Moving images: The Office – American Style

14 09 2009

The US version of  “The Office” — the British TV smash hit — fails to live up to the level of comedy of the British original. It is not dull, but lacks the solidity of the original version.

There are a number of reasons why movies and TV fiction works are remade. It can be about transplanting the fictional environment of the story to a cultural setting that is accepted by an intended audience (e.g. making an English-speaking version, set in California, of a French-speaking thriller set in Provence). It can be about transplanting the story from an earlier to our days, in order to decrease confusion/disturbances in the audience as the ordinary behavior and context of those earlier days can be difficult to grasp. It may be that the producers juts want to put the stars of today into a movie that was successful at the box-office a couple of decades ago. And many other reasons exist.

The Office (US) (DVD cover)

The Office (US) (DVD cover)

Remakes can be skilfully done, and may be appreciated by critics and audiences. Some may even rightfully earn a place in the “best of …” lists.

But certain remakes are misguided. At least when compared to the original. A recent example is “The Office” — a British TV comedy running for two seasons — that after a slow start ultimately made a big impact in 2001-2002. The creators, Ricky Gervais and and Stephen Merchant, built the story around a strangely behaving office manager called David Brent, a man expressing self-confidence but really quite insecure.And the story is embodied as a mocumentary about life in a medium-sized office, at Wernham Hogg Paper Company in Slough, England. The creators (Gervais and Merchant) wanted also to convey an image of what many office environments are nowadays — long stretches of boredom where nothing seems to happen. And then there is a small number of persons that keep the story together and brings it forward — like Tim, Dawn, and Gareth — each with their own idiosyncrasies.

This British TV product is in the best of the British tradition, creating something that is quite different from what we have been exposed to. Therefore it typically takes a some time before it catches on, but after gossips and positive judgments have permeated social networks it can explode onto the public scene.

This success quickly inspired remakes of this concept, but transplanted to other cultural and language settings, e.g. French, German, and Chilean. OK, those are for different languages, and we can respect such reasons.

But when the English-speaking original is remade as an English-speaking American copy, then one gets a strange feeling. Why should this be necessary? Why not broadcast the british version in the US?

Here we see one drawback of the big size of the American market, the strong media industry, and the tough competition between the different distribution networks. The audience had become accustomed to easily digestable, culturally audience-conformant packaging of broadcast products. This means, among other things, that for a program to be successful in the US, there should no foreign accents, no foreign exteriors, no mentions of foreign sports and leisure activities, etc.

So this is what transplanting “The Office” from the old world to the new world involves — it has to feel 100% “at home” for the American audience.

The result has lost much of the appeal of the British original. Some examples of dimensions in which it fails are:

  • the manager Michael Scott (US) has a more forced, pushy attitude, compared to  David Brent (UK), Where Brent often hesitates, looses trains of thought, and visually expresses a feeling of being uncomfortable, Scott just pushes on, never losing energy, and is just irritating.
  • the deliberate inclusion of quiet scenes in the UK version has no correspondence in the US version. Gervais and Merchant deliberately wanted to convey that office life often has boring moments when nothing seems to really happen. In the US version, no such moments can be seen.
  • the American version is very talkative. It fulfills the important American TV comedy production goal — “when there is silence you lose your audience, so keep the actors talking!” Not so the British version. There the slow/silent parts there helps the spectator to see the subtle humor that follows.
  • all the American actors perform as standard sitcom actors, fighting to be seen/heard in a quick-paced half-hour comedy slot. Yes, it fully feels like a studio-recorded sitcom. The British version largely successfully manages to look like a documentary (or, as we know it is faked, “mocumentary”). And that is one key factor for the success — a funny thing in real life is much more fun that a funny thing in a sitcom.

One should not pay much attention to the fact that Gervais and Merchant are actually mentioned as producers of the American remake.

Conclusion: Enjoy the British original of “The Office“, but avoid the American remake.

For more details, see The Office (UK) at IMDB, and The Office (US) at IMDB.

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