Office Politics

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Before I begin, it’s worth saying how this post will likely draw some ire, so I think I need to do some major clarifications before I begin. First of all, this is by no means trying to be any sort of definitive ranking of the two series, because both have carved out their own niches enough that they can happily co-exist. I’m also not trying to find out which one I prefer more, because I already know that I prefer the original UK version of the Office. I think that’s worth putting at the front, because it serves as a useful lens through which to view the rest of this essay, but also because a large chunk of this essay hopes to prove why I feel this way in a slightly more detailed way than ‘I think this is funnier’. Hopefully though, fans of both series will be interested to see an evaluation of the differences between the original and the remake; what gives each its unique flavour, and what makes fans so passionate about defending one against the other. Both shows have been highly lauded and hugely influential, and exploring these titans of comedic pop-culture is always an interesting challenge. One further clarification should be mentioned. While I will be mentioning the Office UK’s Christmas Special, my focus will be on the main two seasons. What’s more, I will only be focusing on the US Office Seasons 2-5, with little mentions of the later seasons. This is mostly for the sake of fairness; most fans of the US Office agree the show went downhill in its later years, and comparing lesser episodes of the US Office to the UK Office (which was able to maintain a consistent quality thanks to its shorter length) would feel a bit wrong. Moreover, the first series borrows plots and scripts wholesale from the UK Office, which puts it in opposition to the tone and style the series would come to be known by.

Deciding where to start this comparison would always be tricky, but the most obvious place to start is with the respective show’s intros. I’m not talking about the pilots, but about the opening themes, which demonstrate neatly the shows differences in tone. Sure, both begin with shots of the city, but the songs used couldn’t be more different. The UK version is a melancholy tune, the opening video shows no characters, and the landscape it depicts is the grey and lifeless concrete blocks of the Slough trading estate. Meanwhile, the US version has a much more upbeat feel to it; Scranton isn’t all trading estates, it’s old clock towers and a (literally) welcoming sign. The US Office’s opening also introduces its cast within the opening credits, and when it does so, the tempo of the theme picks up (about 6 seconds into the opening). Characters aren’t shown doing as wacky hijinks as something like the FRIENDS opening, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The UK Office presents its mission statement as something quite quietly melancholic, whereas the US one welcomes you to Scranton and its colourful cast of characters. So, it’s a small thing, and one I’m sure many viewers will pick up on, but its worth commenting on nonetheless, because it instantly makes an impact on the viewer and informs them of the mindset to enter into when watching. The US Office compounds this in its second season (which marks the point it clearly breaks away from the UK mould), by introducing cold opens. It’s important to note that while the cold opens occasionally have an effect on the rest of the episode, or on the character dynamics, they are almost always comedy-focused. The most famous of the US Office’s cold opens is Dwight’s fire drill, which becomes the focus for the rest of the two episode arc, but is primarily focused on comedy first. That’s because the US Office is once again setting the tone for the series in its first few minutes. Neither of these things may seem as important as whether you like Michael Scott or David Brent more, but they are indicative of the show’s overall aims.

Both the US and UK Office are clearly very accomplished show, but it’s their success in achieving the tone they introduce with their openings where my central point lies. I think it’s important to lay out my central hypothesis as soon as possible, so that hopefully my other points start to make sense. In my opinion, the US Office, while being a fantastic show, never managed to escape the influence of its UK forefather, because it became shackled by the conventions of that show. To put it in a really clear example, let’s look at…

The Office as Documentary

In both versions of the Office, the show uses the framing device of a documentary in order to tell its story. While nowhere near the first mockumentary, the UK Office was certainly one of the first major proponents of the genre on TV, and the format became vital to the show’s feel and premise. David Brent is half the way he is because of his awareness of the cameras. So many of his lines and actions are directed towards the camera; he’s showing off, he’s trying to be funny, and that he’s so obviously performing for the camera makes his act that little bit more pathetic. When the series crossed to the US, the documentary style crossed with it, and the US show found a completely new way to make it an integral part of the experience. While Scott still plays to the camera a little, its main use is for the confessional segments of the show; where one person says something, and then turns to the camera and says a completely different thing for a joke, or for more heartfelt moments. Both shows have both parts of the documentary style, but each puts its emphasis on a different part. However, the documentary stuff in the US Office almost always feels unrealistic. It hasn’t really been thought out properly; the main use is for gags, and the show really feels like it often wants you to forget that this is a documentary. Instead, it wants to have its cake and eat it; it wants the cutaway gags and the occasional use of the cameras as a plot device, but it also wants to be able to do things completely unrealistic for a documentary (like go on for 9 years).

