'The Office' relocation loses little in translation to America

First Night: The Office (US) NBC

It is NBC's bad luck that any television critic worth their salt will have watched the original BBC version of
The Office before reviewing the network's own stab at the mockumentary sitcom for US viewers which made its debut on Thursday night.

It is NBC's bad luck that any television critic worth their salt will have watched the original BBC version of The Office before reviewing the network's own stab at the mockumentary sitcom for US viewers which made its debut on Thursday night.

It was never going to be better, or even half as good, as the British series created by Ricky Gervais. But the good news is that America's version of The Office seems to be off to a decent start.

So far, no one is rushing to pan it as they did NBC's ill-starred recreation last year of another Brit hit, Coupling (and, believe me, that was awful). On the contrary, the network is getting credit for placing what can only be described as a quirky, often painful, half-hour of deadpan humour in prime time. Gervais is not the star this time, but, with his co-creator of the show, Stephen Merchant, he does appear in the credits as one of the executive producers.

And, just to be safe, the first episode was almost a carbon copy of the first half-hour of Britain's The Office, sometimes word for word. The differences are the actors, and - of course - the name of the paper company that the office drudges work for and the town it is set in. Welcome to Dunder Mifflin, a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Dunder may be a sly reference to the dunderheaded sensibility of the Gervais lead, this time called Michael Scott (instead of David Brent) and played by Steve Carell, familiar to US audiences as a faux reporter on the late-night hit The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Episode one sees him displaying all the awfulness of Brent, at one point pretending to sack a wan receptionist because he thinks it's funny. There is nothing brave - or original - about purloining the best from Britain's comedy larder and reworking it for US viewers. Yet, NBC is being applauded precisely for bravery. And you can see why. There is no laugh track on The Office. And it will surely take a while before NBC's audiences get the hang of the meandering camera angles and long, long pauses.

But the network has worked hard at getting it right. The Office over here has a strong stable of writers who will diverge from the original British script in ensuing episodes. First among them is Greg Daniels, who was the co-creator of King of the Hill and a former writer from Saturday Night Live.

If it compromised at all it was in casting good looking actors - much better looking than their British counterparts. And NBC knows that the shadow of its Coupling debacle hangs over The Office and the reception it will get from American critics. But the suits at NBC, who secretly hope that The Office might turn into their next Seinfeld-like sleeper hit, will be breathing more easily now.

"This time," the Philadelphia Enquirer wrote last night, "the network comes much closer to getting it right."

Similarly welcoming was New York Times' Alessandra Stanley. "Though it grates to admit, the American version of The Office is very funny," she commented before adding: "for viewers who never saw the original series". As she points out, though, while Britain's The Office has been airing on the cable channel BBC America, there aren't many households who get it.

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