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April 29th 2018
Last year I watched my way through The Office - or, as we tend to call it over here, The American Office - and enjoyed it immensely. I was very late to the party but, hey, better late than never. I mentioned this to someone the other day, and they asked me if it were better than The Office, the original UK version. Which is a tough question. Today I'm going to attempt to answer it.
It's worth noting, first of all, that the UK version was a truly ground-breaking comedy. Sure, it wasn't the first comedy to use the mockumentary style - This Is Spinal Tap, for example, was doing it before I was born - but it wasn't a device in high-profile use before Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant brought The Office to life in 2001. Since then it's been everywhere, albeit rarely to such good effect (what exactly is the background story to Modern Family? Why are they even being filmed?), and I'd argue that it became a bit of a crutch to hold up some otherwise weak comedies, in much the same way that 'found footage' was a movie craze for many years but rarely done well. Blair Witch probably started that one, but, while we're on the topic, Chronicle is my favourite in the genre.
The US Office, by definition, was not so ground-breaking. Indeed, in its first season it was a bit too slavish to the original: jokes, characters and whole storylines were carried across, and John Krasinski in particular appeared to be doing a Martin Freeman impression in the early days (they played Jim & Tim respectively). Like Parks & Recreation - another mockumentary sitcom that followed from the same creators - it wasn't until the second season that the US Office really got to grips with its characters and format, and figured out what distinguished it from its UK parent. And that key distinguishing factor? Heart.
You can argue that The UK Office has heart, with the Tim & Dawn romance storyline being key to the series, and that's fair: the moment in the Christmas special when the two of them leave hand in hand to the strains of Yazoo's 'Only You' is beautiful. But it is really an exception. I have written here before about my distaste for Ricky Gervais, whom I regard as a bully, and fundamentally the humour of his sitcom is based around laughing at people. David Brent is a wonderful comic creation, but - one or two moments aside, which generally feel a bit out of place - the viewer is invited to laugh at him and cringe at his idiocy, rather than empathise. More importantly, the comedy is based around other characters in the show doing the same: other than Gareth, who is even more ridiculous and, indeed, ridiculed, none of them like Brent.
This is made most clear in the character of Tim: he is Gervais's everyman, the one we're supposed to like, our entry point into this depressing world. And he is a bully. Again, I wrote about this before, particularly highlighting the moment that he puts Gareth's stapler in a jelly as a practical joke - a joke that Gareth does not appreciate, nor did Tim ever intend him to. It was a way of ridiculing him publicly by causing him hurt. And there's a word for that. Some readers of this page questioned me at the time, thinking I was overreacting: I guess how funny you find it is dependent on which of the two characters you automatically picture yourself being.

And so to Jim. Like Tim, he is in love with the receptionist (Jenna Fischer's Pam, the counterpart to Lucy Davis's Dawn); like Tim, he is stuck in a dead-end job at a paper company with an embarrassing boss. And, at least initially, he has the same penchant for pranks that Tim had: he even went so far as to do the stapler/jelly thing (well, they say 'jello', but I'm sure they mean jelly) to Dwight, the US version of Gareth. I didn't really like it any better when he did it, but it was in the series pilot and they hadn't really figured out the characters yet. As time wore on, these pranks became more and more out of character.
I'll cut to the chase and say it: I prefer the US version. There are two moments that made me realise this: both relatively early on in the series' run, both emblematic of a wider difference in approach, and both featuring Jim. The first comes in the season 2 episode 'Office Olympics', where Jim & Pam are inspired to start an Office Olympics while Michael Scott (Steve Carell's character) is away for the day. This featured events like the "paper football flicking and hitting" game (aka "Hateball"), Kevin trying to put as many sweets as possible in his mouth, and racing with one's feet strapped to boxes of paper (aka "Flonkerton"). In this latter event Jim is trying to recruit a competitor, when Phyllis pops her head round the door and says "I'll do it". Phyllis is middle-aged, she's fat, and she's not really got involved with other office games and hi-jinks. If this were the UK version, Tim would have turned to the camera and raised his eyebrows in surprised mockery, in the unlikely event that he'd even gone so far as to arrange anything this creative or joyful. But Jim's reaction is wonderful: he cheers, he welcomes Phyllis into the room, he's genuinely delighted that one of his co-workers wants to join in the fun.
And that's the big difference. Even when The UK Office showed heart, it was as a way of turning off the rest of the world: Tim & Dawn kiss and exit, leaving everyone behind them. David Brent's triumphant character-defining moment is to tell his supposed mate to eff off. The office environment is a prison - and it's a truism that all sitcoms are essentially set in prisons - and the only success a character finds is in breaking free. In the US Office the setting might also be a prison, but success is Jailhouse Rock: it's having fun despite the circumstances, forming unlikely friendships and making the most of your lot. Jim isn't trying to leave the rest of the world behind: he wants to beckon it in to come and enjoy the good times.
The second moment has similar undertones to the first, and comes in the second season episode 'Email Surveillance'. Jim has arranged a party at his house and doesn't want to invite Michael; Michael finds out about the party and crashes it anyway, bringing with him a karaoke machine; he proceeds to sing Islands in the Stream and calls out for duetting partners. No one is willing to stand up and sing with him, despite his requests, so when it gets to the Dolly Parton bits he just starts singing them himself in a painful falsetto. And if Ricky Gervais were writing this, that would be the scene: it's actually rather funny, and classic cringe-inducing comedy. We'd get Tim's eyebrows again, Dawn covering her face, maybe a slow clearing of the room. But that's not what the US Office is about.
Jim stands up. His days are largely made miserable by this incompetent boss, who has now turned up uninvited at his house and messed up his party, ruining his free time as well as his work time. And what does he do? He starts singing the other half of the duet.
That's the everyman hero I want to see. Jim is, fundamentally, kind - and I am increasingly of the view that kindness is the greatest virtue of them all (as I've probably mentioned before, one of my all-time favourite movie lines comes in Richard Curtis's About Time: "Marry someone kind"). He's far from perfect, but given the choice between mocking someone and helping them out, he chooses to help them out. No wonder Pam loves him. Spoilers.
So, I prefer The US Office. Is it better? I don't know. The UK version had 14 episodes including two specials, whereas the US version had 201, so the latter's worst episodes are unsurprisingly much worse the UK ever got, but I think it also reached higher at its peak. It wasn't as ground-breaking, it wasn't as consistent, and perhaps it wasn't as influential. But it was certainly kinder, and I'll take that.

what was I listening to?
The Best Of - Chris Rea
what was I reading?
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
what was I watching?
Borg vs McEnroe
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