American Office: Bound to Disappoint

TV. Tele Vision. Have I ever posted about TV? Hmmm. I guess I could go back and look at the archives, but you know, that would be just like looking at old unflattering photos of myself. I would be tempted to throw it all away, especially knowing that any stranger can just instantly know the religious affiliation of my sister (sensitive subject in my family, but hey, I think I’ve written ALL about it), or worse, the FCC/Justice Dept. can put me in solitary confinement when blogger Bush bashing is declared “terrorist activity.” Plus, researching my own body of work is way too egomaniac…I spend way too much time already writing it. So instead, I’ll just venture to say that I haven’t written anything about TV thus far.

Possible reasons for this (because I know you care):

1. My roommate has TiVo. Even though I don’t know how to use it and have no interest in learning, if I ever want to check out worthy programming, I can always just ask her to record it. Technology. Next thing we know, we can buy a microchip of a The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, install it into our brains, and go hitchhiking.

2. You try watching anything that can live up to transcribing tapes for a small business makeover reality show all day.

3. I once worked on a TV show called Seventh Heaven for two weeks. TV just hasn’t been the same ever since I eavesdropped on a script development meeting. If this is “creative process,” I don’t know what’s creative anymore.

4. I once worked in the TV packaging department at a company called the William Morris Agency. No, we didn’t package TVs. We packaged shows. With enough elements (producer, director, writer, actor, caterer, key prop) represented, the agency can take a hefty slice of the license fee on each episode ordered. Almost every series you see on TV has been assembled out of each agency’s quest for the complete package, occasionally halted by the networks’ ongoing inner war between risk and budget constraints. Knowing how the TV business really works on a daily/seasonal basis has pretty much ruined the experience of watching it.

4.5. Mass media ingestion priorities: books, magazines, music, movies, in no particular/constantly changing order. Although there are many redeeming qualities of television, they all seem to escape my lens. My POV: TV is a mall, and the channels are all stores selling shit you really don’t need. It’s nothing but an interesting microcosm of society, fine for ethnography, but money usually stays in the bank account. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something that fits, but I don’t even bother looking for parking anymore.

But even malls have hidden redeeming qualities; I just need help finding them. If someone I trust and respect tells me to watch a show, I will watch it (side note because I already know this is going to be a long post so fuck it: recommendation is one of the highest forms of flattery. If somebody I trust/respect/love recommends an album/movie/show/book/article to me, because “I think you’d really like it,” wow. Don’t doubt the behavioral rudiments of kindergarten. It’s all about sharing. Consumption = overrated unless you can turn around and share it with someone)

So, to recap, a full four-and-a-half reasons for neglecting TV discussion on this subjective circus. One reason related to lazy procrastination, a half-reason stemming from the more redeeming qualities of other genres of mass-produced entertainment, and the other three resulting from office jobs that have collectively diminished my watching habits to the point where I wonder…why do I continue to contribute to the cable bill? It might seem ironic, given the common cubicle office setting of all three of my TV jobs, that I caught the last fifteen minutes of the American version of the British show, The Office, last Thursday night.

Okay, I’ll admit and come clean right away. I am one of those British Office purists. I can’t help it. The Office is one of my favorite television shows of all time (which, given the evidence of my sorry TV-watching habits, isn’t saying much for the show, but widespread critical acclaim and much hilarity spread throughout the TV-watching world can’t lie). The thought of its Americanization has troubled me ever since hearing the news that NBC had ordered episodes and propositioned the original creative team into tarnishing its own brilliant franchise. My expectations had never been so low for a television show.

**former agency insider note: The Office has been brought to America by the same asshole producer that has made a fortune buying up British shows and pawning them off as previously successful formats to risk-paranoid networks. The last such show was Coupling, which, last time I checked, was cancelled right away because it wasn’t as popular or good as it was in England. While The Office may not suffer the same fate, asshole producer will make a shitload of money regardless and will go find the next original British export to pimp.

For starters, the Britishness of The Office is precisely what I love so much about it. I won’t go into this Britishness because I am not British, and there is definitely a Scot reading this right now, so I don’t dare offend his UK sensibilities. But you know what I mean…basically, laugh-out-loud American comedy has arguably (until someone else agrees with me, it’s just “arguably”) become more reflexive/pop culture referential than situational (some might say more lazy), and The Office was/is obviously more of a situational show.

Further to its disadvantage, since The American Office is not a half-hour but sub-fourteen minutes long, the odds are against getting any coherent, endearing, hilarious storyline going long enough to engage an audience, especially with pesky commercial breaks disturbing the flow. The original Office style favored longish takes, intriguing you-don’t-know-what’s-next documentary-style editing, and confessional, rambling stream of consciousness interviews. Its half-hour episode running time, thanks to the BBC, gave it the fully utilized time to experiment with story and character development.

