A foreign Office success

Alyssa Harrison on lessons learned from five years of The Office

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant might never have guessed that the fruit of their creative loins would be such a hit in the States.

When The Office first aired in the UK in 2001, it was a breath of fresh air for the Britcom. The Slough workplace where the employees plod through their day gave the show realism. There were no overblown dramatic storylines or stereotypically ‘beautiful people’ in the lead roles. Everyone knew a manager like David Brent and the ‘will they won’t they’ status of Tim and Dawn’s unrequited love hooked viewers.

Ending the show after just two series put it alongside the likes of Fawlty Towers in terms of cultural impact. The Christmas specials gave the characters the send-off they needed, while avoiding the clichéd, storybook endings we have become accustomed to with American sitcoms such as Friends.

In allowing their creation to be remade for the States, and even having input into the series – Gervais and Merchant have co-written two episodes and are given production credits – The Office: An American Workplace, has become an even bigger success than its predecessor. With a veteran writer for King of the Hill, Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons – namely Greg Daniels – adapting the UK version, and Steve Carell in the role of Michael Scott, the new David Brent, the show premiered to 11.2 million viewers on NBC five years ago this month.

Merchant has said: ‘It feels like we got a chance to create a show and then we gave it to people and they made it for us. Like we’re fans and we won a competition to have a TV show made to our specifications. I love it, I really do.’

If such a critical and commercial triumph is possible, why is it that so many Britcoms crash and burn when transferred to US screens? Cable networks have tried time and time again to get their attempted remakes off the ground. In recent years, reported US adaptations of The Vicar of Dibley, Peep Show, Spaced, Absolutely Fabulous and even Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em have surfaced. In some cases, much to the dismay of the writers. In almost all cases, to the utter despair of the fans who cannot bear to see their beloved shows tampered with.

In 2007, Fox commissioned a pilot of Channel 4’s, Spaced. So when US director and producer McG, director of Terminator Salvation and Charlie‘s Angels: Full Throttle, neglected to include the creators in his remodelling of the show, they were more than a little perturbed by the snub.

This month, clips of the un-aired pilot surfaced online. Edgar Wright, director of Spaced, was quick to express his disappointment. ‘I am worried about the large amount of you who stabbed out their eyes or washed them with bleach after watching the US pilot. My sympathies,’ he said via his Twitter.

Fans were equally unimpressed. One YouTube user commented: ‘Just goes to show there’s more to a format than, er, the format. It’s all about the spirit.’

Aside from neglecting to include the original writers and director in the project, McG’s biggest failure in terms of the US pilot seems to have been a total lack of new material. Essentially, McSpaced, as Wright called it, took an idea that worked and gave it an American accent.

It can easily be argued that the success of shows such as Spaced and The Office comes from the fact that the creators have cultivated close, long-term partnerships as opposed to the American US reliance on teams that have shows such as The Simpsons so well.

But with teams of up to 16 writers at a time working on an episode, surely they risk ironing out the little quirks and idiosyncrasies that have allowed our best-loved comedy programs to push the boundaries?

American sensibilities just don’t permit our humour to come across. The Brits have always been able to find humour in the darker aspects of life, shame, embarrassment, social awkwardness, and the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Whereas you would be hard pressed to find an American audience that would be willing to openly laugh at something as guarded as religion without worrying about the stern, watchful eye of the American Family Association. Hardly surprising then that proposed remakes of Father Ted and The Vicar Of Dibley have yet to see the light of day.

Fans of The Office: An American Workplace have rightly pointed out that in its six seasons it has proved itself a show that can stand alone from the British original.

The Office is being remade in Israel and Russia, and there’s talk of an Indian version – while China and Korea want to do Extras. ‘We’re like a franchise,’ Gervais has said.

With the BBC announcing this month that their corporation shake-up will be ‘Putting Quality First’ and striving to bring even riskier comedies to our screens, comedy fans can live in hope that something equally as groundbreaking will head our way again.

Published: 29 Mar 2010

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