempts at humor always fall flat, but he’s clueless to that fact. Or is he?  Many times, they’ve written the character with moments where he reveals that he knows he is lying to himself about his own abilities.  His attempts to be racially sensitive and politically correct make in insensitive and incorrect.

But we see he’s had a wounded childhood.  And we see no one treats him with respect.

Michael has watched too many movies, and many of his actions are attempts to replicate moments he’s seen in films, moments that have warmed his heart or whatever, but his attempts always fail.  His spontaneous proposal to Carol.  Ripping the textbooks at Business School (he’d clearly seen Dead Poets Society.)  And this is a great touch to the character.

But just when you want him to fail, the writers always manage to make you sympathetic to the guy OR reveal some strength you didn’t know was there.  Michael Scott would be the best boss in the world–if he stopped trying to be the best boss in the world and just relaxed.  He is fiercely loyal, open to creativity, and, when he stops trying so hard, a great salesman and a smart leader.  Watch The Client, or Broke, or Business School (the end part), or The Initiation.  They keep adding layers to the guy, and against my better judgment, it keeps me fascinated.

2. Ryan–Every show needs a villain, and while a case could be made for Jan being the villain, or perhaps Todd Packer, I’m going to make the case for Ryan being the bad guy here.  Jan, while often cruel, is almost too tragic a figure to be the villain, trapped by her own neuroses into loving Michael but only halfway, and then self-destructing.  And Todd, while definitely pure evil, only makes a small handful of appearances.

No, the bad guy is Ryan.  In Season 2, he shows his first hints of it.  At first it was if Ryan was written to be a second Jim, another cool (but younger) everyman that we could like and relate to.  And Michael’s man-crush on him is both hilarious and disturbing, and we feel pity for the guy.  But at the end of the day, one of the main values of The Office is that, since these people spend more time together than they do with anyone else, they are and have to be a sort of family, albeit a bizarre and highly dysfunctional one.  And Ryan is the guy that really, really refuses that value.

It’s the little things in Season 2.  The way he stands at a distance during the Office Olympics and throws away his medal the same day, right in front of Pam.  He doesn’t get it.  It’s the way he says something very young and rude about Kelly when asked if he likes her, but then realizes that the camera is there and becomes the charming innocent again.  We see that his persona is an act for the camera.

It grows in Season 3, the clearest example I can think of being the pompous way he tears apart Dunder-Mifflin when introducing Michael to his business class.  It’s not that anything he says is false, really, it’s just the attitude with which he says it.

And, of course, at the end of Season 3 and into Season 4 his evil-ness is revealed.  After snatching the corporate job, he instantly dumps Kelly, pretending to forget all about her in a vaguely racist way (At one point he TH’s “I think I dated a black girl.”  Kelly is Indian.)  and in Season 4 becomes the arrogant authority directly over Michael, naively trying to make paper buying a hip online activity.  His jealousy of Jim (and Toby’s for a different reason) causing him to try and crush the life of one of Scranton’s best.  His downfall at season’s end is brilliant, as he is arrested for fraud, and it should have ended there.

Unfortunately, season 5 rewrote his character.  At first he is implausibly rehired by Michael (no company would have allowed that), then he disappears to Thailand for awhile, (or does he?), and later surfaces in the Michael Scott Paper Company plotline.  This Ryan, the bleach blonde slacker/stoner, is a good loser of a character, but unfortunately doesn’t really seem like the same guy as in the previous years.

3. Handling of Jim and Pam–And here is where the show could have been ruined.  Just as many TV watchers have been scarred by serial dramas whose mythologies become bloated and eventually implode, so many TV watchers have been burned by on-again, off-again relationships in light comedies that eventually never go anywhere, from Moonlighting to Cheers and so on.   And just as Lost is fixing the former problems by setting an end date and writing the end relatively early on, so The Office has fixed those problems with their Pam and Jim story.

The Office begins with Pam engaged to blue-collar Roy, who takes her for granted, while she and Jim make eyes at each other and laugh together daily in the Office.  Pam is fiercely devoted to Roy, who doesn’t deserve it, and Jim is clearly in love with Pam, but she doesn’t want to admit it to herself.

At the end of Season 2, with Pam a bit tipsy from Casino Night, Jim confesses her love, she turns him down, and then he tracks her down in the Office and kisses her.  Fade to black.