I watched entire seasons of The British Office like a miniseries on DVD. Spoiled rotten by this ideal screening experience, I was not looking forward to NBC interrupting by trying to sell me some corporate America bullshit and give me yet another reason to hate on the show before it had even begun. Like I said, I don’t watch hardly any TV…and I avoid malls. I’ve accepted that as an American citizen, I’m living in a capitalist, free-market run-society, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dodge the bullets of consumer targetism (definitely not a word) like I’m living in a game of Space Invaders. Unless successfully ignored, advertisements have the potential to ruin pretty much anything I’m doing, unless I’m attempting to tear them apart and sell their bullshit back to the masses (or whoever happens to be listening).

I’m not saying The American Office is bullshit, but when I was watching it, it seemed kind of like an advertisement, like NBC was trying to sell it to me. What else is new? But from what I saw, Zucker and Co. weren’t trying too hard, or maybe they were just trying for the haven’t-seen-British-Office demographic. With that said, based on the small glimpse of the American Office, I would strongly encourage British Office fans to watch this show not for the laughs, but for the glaring differences in attempted sameness.

It’s deceptive…everything’s in place, but something’s definitely off. Lost in translation would be likening it to Bill Murray’s impending career as a Japanese whiskey spokesman. Putting your finger on it would defeat the purpose of having a finger. Maybe it’s that the American actors can’t even chip away at the character void. Ricky Gervais’ David Brent was eerily American for a British guy…and that was part of the fun. Making him an American American is not fun, even if the actor was on The Daily Show. And replacing rat-like Gareth with a guy that looks like John C. Reilly? They could have CAST John C. Reilly, and he still wouldn’t have been half as funny as Gareth.

Of all NBC’s attempts at capturing the spirit of the British Office, none is as disappointing as the American counterpart Tim-Dawn dynamic. The unrequited chemistry of the cynical sales rep Tim and the perpetually involved receptionist Dawn was the most moving quality of the British Office. In the most drab, boring surroundings imaginable, their romance stayed simultaneously possible and impossible. Regardless of how much Dawn couldn’t help responding to Tim’s endearingly subdued attempts at flirtation, the cameras only allowed us access to Tim’s story. Although he never said it out loud, he was always, irreversibly in love with Dawn. But he accepted his lot in life, which is that he spent eight hours a day around her, with full knowledge that when they left the office at the end of the day, she went home to her fiancé.

On a daily basis, he faced Dawn head-on, with no choice but to continue to be his charming self, because as long as she continued to respond, he still had a chance. When Tim dated other girls, Dawn became outwardly, uncomfortably jealous, at which point I had to wonder…how does Dawn really feel about Tim? And if she feels how you think she feels, what’s preventing her from acting upon it? This question held The Office emotionally accountable for its presumably objective documentarian lens, quietly drawing even the most cynical viewers into an endearing connection of unrequited lovers. Tim and Dawn were always in the back of our minds, because even as we laughed at the insane ridiculousness of the rest of the characters’ interplay, their connection would not be ignored.

I leave you now (or at least try to) with, in my opinion, one of David Brent’s most triumphant moments on The Office. Without going too far into the analysis of the Brent mystique, I have to say, without a doubt—and without having met a sufficient number of British characters to presume such an opinion without any doubts—that he is most comedically (also definitely not a word) multi-layered character that I have ever witnessed on television.

Funny to some, the object of witty ridicule to others, the object of pity to others, and hilarious to himself…and the characters constantly change their opinions of him, so you’re never quite sure where he stands. The mock-journalistic camera catches him at his peak performances (see also: the guitar) as well as his most vulnerable depths. How we see him is an entirely different matter…and as shocking as it may seem, we may see ourselves in him.

The beauty of Brent is that you don’t necessarily have to be British or have worked in a stuffy office setting to understand him. What I do know is that none of us have had a boss like him because he is a true original—a comic, human being, rock star, riot with a sick conscience, authority figure we love to hate, authority figure we just can’t help but love. In my opinion, any attempt by NBC/Reveille/Gervais to emulate and Americanize an original may be financially successful, but in my eyes it is bound to disappoint.

Alright, enough is enough. On to the Brent quote, which pretty much speaks for itself. Poor description of plot context: he’s a guest speaker at some business seminar, and he’s talking to a tough audience about being an inspirational boss or something, and the apparent theme is looking on the bright side of things.

“If I’ve only got one leg, well at least I haven’t got two legs missing. And if you have lost both legs and both arms, at least go, ‘Well, at least I’m not dead.’ Well, I would rather be dead in that situation. I’m not saying that should be put down. I’m saying that in my life, I’d rather not live without arms and legs because, you know, I’m just getting into yoga for one thing, so…”


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