So here’s where I’m going to bring in another show; Parks and Recreation. Parks and Rec was created to be a spin off show to the Office, and its two creators were Greg Daniels, who was the show runner for the Office, and Michael Schur, who worked on the Office (and played the role of Mose Schrute). Parks and Rec does indeed have its cake and eat it. It uses cutaway gags in the exact same way the Office does, but it circumvents the problem of realism by never mentioning a documentary or documentary crew. Shows like Modern Family did the exact same thing; taking the part of the documentary format that worked the best for comedy, and leaving out the baggage because the audience doesn’t really care. The Office US hadn’t quite figured that out yet; from its start it had boldly followed the UK Office into the documentary style, but when its scope and tone evolved, the show was left with a few things from the UK Office that never quite worked. The documentary style is one, while the other is…

The Office as Cringe Comedy

The UK Office is one of the prime examples of a cringe comedy; a show that, at points, almost hurts to watch. It’s this aspect of the show’s comedy that often marks out the UK version of the show as the less popular of the two (not, mind you, the worse). It’s because cringe comedy is extremely divisive. It’s worth noting that the cringe comedy of the UK Office isn’t equivalent to ‘UK humour’ (if such as thing exists) – cringe comedy is universal, but the UK version of the Office certainly employs it more liberally than its US counterpart. Cringe comedy relies on a certain kind of comedic incongruity; that the character (here David Brent), is someone who completely sidesteps social norms and is incredibly egotistical and selfish. Cringe comedy relies on the viewer not being disturbed by this, but instead finding it amusing, while those who aren’t as open to this style of comedy will find this specific kind of humour annoying. It’s important to note that this isn’t a judgement on the show’s humour, nor on the people who either like or dislike this style of comedy. But it’s equally important to notice that the UK Office trades almost exclusively in cringe comedy. The US Office, then, when adapting the UK Office had to adapt this particular aspect as well. Much like the aforementioned documentary style, it’s a key aspect of what makes ‘The Office’ ‘The Office’. Nevertheless, as the US Office progressed, the show runners decided to play to their strengths with a broader style of humour. As such, while the more painful elements of the comedy are still present, they’re toned down and less divisive humour replaces much of it. Michael Scott is still an awkward, socially transgressive and egotistical boss, but the kinder elements of his personality are played up a lot more, and the series is as a whole less grounded in reality, meaning that the cringe elements are a lot easier to swallow. For many people, it’s this shift in humour that really makes the US version superior.

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However, it’s worth considering the effects this shift has on the US Office. I think for this purpose, we can look pretty much exclusively at the Series 4 episode; The Dinner Party. This episode has been constantly lauded as one of the US Office’s finest episodes, and I can’t help but agree with this. But it’s also worth noting how tonally inconsistent it is with the rest of the show. The episode plays up a lot of the cringe comedy elements to the point where it’s nearly unbearable, but it keeps itself on the right side of the line with enough laugh out loud moments to be worthy of praise as a tonal balancing act alone. But this episode really feels like it’s trying to cater to the UK Office’s influence rather than steak out its own path. The character of Jan, for example, is hilarious within the context of the episode, but her arc over the course of the series is a constant downer; it’s a showcase of a mental breakdown, and while it may be slightly exaggerated, it’s much more in the comedic style of the UK Office than the US show it actually appears in. I think characters like Jan and Ryan, whose life stories come very close to the depressing, are the US Office’s attempts to pay heritage to its roots. But deep down, the show desires to be more like Parks and Recreation, which it will eventually become. So the show has these two creative directions pulling it in opposite directions. The desire to remember where the show came from creates these interesting and depressing character arcs, as well as the more cringe moments of the show’s comedy. Meanwhile, the natural comedic instinct of the show’s creators are pulling it towards being something much lighter in tone, and more akin to Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine Nine or any of the other shows that were either created by Schur and Daniels or were inspired by them. Sometimes, as in the case of The Dinner Party, these creative directions will work and produce great episodes of television, but when viewed as a whole, the inconsistencies in the show’s tone start to show.

