Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Defanging 'The Office' OR Is Ricky Gervais Evil?

The American version of The Office, starring Steve Carell, is a good-looking blonde with obscenely dark roots.

Let us take a look at the successful comedy, by tracing it backwards into the past, down two winding paths. The first winding path will begin in the present and lead us to the origin of the American version of the show. Going further backwards in time, the second path, which had originally led up to the American Office, will be traced back to the dark origins of Ricky Gervais’ British comedy.

Let us start at the present.

If I were to describe The Office today in one sentence, this is how I would do it: The Office is a funny mock documentary about the goings-on of the people who work for a paper distributing business that’s out of date. But if I were to describe the series a year ago, I would have written a different description: The Office is a funny mock documentary about the angst and the futility of office life.

This season, Jim’s pranks on Dwight are along the lines of convincing him that Jim is slowly turning into a vampire or that Dwight is getting secret messages from the CIA or that Dwight is getting faxes from a future Dwight on his own stationery. In the first two seasons, the pranks were less radical and more of a turf war between two people who work in the office.

For example.

Dwight begins to shred paper noisily right beside Jim, as Jim has a phone conversation with an important buyer. When Jim asks if Dwight has to do it right now, Dwight insists that it is urgent. “I should have done it weeks ago.” Jim then puts the guy on hold and pulls the shredder’s plug. In retaliation, Dwight puts his finger on Jim’s phone, cutting his conversation short.

Another time, Jim puts Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O and returns it to the drawer.

In another episode, following another small turf war, Jim tapes sharp, pointy pencils to every spot on his own desk, to make sure that Dwight doesn’t accidentally touch his desk. Dwight, saying this is dangerous, slams all the pencils with his phone.

The point is that these pranks are more realistic, more likely to happen in an office, and are actually a statement about the fact that most of us are stuck in an office with people we don’t really care about, and how little victories are what matters to us.

Another huge element of the series that is now completely gone is the element of embarrassment so big you don’t know what to do with yourself.

One day, Jan, the boss from Corporate, comes in to the office. Todd, one of the company’s top sellers, is calling, and Michael puts him on speaker to impress Jan. Todd immediately asks if “old Godzillary” (Godzilla and Hillary in one) is coming to the office today. As Michael tries to stop him, Todd says “I’ve been meaning to ask her one question. Does the carpet match the drape?” And Michael hangs up on him, but, of course, too late. And a silence, too awful for words, ensues, before Jan breaks it by going on with the set agenda.

Another time, Michael tries to ‘punk’ Pam, his secretary. As a “morale booster”, he tells her she’s been downsized. And not only that, but that she doesn’t deserve any severance pay. Pam begins to cry. Michael tells her the truth. Pam calls him a jerk and walks out of the room, leaving Michael sitting in the room, with the new temp, not knowing what to do with himself.

Embarrassment, embarrassment, embarrassment.

The third element that’s subtly disappeared from the series is that of futility. When Jim begins to describe his job, he grows bored with it during the first sentence. Pam doesn’t want to get fired, but she also admits that maybe it would be good, because maybe then she’ll get to do something she wants.

Topping this off, the fourth element that had been prevalent in the first two seasons and, unlike the others, has not completely disappeared but only almost disappeared, is the characters’ inability to move or create any kind of change in their lives. Pam has been engaged to her boyfriend for three years when the show begins, and it took another year for the couple to decide that there should be a wedding day. Pam never stood up for herself, never asked to be treated right, and simply put up with what was.

At the same time, Pam and Jim have been attracted to each other from afar, and for more than two years they danced around each other, neither of them having the guts to actually take a stand. The people working in the office were afraid to get fired but at the same time afraid that they would spend the rest of their lives doing this. None of them had had the strength of character to even try something different.

Since the original British series ran for only two years and was only fourteen episodes long (the Americans go for bulk over quality, the British for quality over bulk), the original material ran out after Jim kissed Pam at the end of the second season, and since then the American writers have kept what they could, writing what’s easy to maintain, and what’s easy to write funny: Letting Michael make an ass of himself, letting him put his foot in his mouth, letting Dwight be Dwight, letting Jim make fun of Dwight. And that’s the third season. That is what has remained of the original show. And that in itself is enough to make a successful comedy.

But during the first two seasons, the show was better, funnier, and, yes, much darker. When it began, you could see that the show was about something: It’s awful when your life is controlled by outside forces, like a boss who can fire you or a company that can downsize or go out of business. It’s awful when, to make a living, you have to go out and work at horrible jobs with petty people. It’s awful when people don’t act on what they feel and don’t do what they really want.

So now we delve further into the past, taking the second path backwards in time to see where this darkness originated. Because if the first two seasons of the American Office seem dark, when compared to the BBC’s The Office it’s practically Sesame Street.

When Reveille Productions decided to take the British Office, they clearly decided to defang it. As is usually done in Hollywood to movies and TV shows that are based on foreign movies and TV shows, the text is simplified, the story dumbed-down, the endings usually more optimistic, and the true sting of the creation smeared with an awful lot of honey.

Only two major instances come to mind in which the Americanization of an original series dramatically improved the original. They are The Office and Three’s Company.

Originally produced as Man about the House, and written by John Mortimer, a British playwright and author. (Run out and find episodes or books of his funny, dramatic, and satiric Rumpole legal series.) If you follow the first season or two of Three’s Company, you’ll note that there are a lot of wordplays, a lot of double-entendres, many people listening in through doors at lines that make sense in at least two ways, and so forth. John Mortimer’s word games disappear from the American series once the original material runs out. However, the British Man about the House had, if you judge by this series alone, no comic actors. All the funny lines were stepped on. The original British version of Three’s Company wasn’t funny.

