The Office (UK) vs. The Office (US)
ith respect to Bill Simmons, to whom this column is seriously indebted, we here at Stylus have started Vs. to bring you a series of battles between two similar items on the themes of music, movies, and television, breaking their merits down point by point and seeing which emerges victorious. Agree or disagree with the conclusions? You know the drill. But understand that our methods of empirical data analysis are in fact flawless and therefore should not be disputed.
American people apparently can’t stomach things that aren’t American enough. The public generally prefers Crouching Tiger dubbed rather than subtitled, “fusion” rather than “authentic” foreign cuisine, and resort getaways rather than cultural immersion. So what did collaborators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant do after winning the first British comedy Golden Globe and igniting a Netflix firestorm for the BBC hit “The Office”? Naturally, they had the show adapted. Rather than shuffle the British series onto endless repeats on Comedy Central or Bravo, Gervais and Merchant passed off to Greg Daniels, who developed the US show for NBC with the help, but not the guidance, of the pair. While the show’s first episodes, debuting in 2004, started off a little rough, the series has taken off since it diverged from the UK plot. It’s helped that star Steve Carell has become comfortable with the “worst boss ever” role of Michael Scott, a role that Gervais inhabited as David Brent.
The American flavor of the show has become a critical hit, taking the employees of a failing paper company to places Gervais and Merchant probably never dreamed of and applying a distinctly American humor to office life. To some, “The Office (US)” has surpassed its predecessor by drilling deeply into the workaday drone archetypes and their relations with one another. But just as many people believe that “The Office (UK)”’s painful British humor has no peer, and that the declawed American version plays safe because Americans just aren’t witty enough. This article will settle the argument once and for all.
The story is simple: a fake documentary crew follows the workers in a backwoods branch of a failing paper distributor. The branch in question is managed by a crude, ignorant, slightly incompetent boss who somehow thinks that he’s popular, funny, and effective. Just as we’re sinking our teeth into this character, he gets word from Corporate that his branch might get downsized, and somehow he manages to spread the word throughout the branch. Hilarity and humiliation ensues.
The “UK” and “US” series aren’t quite on equal footing here, since “UK” ran its course with two six-episode series and two 40-minute Christmas specials. “US,” meanwhile, is still going strong at the end of its third season, with an episode count totaling nearly more than four times the run of “UK.” In that span, the American flavor has had a chance to take Dunder Mifflin Inc. in a number of directions beyond the original storyline, although in the first season it attempted to mirror the “UK” downsizing plot with little success. “UK” is a fully-formed plot arc that follows Tim’s pursuit of Dawn, David’s inept attempts to stave off layoffs, Neil Godwin’s ascension as David’s boss, and the concluding Christmas party that ties everything together (sorry, no spoilers). “US” has had the advantage of exploring its characters more thoroughly, as well as exploring office humor to greater depths, but with that, there’s also meandering, one-off topical episodes, and crazy twists like the Jan Levinson subplot that could signal jump-the-shark status soon if the writers aren’t careful. Give it another season and either series could grab this one.
Endemic in corporate culture, the office sycophant can improve workplace performance, but more often he just rallies his co-workers against him. “UK”’s Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook) inhabits the office lackey type, giggling at the opportunity to get ahead at any cost, but also giddily exuding his own incompetence. Although his co-workers mock his serious demeanor (with co-workers Dawn and Tim getting much pleasure out of exploring the homo-erotic aspects of Gareth’s time in the Territorial Army), Gareth is, like every other male in this series, a man-child. He laughs at childish jokes and he has a doe-eyed adherence to authority that even the clueless David Brent knows will never translate to effective management.
There’s no such pussyfooting with “US”’s Dwight Schrute. The “US” writers and actor Rainn Wilson have adapted Dwight into the perfect American trope by transforming the character into a Bushie. Coming out of a military (Nazi), religious (Amish), agricultural (beet farm) family, Schrute wields with an iron fist whatever power he can get his hands on. Fortunately for the office, very little such power is given to him. Like Gareth, his arrogance and delusion is such that he insists on being called “Assistant Regional Manager,” even though his actual title is “Assistant to the Regional Manager.” And yet, he’s also honorable, rising to defend women with completely inappropriate force and attempting to uphold the law as an honorary sheriff’s deputy. Even after committing numerous heroic acts, Dwight brushes off the claim that he’s a hero, mostly because he errantly conflates the meanings of “hero” and “superhero.” Perhaps it’s his surely nightmarish upbringing, but Dwight has been hardened into a steel-skinned right-wing machine: an honest worker, a walking joke, a perfect allegory for our divided populace, and (as he would say) a much better man than Gareth could ever dream of being.
Winner: “The Office (US)”
Everyone has a crush on Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer). The “US” receptionist has endeared herself to the American public by soldiering on in a job that she hates, wasting her wonderful drawing talent, and dating a fiancée with half a brain. She begins meekly, with the odd practical joke with Jim (usually at Dwight’s expense) the greatest excitement in her day. However, after she leaves her oafish high-school boyfriend Roy, Pam begins to find the strength to assert herself and possibly find a way out from behind the front desk.