Season 3 opens with Pam now single, her wedding called off.  But wait–Jim has transferred to another branch.  Pam broke off her wedding but turned Jim down as well.  And when Jim’s branch finally merges with Scranton, he brings with him a girlfriend, Karen.  At the end of that season, he realizes Pam still has his heart, and that she was even hoping to win him when he came back from Stanford, and leaves Karen in New York to ask Pam on their first date.

And here is where producers could have gone deadly wrong.  They could have had their relationship dominate the show, with lots of turbulence, break-ups, get back togethers, cliched conflicts, etc.  But instead, they opted to make the characters stay their likable selves, and give them a gentle, stable relationship, avoiding the cliches but somehow not being boring.  Examples: one episode, when Pam is studying in New York, Jim worries he’s losing her.  He ponders going to New York.  He gets in his car.  We expect confrontation.  In sight of the city, he pulls over, turns around, saying, “We’re not that couple.”  End of conflict.

And so it goes, leading them towards happy marriage.  And it works great.  Both of the actors carry it brilliantly, and by keeping their moments small–a quick engagement at a rest stop in the rain, a silent pregnancy announcement–they keep Jim and Pam the grounded center of the show.  (And kudos to the writer who happened to name them Pam Beasley and Jim–PB & J!!!!!!)

4. the ensemble–It’s no mistake that while 30 Rock was sucking up every award in site, The Office still managed to win the Actors Guild for best ensemble comedy, for that they are.  At first, the show focuses on 4, maybe 5 characters.  But you can see, right in the middle of Season 2, the writers thinking, “Now wait.  This might go the long-haul.  Ratings are up, lots of downloads on iTunes.  We need more characters.  Let’s give the office drones personalities!”  The first two big ones, after Jan in “The Client”, are Kelly and Creed.  “The Carpet”, I bet, was written as an excuse to introduce Kelly 2.0, the bubbly, annoying Kelly.  And Creed, probably my favorite character, started getting his personality (the insane old guy who always says something scary) right about that time.  And the rest of the ensemble is just as good…Phyllis, dating Bob Vance and turning from sweet to cruel on a dime; Stanley with his crosswords; Kevin, one of my favorites; the underused Darryl; pretty much everyone but Meredith, who is kind of gross and I don’t think can act that well.  Can’t go without mentioning Angela, who was mistakenly written as a Christian character early in the show but later morphed into the controlling uptight person she is.

5. The Pranks–the pranks played on this show, mostly by Jim against Dwight (though sometimes vice versa, and sometimes Andy is thrown into the mix) are brilliant:

My favorites include “Dressing up as Dwight” and “Future Dwight.”  And maybe best of all, Jim’s explanation of how he got Dwight to hit himself in the face with his phone.  I really want to try that on someone.

Season 4 had some interesting ideas, despite the flaws in writing that the previous seasons lacked.  Two very interesting ones were connected:

Michael could be a normal great guy under different circumstances, and Jim is just one step away from becoming a Michael.

We get to see Michael working a second job, and in this job, he is the cool guy.  Everyone wishes he would hang out with them; his jokes are funny.  Somehow, removed from authority, he becomes a highly likable dude.

And when Jim is put in positions of having Michael’s authority–twice–he screws it up and starts acting Michael-like, once with the suggestion to combine birthday parties (he even starts resenting Toby), and once when trying to keep everyone from having to come in on Saturday.  The writers seem to be making the argument that it’s the job and maybe even the people that make Michaels into Michaels.  Very interesting.

Season 5 also has its strength.  Holly Flax is a brilliant character, and I really liked the Michael Scott Paper Company storyline, especially its resolve.  They have done a good job making you root for Michael and showing him actually being competent.  Sometimes.

Keep in mind that this is, surprisingly, a show that needs to be watched in order.  There is a lot more plot than you’d expect, and things develop and change and grow slowly over time.  Running jokes are set up, and if you try and watch from the middle, you’ll miss a lot of what’s going on and what’s being said.  But highlights for me: The Injury, The Client, Drug Testing, The Carpet, The Coup (Dwight and his waffles and his “Crentist”), Branch Closing, The Merger, A Benihana Christmas (maybe my all time favorite), Business School, The Negotiation, Local Ad, The Deposition, Dinner Party (those two are probably the most awkward of all episodes), and Goodbye, Toby.

So anyway.  There it is.  The Office.  Love Seasons 2 &3.  Like Season 4.