The American version had John Ritter, whose comic abilities saved the show and carried it. After two seasons of relying on the original texts, the rest of the seasons were written to fit Ritter’s talent.

Now, where the British Man about the House simply wasn’t funny, the British Office was funny, but it made you want to kill yourself.

Originally written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Storytellers assumes that since Gervais also starred in the role we know as Michael Scott (originally: David Brent) and played the embarrassment and hopelessness (with more or less the same text) to the point of magnifying it a thousandfold, the major themes of the series came from him.

The original Office was, I apologize for this in advance but there is simply no other word for it: evil. By this I do not mean that anyone involved in its making is comparable to, say, Hitler or that Gervais has ever done a bad deed in his life. To my knowledge he hasn’t, nor do I suspect or imply that he has.

The word evil, when uttered by an atheist like myself, leaps to mind only when witnessing someone utterly beyond redemption. Again, the atheistic definition of redemption would be: possessing not even a glimmer of hope.

Everything Gervais wrote into The Office is true. It touches on something we all recognize, truths about how small, petty, and futile everyday life is. The series is funny. It is art. And yet, the dark place that it shows is completely without redemption. And it therefore reeks of evil (in the atheistic sense, again).

It may sound incongruous, but when writers write about awful things, they are writing out of optimism, even if they do not know it. When writers write about the evil that men do, they want us to better it. When writers write about the dark and awful depressions they fall into, they cry for help, believing deep down that there is help for them. When writers show us the seedy streets, the tough world, or the corruption of those in charge, they are saying ‘it’s wrong’, hoping the audience can somehow change the world. In all of these there is hope.

The only other piece of story art I can think of that comes close to being irredeemable is Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The book has a massive appeal to teenagers because its teenage hero, Holden, lives in a dark world in his head, in which no one understands how he feels and from which he doesn’t know how to escape. But when you read the book not as a teenager, you also notice that Salinger doesn’t give Holden any hope. Most teenagers who feel bad, also believe things can get better, they just need to find the way, or perhaps someone needs to come and save them. Teenagers act out because they are looking for salvation and don’t know where it is. When you look for salvation, it means that deep down you still think it exists.

Salinger, a grownup who doesn’t see any way out of the dark world in which he lives, accordingly gives Holden no shred of hope in the book. The book, however, is not beyond redemption, because the very act of having written it is the act of hope. Salinger’s act of sharing the darkness is an act of hope, that maybe someone will read, maybe someone will understand, maybe someone will save.

Gervais’ The Office doesn’t even offer that. There is no cry for help in the British Office. There is no hidden appeal to humanity to better its ways. There is no sliver of light which shows you that behind some wall there is some sunlight. In fact, Gervais’ act of sharing is actually saying “Wake up, you morons! Look around you and see the world as it is! There is no hope anywhere to be found! Stop hoping!” And if you do it convincingly – which he does – that feels somewhat evil.

So, no, Ricky Gervais isn’t evil, he’s probably a very nice guy; but his creation is.

Error correction: Todd Packer was erroneously referred to as Tom Packer.


Anonymous said...

You seem to be ignoring the Office Christmas Special? It had hope, it had love redeemed - everything you say is lacking in the original.

Anonymous said...

You need to lighten up a bit.

Anonymous said...

WOW. You are an idiot. Yes you have some good points, i.e. the realistic pranks vs. unrealistic pranks in the office but they suck. Who wants to watch a show where everything is realistic and could actually happen to anyone?? maybe you? i don't know. escaping in to a world that you wouldn't normally see is the appeal of tv. if i was able to pretend i was a vampire (due to the fact that a bat was loose in my office) that would simply make my day. but i can't, and that makes it so much more funny. oh and if you're going to write a lengthy article about a tv show, at least no what you're talking about. it's TODD packer, not Tom. and in the future, K.I.S.S., IF you even know what that means. don't read in to things that are already perfect the way they are and nitpick.

Benaiah said...

The American Office is my favorite show of all time, but the British Office is a truer work of art in many ways. To call it "evil" misses the point, it is existentialist, but The Stranger isn't evil, it is a valid look at the pointlessness of life. The British Office is in the same vein, people have the opportunity to make their lives better and affect personal change, and they steadfastly refuse to do so. The end of the second season (Tim asks Dawn to leave Lee, David begs for his job, Tim doesn't take the promotion and Dawn leaves for America) points endless horizon of drudgery and quiet desperation. No change is possible because the characters we like (Dawn and Tim) are unwilling to make the hard decisions necessary to progress (Tim at least tries with Dawn, but professionally he is both unwilling to be promoted and unwilling to leave the company and go back to school). Your point that there is no hope is valid, but there is hope in real life. Hope for personal growth by making hard decision (David Brent says it explicitly when he begs for his job: "I can change."). Tim and Dawn won't change, but we can.

Of course the Christmas episode goes in a new direction, where for two hours the characters refuse to grow, only at the very end a tiny improvement shows that there is hope. The two biggest moments are obviously Tim and Dawn's kiss, but just as important, David telling Finchy to "F*** off". For once he isn't beholden to the worst of all men. Even better, David actually gets people to laugh with him. I see plenty to be hopeful about and so I wonder how you can call it evil.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Get your facts straight. His name is Todd Packer, not Tom.

Anonymous said...

Refreshing perspective. I watched the British version, caught up with the American after Season 1 with the dvd, then started watching regularly. You are spot on with you assesment of the British and American versions, but most of all, you get exactly what made the first two seasons such genius. While I've been a disppointed in little ways all season, last night's episode (Product Recall) was a total bust for me because it lacked the qualities you aptly described.