The original British version of The Office is such a beautiful, sad, funny, dramatic, cringey, redemptive work of art. It is compact, but tells a complete story that is tragic because it has to be because life in that sort of workplace–a company that produces and sells paper goods–would be tragic. And it is tragic in such mundane ways that are so well-observed. It is so much better than the American version because it feels far more real and relatable and it doesn’t go on for 346 seasons or whatever.
It is easier to be in love with the American version because it’s an American sitcom and like all American sitcoms it insists on hope and it lasts much longer. It lets you cling to it even as its identity becomes murky and confused. Even when it lost its comedic lead, it tried to find ways around this, as American sitcoms foolishly do. The people behind the camera are unwilling to let it go just as the fans are, which allows the fans to feel thankful that the creators are on the same wavelength as them.
But the original has such a brief set of episodes it has no space to drag, making for a rewarding catharsis that is rarely rivaled by other television, comedic or dramatic. Additionally, again, the American version believes obviously in hope but it is disingenuous to suggest the British version does not. It very much does. It eventually gives into it quite solidly, as well it probably should (this choice is still arguable, however), yet hope only comes after a good slog through outright tragedy.
I’m sure there’s tragedy in the American version (yes, I’ll admit, I’ve only seen some episodes here and there) but comparatively it oozes positivity, just in how goofily it presents its characters and world. This is a place you are meant to LOVE. You want to hang out with these CRAZY NUTS because it isn’t like any office environment you’d ever know in real life. It’s loads more fun! You might even want to buy the paper from the show to use around your office make your life feel less lame! (The ramifications of this bit of commercialism do my head in, quite honestly.)
The original show can be goofy too but it’s so much more attuned to the crushing monotony of working a bland, infuriatingly stupid job, wasting your life in service of a product you could not possibly give a single toss about. The boring shot of a printer dutifully spitting out paper that is used to bridge scenes is so simple, but so accurately captures the tone of the place (in fact, when I think of the show, that printer printing is what first comes to mind). Moments of hope are small and fleeting (but a lot more rewarding) because that’s truly how it should be in such a setting.
It probably sounds like I’m effectively saying the BBC Office is more like real life, which is frankly a bullshit argument and perhaps I haven’t avoided making it entirely. But I think what I’m really trying to get at here is art needs to speak to something in the human condition. It needs to touch you on some level that makes you feel it understands life in some facet. You don’t need to set your show in a boring office to do this; you can have a show about fighting robots that makes hardly any sense (FLCL) and still feel like something quite profound about your existence is being explored. It’s just that The Office is set in a boring place that many of us know all too well so itworks with that. It plays to the sad strengths of its real-world setting and finds an amazing truth there.
The American version becomes another sitcom. It takes an office and proceeds to forget it’s an office. The setting gradually bleeds away and the characters kookiness amplifies until the office is just a sandbox to watch these nutty folk bonk into each other within.
I’m not against this sort of thing in all cases. This is basically what happened to Community. But Community was always a show about relationships. I admired the grounded feel of the first season, but was it ever, in truth, really important that it took place in a community college? I think it was, from the beginning, a show about a group of disparate people coming together; the college setting was just a means to make that happen. One could argue this is true of all sitcoms, maybe even all shows. But I think The (original) Office was unique. It explored its characters and never forgot where it was. There always had to be tragedy looming behind everything because it was set in a tragic place.
I found this article from The Atlantic that claims the American version to be superior. It concludes, I shit you not, as follows: “But the British office was mean where the American office is nice. And that’s better.” But that’s just the problem with the American version. Niceness and hope flow free and easy and there are so many other American sitcoms out there that provide the same thing: hope at bargain prices. The original show made me feel like it understood true sadness in a boring, modern workplace and, equally, true hope, which is bittersweet and fleeting.
I haven’t revisited the original, British “The Office” in years, but it popped into my head unannounced while I was lying in bed last night. It’s so brilliant and good that it hurt just to remember it and I had trouble falling asleep.