Her character of course draws heavily from “UK”’s Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis), who also gave up an art career for her man and a phone-answering gig. Unlike Pam, Dawn doesn’t allow herself to be wrapped up in the madness of the office. Dawn is serious, (relatively) motivated, talented, and intelligent. She rarely embarrasses herself or misjudges a situation. Dawn represents an entire class of ennui, motivated by either love or convenience, that brings a perfectly reasonable person to a point in their life where they’re going nowhere and have no idea how they got where they are in the first place. Pam, on the other hand, is a dynamic character who grows from her experiences at the office, perhaps more so than any other character. Over the course of three seasons, a friendship with Jim and off-and-on relationship with Roy, Pam learns how to make herself happy in a way that Dawn only ever considers in brief, detached moments of lighthearted humor.
Winner: “The Office (US)”
As a mockumentary, “The Office” captures music only briefly during the workday. “UK” and “US” really only put music at the forefront with their opening themes, which play against the backdrop of the titular office’s home city (Slough and Scranton, respectively). The “UK” theme is a sort of working-class pub rock, a cover of “Handbags and Gladrags” done by Big George. The hard-luck guitar & piano stuff seems to come from Gervais, who takes every opportunity to make David try out his best Joe Cocker impression. Check out the episode “Training” for a hilarious Brent original, “Freelove Freeway,” performed by David when he brings his guitar in to disrupt a training seminar. And don’t forget Brent’s ridiculous cover of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” for which he shoots a jaw-dropping, bleached out music video.
“US” gets a theme that fits Scranton’s Eastern European ethnic history, a brief rocker with a catchy accordion riff. Otherwise, “US” only gets its music in at opportune times, with Jim & Pam sharing an iPod moment or a carefully-placed Snow Patrol cut heard at the local Chili’s. Cast addition Andy (Ed Helms) also interjects his amusingly accurate Ivy League a capella throwbacks every now and then. Finally, bonus points go to “US” for casting former Grass Roots member Creed Bratton as a drug-addled caricature of himself, but Brent’s terrible cover trumps all.
Winner: “The Office (UK)”
“UK”’s Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) may be the only character in the series who sees Wernham Hogg for what it really is—a flagging corporate bore offering no conceivable future—but he’s paradoxically the least enabled employee. Although Tim readily admits that he should leave paper sales and go back to school, his insecurity keeps him firmly rooted at his desk between Gareth and David. Also keeping Tim in Slough is his crush on engaged receptionist Dawn Tinsley, a fact that Tim seems unwilling to admit to even himself. Freeman plays Tim with a delicate mixture of bemusement and exasperation, cringing when the audience cringes but playing along when office events turn unintentionally hilarious.
John Krasinski incorporated a bit of Tim into his Jim Halpert for “US,” including the easygoing attitude and the knowing glances at the camera. Jim might be described as the smart/funny slacker type, always rolling with the situation and making life a little more entertaining for everyone around him. Jim feels the need to speak his mind sometimes, hence confiding his crush on Pam to Michael. Jim is willing to speak candidly to the camera at other times, even if it embarrasses him. That’s the sort of straightforwardness about Jim that signals that he belongs in this office, that he has some sort of future with Dunder Mifflin. He’s gained the favor of his manager, the CFO, and all of his co-workers. On top of that, Jim appears to not mind selling paper. His personal and work-related problems are clearly delineated. Tim, on the other hand, is imperfect, his state of mind is delicate, and his future is uncertain on every front. Jim would make a better friend, but Tim’s is a much better story.
Winner: “The Office (UK)”
“UK” delves deeply into the motivations of its main characters, building their water-cooler pathos into iconic commentary on British office culture. But other Wernham Hogg employees are just sketched in, afforded only a few lines and a couple of candid transition shots. They more often serve as victims to David Brent’s misogyny, cultural insensitivity, and inept schemes than as fleshed-out characters. The “US” employees, on the other hand, offer a rich and varied study in American office types. Phyllis (Phyllis Smith) seems timid and matronly, but tends to the office like a mother and uses her appearance to land sales. The bickering accounts department is led by Angela (Angela Kinsey), a hard-hearted tightass who dresses in children’s clothing, criticizes nearly everyone, and forms a secret power couple with Dwight. The “US” characters even serve as a bit of warning to their 18-35 target audience, with Kelly (Mindy Kaling), Ryan (Ryan Howard) and Cornell grad and a capella singer Andy (Ed Helms) playing perpetual college kids who refuse to grow up well after they’ve graduated.
UK’s Keith, the blunt-speaking accountant/DJ with a penchant for scotch eggs and a keenly-worded exposition on American fanny-pack culture, helps make this a close call, but this one goes to Dunder Mifflin.