Close studies

Ok, so hopefully you know understand my general attitude towards both versions of the Office. With that done, we can now move onto some closer studies of specific scenes and characters that appear in both versions. This isn’t exhaustive, nor is all of it that enlightening. But I think it’s still a useful exercise.

The Fire Drill

The Fire Drill cold open is one of the funniest and most famous of the US Office’s cold opens, and in fact forms the basis for a two episode long arc. In the UK Office, the fire drill is pretty inconsequential. Let’s focus first on that one, because it highlights neatly the two areas that I was just rattling on about. Firstly, the documentary format is put to good use, because Brent constantly speaks to the camera, and brags about how, while the drills are required by law, he only does them because he really cares about the safety of his staff. His need to show off to the cameras leads into the cringe comedy moment, when he stops the disabled member of staff from leaving early because he needs to be the one to do the ‘heroic’ thing in front of the camera and lead her to safety. Eventually, the punchline comes in her being too heavy for Brent and Gareth, and them leaving her to ‘die’ on the stairs. It’s a neat little comedic moment that doesn’t play too heavily into any story moments, but reinforces Brent’s character while providing a few solid laughs.

The US segment also plays on the documentary aspect, but it’s not as crucial to character as it is to plot. Sure, the fact that Dwight would do such a thing is a neat and fitting character moment, but this could be communicated without the use of a documentary framing device. Brent wouldn’t be doing what he was doing (bragging, then intercepting the disabled worker) if the camera wasn’t there. Dwight would always be doing this, and the only use of the documentary crew is that it allows the show to have him talk directly to camera and explain his action. This is just another example of how the documentary is more integrated into the UK version than the US version. The comedy here is also indicative of the differences between the two. Instead of the cringe realism of the UK Office, the humour is bombastic and much more slapstick. It certainly delivers a lot more laugh out loud moments in its timespan; the cat falling from the roof; Kevin running into people; Michael trying to smash the window with a chair. Even Stanley’s heart attack is timed like a perfect punchline. This, is clearly the show the US Office aspires to be; it wouldn’t feel out of place in a later Schur show in its comedic styles, and it plays to the show’s ensemble nature by having each character’s reaction to the “fire” be both hilarious and fitting. I think this segment showcases each show’s individual stylings at their best; the UK Office playing on what makes it unique, while the US Office crafts a segment that shows the comedic styles its creators would become best known for.

A Prank in Poor Taste

In the very first episode of the UK Office, Brent pretends to fire Dawn for ‘stealing… thieving’ post-it notes from Wrenham Hogg. The point of view character (the new temp in the office) has been informed that David is going to play a prank on Dawn, but the scale of the prank isn’t really told to us. It’s hard to see the comedy in this scene, especially when Dawn starts to cry… but it is there. It’s present in the patronising way Brent says ‘good girl’, the lame excuse he gives as to why he’s firing Dawn. But I think to see this scene as primarily comedic misses the point. This is an extremely important character introduction to David Brent, and while we’ll talk more about his character in the next section, this is really all the viewer needs. It’s the perfect introduction to his selfish behaviour, and the show treats it as seriously as it needs to. The UK Office is as concerned with realism as comedy, and so a prank like this can’t get brushed off.

The US Office repeats this scene nearly word for word in its first episode as well, but because it’s so similar it seems pointless to compare. Instead, we’ll look at a scene from Season 5 Episode 26 (near the end of the episode – couldn’t find this clip on youtube…), wherein Michael Scott once again pretends to fire Pam when he has to decide about whether he should let her or Ryan go. Here the difference in comic approach couldn’t be clearer, because the heightened reality that the US Office takes place in allows for the prank to pretty much go off without consequence. Pam doesn’t seem that upset at being fired, and Michael’s prank is treated as the silly but forgivable joke of a little boy; the scene ends in a happy resolution, with Michael laughing and Pam happy at eventually getting the job. There’s a really solid joke in there about Michael pretending to hire Ryan, and him being really unhappy about not actually getting the job, but it’s crucial that the show doesn’t show that moment, but instead the moment with the happier resolution. It’s a shift in worldview on two accounts; the first is that a cruel prank isn’t condemned as harshly because as long as the resolution is happy it seemingly doesn’t matter. The second is that the crueller moments are no longer shown, but left offscreen and used as a spoken punchline. By this point, the US Office has shifted into a more comic semi-reality that many feel-good sitcoms take place in, and so it no longer needs to deal with the heavy consequences of a joke someone like Brent or Scott would play. Speaking of…

