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Sixty Seconds in Kingdom Come November 3, 2009

Posted by monty in TV.
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Sometime during the last season – and without me even realizing it – the American version of The Office became equivalent in quality to its British progenitor.

phptvdb-officeEver since the American version got its start in 2005, I’ve sworn up and down that it just doesn’t hit the same emotional notes as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original iteration of the show.  Much has been made of that show’s “comedy of discomfort,” of Gervais’ amazingly rendered office manager David Brent, of the delicious antagonism between employees Tim and Gareth, and of course the sweetly fumbling romance between Tim and Dawn.  As a comedy it’s nearly perfect, with each episode sporting one or two moments that should be immortalized in some comedy museum somewhere.

But what set it apart from the American version, at least until recently – and what makes me watch the entire series all the way through a couple times each year – is the rich vein of emotion that runs just below the surface.  The British version works so well because the characters, even David and Gareth, are profoundly real. There’s no cartoonish buffoonery or high-concept hijinks; the show is rooted in reality, and Gervais and Merchant were never afraid to let relevant emotion seep in when it was appropriate.  The scene at the end of Season 1 where David begs for his job is one of the most excruciatingly heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen on television.  And the culmination of Tim and Dawn’s relationship in the series finale is – with all apologies to the American version’s Jim and Pam – absolutely note-perfect.

I’ve used the word perfect a couple times, and that’s really the thing about the British version: each episode presents a situation, or sometimes a series of moments, that could go wrong in so many different ways – cheap comedy, easy laughs, bogus sentimentality – but Gervais, Merchant, and the actors found, 100% of the time, the exact right way to develop and resolve those situations.  That’s a nearly impossible feat that I’m not sure any other show has consistently replicated.

OfficeThe American version, by contrast, has more often than not gone for the easy laugh.  It’s usually a good laugh – don’t get me wrong – but the show has largely plowed a different furrow than the UK original. There’s no denying that the appealing chemistry between John Krasinski’s Jim and Jenna Fischer’s Pam helps keep the show grounded, but where the British version mined humor from the mundane, the American version often goes for the wacky premise – Michael burns his foot on a George Foreman grill!  Dwight plays the recorder at a bird’s funeral!  This tendency often drags the show into the realm of sitcom, which it otherwise seems to be commendably resisting.

One other fundamental difference between the two series rests with the characters.  The British version had a smaller canvas, focusing primarily on David Brent, Gareth, Dawn, and Tim.  There are certainly supporting characters – Dawn’s fiancee, Lee; Neil, the district office manager; Chris Finch, Brent’s #1 sales rep – but by and large the smaller characters play only bit parts.  The American version, on the other hand, has a sprawling cast, with entire episodes centering on (or at least featuring) a dozen or more other characters in the last few seasons.  I stress again that the show has been consistently funny, but I always felt that the sheer number of characters has diluted the impact.

Or at least that’s what I thought until a couple weeks ago.  Even the casual viewer knows that the show has been building steadily toward Jim and Pam’s wedding since the end of Season 2.  In short, they kiss, he goes away, he returns, he’s dating someone else, they get together, she goes to art school, he proposes, she’s pregnant.  The wedding episode finally rolled around shortly into this season, and I was pleasantly surprised while watching it until …

***** SPOILER ALERT FOR PEOPLE WHO CATCH UP LATER ON DVD *****

… the wedding march begins, one of the wedding party signals the organist to stop playing, and Dwight immediately turns on a boom box playing that godawful Chris Brown song that accompanied that stupid YouTube wedding dance sensation from a few months ago.  I don’t remember groaning out loud in disappointment, but it’s entirely possible that I did.  This kind of straight-faced parody/homage seemed to run counter to everything the show was about.  It was a predictable joke, and worse, it was about two months too late to even be topical.

But I kept watching, and a funny thing happened.  Each of the supporting characters did his or her dance down the aisle – Michael, Phyllis and Bob Vance, Andy (using a walker after tearing his scrotum in a dance contest the night before) and Erin, Kelly and Ryan, Stanley, Michael again, Oscar and Kevin, Angela, Creed, Dwight, and then the whole cast – and this sequence was intercut with scenes from the real wedding ceremony that had already taken place in secret.  Watching it, I realized just how brilliant this show has become.  Even though the humor is broader, the characters are just as finely drawn as in the British version, and the emotional reaction I had at the end of this episode  – sitting in my apartment with a big, dopey grin on my face and a lump in my throat – was based on just how much I’ve come to care about them over the last five seasons.  The huge cast is one of the reasons the show has continued to grow and improve, and the wedding dance – rather than the hokey and ill-conceived joke I thought it would be – seems to be just as much a celebration for the actors as it is for their characters.  Above all, it demonstrates just how far the show has come in five seasons, and just how much this remarkable cast has evolved into the funniest group of actors on television.

The wedding episode could have gone wrong in so many ways, but, taking a page from its UK counterpart, The Office did the unthinkable and made it perfect.

Here’s the wedding video, for those who haven’t seen it, or who just want to remember how great it is (and sorry if NBC makes you watch a commercial first):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

*****

Current listening:

Love earth

Love and Rockets – Earth Sun Moon

Current reading:

BANR2005-full

Kate Krautkramer – “Roadkill” (in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, ed. by Dave Eggers

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Comments»

1. Katie Reed - November 3, 2009

There are a lot of Office fans who were turned off by the Chris Brown spoof. Frankly, I can understand the want to moan about it- but I believe that this feeling of it being obnoxious was the entire point. The original wedding video was very sweet and definitely memorable, and unfortunately there are many people who wanted to see if they could recreate its sparkle on their own big occasion. Imagine how many weddings have done something similar since the video went up? It’s easier to copy than to come up with something on one’s own. Usually, they don’t get it right and it just comes off as stupid.

I really think that The Office played into this. If I went to a wedding and had people dancing down the aisle to some terrible hip-hop song, I would feel like groaning and rolling my eyes. It’s old and played out. I would have second-hand embarrassment for anyone involved. Michael Scott and company are the dorky kind of people who would think that this would be a special surprise for Jim and Pam. I might be alone, but I thought it was a pitch-perfect gag that captured an embarrassing moment while being fun instead of being heart-wrenching.

Erin and Nard Dog are totally the new Jim and Pam.

rcm - November 3, 2009

I completely agree. The fact that Michael and Dwight were so excited about the song (and that Pam made a point of expressly saying she didn’t want it played) is exactly why it was the right choice. Of course hipsters like you and I think it’s stupid, but Michael and Dwight would think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. And because they were so caught up in it, it perfectly captured the jubilation of the moment. It became a celebration of much more than just the wedding.

“V” starts tonight! Are you watching?

2. Katie Reed - November 3, 2009

Duh, I want to see the lady swallow a mouse.


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