Winner: “The Office (US)”
The US “Office” has developed a curious habit of pairing off the Dunder Mifflin employees. The relationships of Pam and warehouse worker Roy, along with Jim and Stamford refugee Karen, are carried over from “UK,” but “US” has introduced anal-retentive power couple Dwight and Angela; bubbly sorority chick Kelly and reluctant fratboy archetype Ryan; and of course, Michael and his self-flagellating boss, Jan Levinson. Even Phyllis gets hitched to office neighbor and local refrigeration magnate Bob Vance. This gross display of un-professionalism may make for better plot longevity, but it pales in comparison to the delicate longing operating just under the surface in “UK.” David and Gareth rightfully have little luck with girls, and while Sheila pines for fellow background character Oliver, her hopes are dashed when she sees him with energetic Swindon transplant Trudy. Tim has a second-season romance with Rachel, but the series correctly stays focused on his hapless pursuit of Dawn. Let’s keep it professional, okay?
Winner: “The Office (UK)”
Other than the aforementioned musical preferences of David Brent, “UK” never really goes into its boss’ cultural taste, or lack thereof. But as a man of his own refined sophistication, Michael Scott prefers to dine out regularly. Places where Michael have been spotted include Chili’s (site of both the Dundie Awards and an important business meal), Hooters (where Michael is still thrilled with the novelty of suggestively attired women serving food), and Benihana (where Michael tries to pick up women). Michael vacations at Sandals Resorts Jamaica. He’s proud of driving a freakin’ Chrysler Sebring, people!
It’s a bit of a mystery why all of these companies would pay to have their brands tied to gauche middle-management dreck like Michael Scott, but it’s pretty obvious that they’re paying up big-time to get eyeballs on their product. Maybe they’ve started to believe that the sort of people who go to Chili’s, Hooters, Benihana, Sandals Jamaica, and who drive Chrysler Sebrings really ARE gauche middle-management dreck. If that’s not a case of clever corporate pseudo-ironic marketing, I don’t know what is.
Winner: “The Office (US)”
Humiliation is central to “The Office” in portraying the unavoidable clash of business and personal life. Almost everyone makes a fool of themselves at work every now and then—some on almost a daily basis. Unintended insults, casual ignorance, and the dreaded TMI creep into vocabularies at just the spot that they shouldn’t. So, of course, most awkward situations in “The Office” center on the boss. It’s not so hard to get an uncomfortable laugh from a character whose goal is to entertain but whose insensitivity and astounding lack of professionalism often alienates his workers. David approaches Sanj, an employee of South Asian descent, and asks him to do an Ali G impression, before realizing it’s the “other one” who does the impression. “The other what? Paki?” asks Sanj, to which Brent replies, “Ah, that’s racist.” Sometimes, co-workers are drawn in by the boss or his assistant, as when Dwight calls out the employees’ health conditions one-by-one in building the health-care plan (“Who wrote this hysterical one? ‘Anal fissures’?”).
The most common complaint heard about “UK” is that it’s too painful, filled with mean-spirited discomfort usually involving Brent’s warped sense of showmanship. It’s a delicious, evil pleasure to watch Brent make a fool of himself in ridiculously unfunny ways, especially when trying to undermine his generally likable and witty second-series boss Neil Godwin. Michael Scott’s awkward situations tend to be a bit lighter, like the time he accidentally forwards a compromising picture of Jan and him to the packaging warehouse. If anything wins this category for “UK,” it’s The Dance, Brent’s misguided attempt to steal Godwin’s thunder gone horribly awry.
Winner: “The Office (UK)”
Anyone who claims they’ve never had a bad boss has never worked a day in their lives. Bosses are not supposed to be your friend, but every now and then, one of them becomes your enemy, whether you like it or not. Maybe he’s arrogant or she’s controlling or incompetent or something, but you notice it really quickly, because you tend to pay attention to your boss so he doesn’t catch you watching YouTube. You know if he’s a fuckup.
So: David Brent. He considers himself an “entertainer” first, boss second (or perhaps friend second, boss third), but his jokes are unfunny and often offensive. He can’t seem to accomplish any task without insinuating himself into an awkward situation or becoming angry for seemingly no reason. Brent is obnoxious, petty, and unfunny, and it seems difficult to believe he really could hold his present job.
The “US” Michael Scott actually has a number of redeeming qualities that balance his inordinately bad ones. Michael keeps his temper under better control, offers sound advice from time to time, and proves that he’s still a pretty darn good paper salesman. He has comically bad taste in just about everything, from music to his company car to his restaurant choices, but that’s mostly because he’s hardly ever been out of Scranton. Honestly, if Chili’s is Michael’s idea of a high-class Scranton meal, then maybe it actually is.
While Michael’s lovable side makes for good TV, it shorts out the basic dysfunctional question of “UK”: why do Brent’s employees put themselves through it? Isn’t there something better Tim could be doing than working a dreary job and watching his boss embarrass himself? “UK” poses the basic question: if you can’t stand anything about your job, and the only path upwards is paved by relentless incompetence and insecurity, then is it your own insecurity keeping you at the job? In “UK,” the Office workers scare themselves back to their desks every morning, whereas the “US” crew show up for each other. Camaraderie knows no nationality, but no one overdoes it like Americans.
Winner: “The Office (UK)”
FINAL RESULTS: “The Office (UK)” 5, “The Office (US)” 4