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American ‘Office’ makes British formula its own

Cassie Belek | Monday, January 30, 2006

After NBC destroyed “Coupling,” a wildly popular British sitcom that was shipped over the pond with the same scripts but fresh faces, fans of the BBC show “The Office” were anything but pleased to hear that NBC had made a new conquest with this beloved gem of office satire. Their uneasiness was justified. “The Office” was just that amazing, and the possibility of seeing it crash and burn in an Americanized version was unbearable.

Even though fans were expecting the worst, developments offered hope for the American “Office.” Steve Carell, a comedic talent who appeared as Brick Tamland in “Anchorman,” signed on to star in the series. Ricky Gervais gave his stamp of approval to the project. NBC’s “The Office” was to keep the same types of characters and similar plot threads, but only the pilot would be the same script from the original series.

The BBC version of “The Office” is a mockumentary that follows the exploits of workers in a paper company in a dull industrial town in Britain. The beauty of the concept is that it tries to stick to reality as much as possible and makes it funny. People really live in boring British cities, work for paper companies, and often wonder how they got there in the first place.

Gervais stars as office manager David Brent, who believes that he is the funniest boss ever. His scenes are excruciatingly painful to watch because he embarrasses himself over and over again without realizing it. He firmly believes that, “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying to those of us who do.”

His self-appointed right-hand man is Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), who is possibly even more clueless than David. He is also obsessed with the military and giving himself authority.

Tim (Martin Freeman), Gareth’s rival in the office, is over-qualified for his job and survives through the day only by teaming up with Dawn (Lucy Davis), the receptionist, to play practical jokes on Gareth and to make fun of David. The romantic tension between Tim and Dawn is heart wrenching because Dawn is engaged and has been for five years.

The American version of “The Office” takes these situations and gives the characters new names. Michael Scott (Carell) is the new David, Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is the new Gareth, Jim (John Krasinski) is the new Tim, and Pam (Jenna Fischer) is the new Dawn. Even with the same basic plot, the American version makes the show its own.

It has already surpassed the original in number of episodes – the BBC version had only two 6-episode seasons and one two-hour special – and therefore must keep itself fresh with even more zany office events.

The characters from the two versions are similar to each other, but the American version has deviated from the original in some ways. Michael is slightly more aware of the world than David. When he isn’t faking for the documentary crew or trying to be everyone’s best friend, he actually becomes a straight-headed human being with feelings. Dwight on the other hand is less believable than his counterpart Gareth. His character is exaggerated for comedic reasons, but when putting the two side by side, Gareth is a better character because he is more real.

Fans of both series continue to debate which show is better. It may be impossible to find an answer, especially when the American version is still taking shape in its second season. It’s doubtful that the new version will ever be able to match such moments as David performing “Free Love on the Free Love Freeway” at an office in-service, but the new series isn’t trying to be the BBC version. It’s trying to be its own distinct series, and it has thus far been successful.

David and Michael are the driving characters of both series and they can be summed up in one quote from Michael: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Um … Easy, both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

Viewers might be afraid of how much they love both series and will find that each are distinct and continuously hilarious.