Office Politics

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After overcoming the provincial skepticism of adapting the award-winning British sitcom, The Office (US) has proved a success in its own right and is back on our screens for a second series. Words Matt Pomroy

There’s a good chance many of you will have seen series two of The Office already, given that it’s been out on DVD for over a year, but its debut on television out here is well worth flagging up, simply because it will be the best thing on the small screen.

Overdue but still hugely welcome, it marks the point where the American version really comes into its own after an initial six-episode run that was very good, but still felt like it was laboring in the shadows of the original.

The original British comedy ran for two series, but only 14 episodes in total, whereas 59 episodes have already been aired in the States, and while the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant version was the starting point, all the scripts in the American version (apart from the pilot) have been totally original. It’s also a better, more rounded and a funnier series than its UK counterpart.

Rather than just mining laughs from the acute embarrassment of situations that the main character finds himself in, the US version has a broader scope and longer story arc allowing the minor characters to fully develop.

Some of the hugely talented cast also work as writers with 10 of the 22 episodes in series two having been scripted by BJ Novak (Ryan), Steve Carell (Michael), Paul Lieberstein (Toby) or Mindy Kaling (Kelly) and it’s the latter who wrote the opening episode to be screened this week – ‘The Dundies’. It’s the Dunder Mifflin Awards, which are held at the less than glamorous Chili’s restaurant and the only person looking forward to it is boss Michael Scott. ‘You know what they say about a car wreck, where it’s so awful you can’t look away?’, the character Pam says. ‘The Dundies are like a car wreck that you want to look away from, but you have to stare at it because your boss is making you.’ It’s a really strong episode to open with, but there are very few weak ones in the whole series.

Minor characters get more screen time, and what is essentially just 22 minutes of a weekly show becomes a more rounded narrative. And, with Jim and Pam, it also has the greatest romantic storyline in a sitcom (quite possibly ever). Films that could be described as rom-coms are rarely very strong in the ‘com’ department as a result of a plethora of screen-tests and suffering from the fact they are no more than two hours long, so there’s often not enough time to fully engage an audience into caring about the protagonists.

In TV sitcoms there’s more time, but there have been very few examples of an ongoing love story that begins with the couple apart affording an audience to hope they get together, but at the same time remaining funny and not overly sentimental – Niles and Daphne in Frasier is perhaps the nearest thing to this. Jim and Pam works on a level that you rarely see and for once you actually care about people on television, which is rare, especially in a comedy.

It seems that America not only cares, but connects with this series that has a totally humdrum setting reflecting the lives of many of the viewers. From the fears that the boss is reading you emails and secret Santas at Christmas to the endless things that are done to help get through the day in dull jobs. The ‘Office Olympics’ episode, for example, where bored staff invent their own events to pass the time while the boss is away, led to scores of people across America, who clearly empathise with the cubical-farm based ennui, starting their own office Olympics.

In America, each of the four seasons so far have recorded a ratings increase (although it’s currently on hold because of the writer’s strike in America) and unlike many sitcoms, The Office (US) is strong enough to carry a large cast who are consistently funny each week.

Steve Carell puts in some of his best ever work as Michael Scott. From his relentless stupidity, which he sincerely believes is knowledge for him to impart (‘New York, New York. The city so nice, they named it twice. Manhattan is the other name.’), to his attraction to his boss (‘I don’t understand…you want to see other people? Only other people?’) and his persistent belief that he’s a comedian and much-loved boss – ‘I swore to myself that if I ever got to walk around the room as manager, people would laugh when they saw me coming and would applaud as I walked away,’ he says, and it’s right on the money.

Also starting on the same night on BBC Prime is Saxondale, the new sitcom from Steve Coogan and that’s also well worth tuning in for, but if you haven’t seen series two of The Office then we suggest you make it the one thing you have to watch this week. •

For Time Out magazine – click here for PDF – The Office

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