The American version of The Office ended its long, storied run earlier this year. Of course, to me, it was simply “The Office,” with the original version being “The British Office.” More to the point, despite being a huge fan of The Office, at least during the middle seasons when it was a great show, and the latter seasons had their highlights, I hadn’t really seen much of the original iteration of The Office. I know it is a beloved show, but I had only seen bits and pieces of it. However, since the entire series is on Netflix instant streaming, and since it isn’t a large ask to watch it all, I figured I would see where it all began.
I don’t want to make this about comparing the American version of The Office to the British version, although in the end that will be a part of it. I want to view the British Office as its own entity, which it is. It was a show that, aside from taking place in a paper company’s office in a banal, out of the way, town, isn’t all that similar to the American version. I can certainly see why, after the problematic pilot, the American version did its own thing. The American Office is a very different show in tone and scope and logistics. Part of this is the different TV models. The US version went for 200 episodes. The British version had 12 episodes and an extended Christmas special.
Because of that limited scope, the focus is only really on the main four characters, and frankly it is almost entirely about David Brent, the boss played by Ricky Gervais in a career making role. Gareth Keenan, played by Mackenzie Crook, is the Dwight analogue. Then there’s Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) and Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), the Jim and Pam of the piece. That’s about it for notable characters in the office, honestly. The first season has a temp, like Ryan, but he’s got before season two. Their version of Todd Packer, Chris “Finchy” Finch, is a much bigger part of the show. There is a guy that is clearly the basis for Kevin, but that’s only because he’s a dumb, fat accountant. The secondary characters are barely involved in anything other than reacting to David Brent.
OK, enough comparing the two. What’s The British Office like in terms of quality? Well, in short, it’s good, but nothing special. To extend that a bit, there are some good moments, but I found a lot of issues with the show that often dragged it down.
The British Office is a darker, bleaker, flatter show. It’s also more ribald, as they got to saw whatever they wanted and showed some sexually explicit stuff. Remember in the first season of The Office when people called Michael Scott fat and stuff and genuinely despised him? That’s what this show is all about. Brent is a little worse than Michael, but the main difference is Brent is never softened, and people never come around to him. He does the usual saying of awful things which people find awkward. The issue is that the show can’t really justify this.
Pretty much everybody in this show is awful, which is a problem. It’s not just David. The office is full of creeps and jerks and people saying inappropriate things. They say things just as awful as David, but yet we are supposed to accept that everybody hates him and doesn’t think he’s funny at all. One woman complains about his jokes being offensive. Just a little while later, she’s happily getting sex toys as gifts for her birthday IN THE OFFICE and making sexually overt comments to co-workers. You know how people sometimes complained that Michael would have been fired in real life so many times for his actions? Well, most people at Wernham Hogg would have been fired, sued for sexual harassment and, frankly, probably arrested.
I don’t have much of a problem with this in the abstract. I have a problem with it in terms of how it works within the logic of the show. For example, Neil, the character who becomes David’s boss in the second season, is supposedly liked by everybody and is supposed to act in juxtaposition to David. However, when Finchy makes a mean spirited joke about David’s date, Neil laughs. He’s as much of a jerk as David, he’s just less desperate. This is really more of a show about a sad, desperate man trying to make people like him while failing, but it isn’t quite presented that way.
Another problem is that Tim is kind of a jerk. I don’t like him. He’s somewhat mean-spirited and sadder than Jim. This is problematic, since he is supposed to be sort of a surrogate and is part of the love story, which is a much smaller part of this show than the American version. However, Tim isn’t likable. I don’t root for him, really, and it limits any dramatic heft the show has. Additionally, Gareth is bland and uninteresting. Dwight was awesome. Gareth is mediocre.
All this being said, the show does have some high points. The Christmas special was tremendous. The show did interesting things with David, who was fired late in the second season, and the way they handled the Tim and Dawn story ended quite well, even with my Tim reservations. It was still so effectively done that it worked for me. Of course, the show got to end with their first big kiss, not after years of marriage and kids. The final episode of the second season run was really good too. I also felt the show started strong. So, basically, it was like a hammock in some ways, this show. It started and ended quite well, with a lull in the middle.
The British Office is better than the American version at its worst, but it is not nearly as good as the American one at its best. It’s a good show, with a few really good episodes, but a few mediocre ones. There are also some issues in terms of translation across the pond in terms of references, which hurts. The tone of the humor is confusing, and sometimes downright unpleasant. Gervais is quite good in the lead role, and to be fair Freeman is quite good as Tim despite the character’s problems. I didn’t laugh a ton, but I found it clever and well-constructed. Also, the theme song is really good. So, there’s that.
It was worthwhile to watch the original, British version of The Office. I can see why it spawned so many versions, but that’s, admittedly, because it is so easy to translate it to any country and be relatable. I don’t consider it a classic, but I do consider it a good show.