Battle of the Bosses

“We had to make Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy, with a rosier outlook to life. He could still be childish, and insecure, and even a bore, but he couldn’t be too mean. The irony is of course that I think David Brent’s dark descension and eventual redemption made him all the more compelling. But I think that’s a lot more palatable in Britain for the reasons already stated. Brits almost expect doom and gloom so to start off that way but then have a happy ending is an unexpected joy. Network America has to give people a reason to like you not just a reason to watch you. In Britain we stop watching things like Big Brother when the villain is evicted. We don’t want to watch a bunch of idiots having a good time. We want them to be as miserable as us. America rewards up front, on-your-sleeve niceness. A perceived wicked streak is somewhat frowned upon.”

-Ricky Gervais

I think this is really the area where most of the differences between the two versions have been written about, and I think it’s here where I’ve really had the most difficulty. But I actually think Gervais is wrong when he says things like ‘Scott… couldn’t be too mean’, because as the above example shows, Scott is exactly as mean as Brent, but the audience is never meant to feel that. It’s not a shock to anyone that much of comedy is all about action/reaction, but it’s always worth emphasising how important that second part is. Because even with Scott doing something as cruel as fake firing one of his staff members, it’s the reaction that tells the audience how we’re meant to feel about this. In the UK Office, we’re clearly meant to see Brent as the unfunny, insecure man he is when Dawn starts crying and insulting him. In the US Office, we’re meant to see Scott as just a little bit out of the loop and oblivious, and Pam’s reactions tell us that. So I’m not sure if Scott actually is a ‘nicer guy’, or if the people around him and the show are just slightly more forgiving of his screw-ups. I also don’t think Scott is necessarily more liked by his co-workers than Brent is. Over the course of 7 seasons, it’s natural that there are more moments wherein Scott and his employees get along than in the UK Office’s 2 seasons. But it’s wrong to say that Brent’s staff are constantly annoyed with him – scenes like the Mhana Mhana song and the guitar recital spring to mind, but it’s clear that neither boss is always hated. It’s true, however that Brent never gets the emotional moments of character interactions like Scott gets (think: buying Pam’s paintings). So is Brent or Scott ‘nicer’? I think Scott still has the edge, but hopefully I’ve shown that it’s not as clear cut as it seems.

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I think character development is also really important in assessing the two characters, and I think it’s actually here where Brent edges out Scott and becomes my choice for the better character. Both characters start from the exact same base point, if only because they use the exact same script for the first episode, and most of the same plots for the first season. And just as both start off as insecure, attention seeking idiots, they end up as much more tolerable people. I think Brent’s character development is problematic, however, as it’s poorly paced as all hell. Almost the entirety of it is consigned to the two-part Christmas special, and even there most of it is at the end. The Christmas Special devotes most of its energy to putting Brent through the ringer and making him suffer as much as possible before it can redeem him. This certainly makes sense; Brent is enough of an asshole that we need to see him suffer before he can be redeemed, and the only way for the audience to get on his side is by assuring us that he’s had his just desserts. But what this means is that it takes a long time for Brent to eventually get his redemption at the Christmas party; he’s finally allowed to relax with his date and, more importantly, he’s allowed to stand-up to Finchy. This segment is incredibly important and well constructed. His date hasn’t seen The Office, because it finally allows Brent to act himself and be relaxed in his own skin, no longer having to be the entertainer. We don’t see or hear his conversation with his date, and that’s quite important. Free from the documentary cameras, Brent’s body language relaxes and he seems to be engaging the person he’s with. And, having relaxed, he can finally stand up to Finchy, someone who he’s previously idolised, and even make his co-workers laugh. It’s not a full redemption – we don’t have people finally lauding Brent or him getting his job back. But it’s a start; a glimpse that a more compassionate man lies underneath Brent’s assholish exterior. The whole section is too short in the timeline of the series to be  fantastic character development, but it’s a sublime little moment within its own context.

