The U.S. version of The Office is my favorite show of all time (for a variety of reasons, all of which will be detailed in a post published probably some time around when this season’s finale airs). Yet, until this past week, I had never seen the British original. In the past five days, I’ve watched the twelve half-hour episodes and the feature-length series finale.
I figured there may be a few other fans of the American incarnation who have never traversed the British original. So here are a few spoiler-free thoughts on the the UK version of The Office from the eyes of a fan of the American version.
A few observations…
My main question going in was: Is the British version good?
Kind of a dumb question, because why would they import something so unglamorous (workplace mockumentary) if it was shoddy? The short answer is, yes, the British Office is very, very good. I do not regret watching it at all.
The longer answer is: Yes, I can see why many people consider the UK version a far superior product to the U.S. show; it condenses almost everything great about the U.S. version into 7.5 hours. It lays out the major characters and themes in fourteen episodes that the US version has had more than a hundred to flesh out and iterate.
The UK Office is even more impressive when you consider it was the original. It takes what could have been a relatively shallow joke (mortifying boss) and, without ever sacrificing the comedy, turns it into a startlingly deep examination of loneliness, delusion, drifting, and hope.
Unlike the U.S. show, the British version has no down episodes. Something big is always happening. With two six-episode seasons and a finale (a limited screen time that still boggles my mind), it couldn’t afford to stall.
The logistics: The U.S. version is essentially the same concept with the same characters
Incompetent boss (Michael/David). Likable sales rep (Jim/Tim) who has fallen for the engaged receptionist (Pam/Dawn). Rival sales rep (Dwight/Gareth) who is quirky and absurd. Paper company in a painfully dull town (Scranton/Slough). Mockumentary. Shot almost entirely in the office building.
You know these semantics if you’ve seen the U.S. version, so much of the British show will seem oddly familiar. Just remember that the UK version invented this format before you dock any points.
The “squirmy” humor is more pervasive yet less painful
I’ve come to the conclusion that Americans have a distinct notion of “awkwardness” that’s very different from the social norms across the pond. Perhaps it’s our puritanical roots, but Americans respond to awkwardness as something shameful and painful. That could make The Office (UK) a tough watch. But I noticed that the British edition somehow felt a little bit more natural and acceptable than, say, Michael Scott’s utter incompetence at a blind date.
Something about the deadpan, noncommittal responses of people to the socially inept behavior of David Brent make it a little bit less mortifying to watch. I guess it’s just something cultural.
The U.S. version stole a lot of plot ideas and even bits of dialogue from the UK version
I continually recognized beats and stories that the U.S. version has spread out over seven seasons, yet they were all condensed down into twelve episodes and a feature. Often, I recognized that the writers of the U.S. version had spun the British plot in some way, mirroring it or altering it some creative way (with the exception of the series pilots, which are more or less identical).
On occasion, it worked better in the British original, but it was interesting to see how the British version serves as a rough drafts of plot arcs truly fleshed out by the U.S. show.
I will say no more for fear of spoiling.
The documentary pretense is taken much more seriously in the UK version
With the exception of a few moments — and the notion of a “talking head” — the U.S. version has abandoned the idea that it is a documentary. The UK version never abandons the pretense, particularly embracing it in the series finale.
The camerawork emphasizes stolen glances, little bits of conversation, and happenstance much more than the camerawork in the U.S. version. It’s taken to an almost annoying extreme — bits of sound and dialog occasionally overlap and distract from the main audio feed.
The feature-length special operates under the idea that the documentary has been published and everyone across the nation saw what happened in the series. It’s very interesting to see how the characters change and respond to their lives laid bare to the world.
By nature of the limited length, the side characters lack depth
One of the great things about the U.S. office, particularly through the third season, was the way the side characters’ personalities were gradually revealed and developed. Can you imagine an Office without Creed, Kevin, Oscar, Stanley, the Nard Dog, Angela, Phyllis, Darryl…. etc.? I know I can’t.
But the UK version doesn’t really have that kind of depth in its side characters. By the end of the second season, we begin to learn a bit more about a few of them — Keith is a very British Kevin, there’s a girl who digs black guys, and one of the janitors stares at the camera — but it only made me hunger for more of them.
I’m not sure how much you can hold it against the show, because there’s only so much you can pack into seven and a half hours. Most of the time goes towards development of the core stars, but good side characters was what I missed most from the British Office.
David Brent does not have the redeeming values of Michael Scott
Through the second, third, fourth, and particularly the fifth seasons of the U.S. Office, the writers gradually began building sympathetic traits into Michael Scott. He’s focused on becoming popular and beloved, yes, but it’s because he sees his co-workers as his family, worthy of his loyalty and service. He’s a darn good salesman. And, ultimately, he values the right things deep down: family, love, and charity.
David Brent? He’s not like that at all. He’s even more oblivious than Michael Scott and he really only yearns for popularity and petty satisfaction. Towards the end of the series, he’s revealed to be a slightly more complex creature, but he never crosses the threshold from total prat to flawed hero.
The portrayal of the company is more realistic
With each passing episode, it becomes less believable that the U.S. set of employees would work at the same place doing the same jobs for over half a decade. Nobody moves, nobody changes careers, nobody is fired. And nobody seems to notice that everything has remained pretty much the same for so long.
The UK company feels a little bit more real. There’s employee turnover and consequences for performing a good job or a bad job. People move on and quit. It feels more like an actual paper company, in short.
There’s a conclusive ending
There are pros and cons to the different takes to The Office: the sprawl of the U.S. version versus the concision of the UK version. One pro to the tidy British Office is that there is a definitive ending. No doors need to be left open; this is the last story they’re going to tell.
The U.S. version has chapters, but as each chapter gets less interesting and less believable, it tarnishes the earlier chapters to a certain degree. The UK Office never got to the point where it outstayed its welcome. It went out with a bang and didn’t look back while the U.S. version sputters to some unknown finish line.
A few other quick points
Dawn and Tim are a bit more pathetic and strange than Jim and Pam, making their ultimate portrayal as the heros more unlikely and satisfying … Gareth, the Dwight equivalent, is a military junkie instead of a farmer … almost every scene of the UK Office takes place inside the physical office building, making the show feel a bit more claustrophobic than the U.S. version.
To those of you who have seen both: Any other comparisons I missed?