There is, however, one advantage of Brent’s development consigned to the last episode; it means the show can never go back on it (unless you’re Life on the Road). Scott’s development is much more drawn out, and pretty inconsistent because of it. I think familiarity is often mistaken for character development in long sitcoms, but they really aren’t one and the same. Sure, over 9 seasons I get to know Jim Halpert really well, but that doesn’t mean he’s changed or developed as a character much. It’s easy to mistake our increased familiarity with Scott’s character flaws and motivations as development and character change. Our relationship with him has changed through exposure to more aspects of his life, but that doesn’t equate to him having changed. Now, it’s also important to say that character development isn’t necessary to make a good show (especially for comedies); none of the cast of It’s Always Sunny change too much over 12 seasons, but that doesn’t stop them from being a fantastic comedic cast. In fact, I still find the US Office’s characterisation of Scott incredibly well done. It’s always worth noting, though, that long running shows are so often too scared from changing their characters in any major ways (past ironing out the kinks of a first season or so, or the natural effects of flanderization). So, even if Michael manages to let go of his dream of making Threat Level Midnight before he leaves the show for good, in his final episodes he’s still making the same awful, corny semi-offensive jokes he always has. The difference is that his staff now laugh along with him. Again, I want to stress that I love Michael Scott as a character; I think he is one of the best things about the US Office – I think with the extra time they had they were able to fully explore this insecure and unloved buffoon and make him amazingly watchable and loveable. However, I don’t think the show ever managed the master stroke that the UK Office pulled in its finale.

Really though, the two characters become somewhat incomparable, because of one really important difference between the two shows; their length. I haven’t really talked about this before, because I don’t feel it’s been relevant until now, but the difference in the number of episodes really changed the approach of the two shows towards their respective leads. Scott was allowed time and heartwarming moments for the audience to warm to him, but it’s arguable that it wasn’t so much that he changed, as much as our relationship to him changed. Meanwhile, Brent is finally allowed redemption and a chance to change by the end of the series, but its short length means this is somewhat of a squished moment – it’s not quite given enough time to breathe. So both bosses are fantastically written characters that have an eventual redemption in the eyes of the audience, but the way in which this is handled changes because of the respective lengths of the shows.

Conclusion: The Office as a Love Story

Of course, the characters most affected by the change in length are the two lovers; Dawn and Tim in the UK version, and Jim and Pam in the US version. Here’s one section where I think the UK version trumps the US remake almost hands down. The thing is, much of what keeps the UK and US Office’s so amazingly watchable is the doomed romance between the salesman and the receptionist. In both versions their budding romance is handled brilliantly; the audience wants them to get together, and wants Pam/Dawn to dump Roy/Lee. In the UK Office, the second series ends on an all time low for all the characters involved; David Brent is fired, and Tim confesses his love, only to be turned down by Dawn. But in the Christmas Special, the two are finally allowed redemption; it feels earned, and a long time coming. A similar arc happens in the US Office; the two fall in and out of love with people we the audience know are wrong for them, but by the end of the 3rd season they are finally allowed to be together, and the two start to date. This is where the problem with the US Office’s love story starts; the show goes on too long for Jim and Pam to never get together, but without that romantic tension, the show definitely loses a dramatic edge. We see attempts to replicate this dynamic with Dwight and Angela, or Michael and Holly, but it’s not quite the same dynamic that worked so well before. FRIENDS knew this was pivotal, and while the Ross/Rachel dynamic is almost comedically long-winded, it’s a solution that works, allowing the show to continue for a long time without removing its most successful dynamic. Parks and Recreation is also so much more successful at sustaining this stuff because none of its characters were built with a will they/won’t they dynamic in mind, and so even when main cast members pair up, it doesn’t lose what made those characters so interesting and engaging.

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I started this essay by attempting to make the point that the US Office isn’t as successful as the UK Office because it’s hindered by being a remake, and I think that this last point should hopefully help to restate that fact. This morning, I was asking myself why I wrote this piece at all. Because while I prefer the UK Office and hope that this essay shows why… I still love the US Office, and I don’t begrudge anyone who thinks it’s the superior version. So I don’t really have anything to prove here.  I guess I can use the same reasoning that I do with all my comedy reviews; that I hope to bring a greater critical appreciation of comedy television. But with this, I think there’s something else I wanted to show. It’s that judging these shows isn’t just a measure of your taste in comedy. I think there’s still valid arguments to be made about the success of these shows that isn’t entirely based around whether cringe comedy is something you find enjoyable. I think both shows deserve to be lauded, and that both can happily co-exist, but it’s worth showing how each show differs, and why I feel one is slightly more successful because it uses its own original idea, while the other has been stopped from reaching its true potential by its nature as a remake.

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