The Office (U.S.)—“Pilot” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 3/24/2005); Le Bureau—“Episode 1” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 5/25/2006); Stromberg— “Der Parkplatz” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 10/11/2004)
In which two branches are about to get merged, over and over and over and over
When I was home for Christmas, I ended up watching the pilot of the American Office with my brother-in-law. I knew he was a fan of the show, but what I didn’t count on was that he would be laughing his head off uproariously throughout. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the idea that the American Office pilot was one of its worst episodes was one of those things that’s held as gospel by a certain small subset of the show’s fans (specifically those of us who’ve seen the pitch-perfect British original) but not necessarily by the show’s broader audience. Without the context to understand that, in most scenes, the show was just doing a direct copy of an original article, it probably seemed a lot more amusing in general. The idea of the U.S. Tim counterpart—Jim—hiding the U.S. Gareth counterpart’s stapler in Jell-O? That’s a funny sight gag wherever you encounter it for the first time. Does it really matter who’s first? Or does it matter what you see first?
Well, of course, it matters to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, whose very simple idea has traveled the world at this point, and been turned into no less than seven different TV series (counting the original). What’s more, there are always stories that other nations are considering doing their own adaptations of the basic idea of a workplace mockumentary, featuring a boss whose desire to put comedic antics ahead of actually getting work done makes him one of the worst bosses since the dawn of time. And yet at the same time, it’s amazing that Gervais and Merchant’s idea has been so thoroughly and completely copied all over the world. At its most basic level, the idea behind The Office isn’t so original that it couldn’t be essentially copied, though changed just enough to avoid the BBC’s lawyers. Take, for instance, the long string of American shows that copied Absolutely Fabulous but were never subjected to legal action because they were just different enough to seem like homages instead of rip-offs. There was even one that was quite successful in Cybill.
All of this leads me to wonder just what it was about The Office—besides how great it was—that made every country in the Western world decide it needed its own version. (Hell, there’s even a French-Canadian version, even though most French-Canadians would have seen the British, American, and French versions, if they really wanted to.) Comedy writer Ken Levine has suggested that the reason the idea is so compelling (like other British series that merited direct copies, such as Till Death Us Do Part, which became All In The Family) is that it’s built around a central relationship so irresistible but so obviously a part of the original that it needs to be retold but can never escape the debt it owes to the earlier series. That relationship, of course, is the relationship between David Brent and his employees, the relationship between a middle-manager who longs to be an entertainer and the people who find him insufferable. That was a relationship that hadn’t really existed before The Office, and if you strip it out or even alter it substantially, then the show becomes both much weaker comedically and much less interesting. (We’ll talk about a version that tries to do just that in a moment.)
I’d, however, argue that the mockumentary aspect—which is one of the few things that links all of the versions we’ll be discussing today—is just as important to the success of the show as anything else. The Office, to a large degree, is about how people present themselves and about how that presentation is usually inaccurate. And the best way to accomplish those sorts of jokes often comes from doing the talking head gags, where someone says something over footage of them proving they’re just the opposite. If someone tried to do the basic “bad boss who’d rather be entertaining people anyway” story in a single-camera or live-studio-audience format, it might be funny, but it would also be missing that level of skewed self-perception that makes The Office what it is. For better or worse, the humor of the original show comes from people being unaware of how they look to their co-workers and the cameras following them, and when that’s what you respond to, it becomes hard to either do the show as something other than a mockumentary or to do an homage, rather than a direct copy.
And yet at the same time, I was struck by how many differences I spotted in the four series pilots I’ve watched throughout this project.
Before we dive in, a little background is in order. I, obviously, speak English, so the American Office pilot (which I’d seen a number of times anyway) was the first of the three additional versions I watched. I also procured a copy of German Office imitator Stromberg with subtitles. The final Office version I watched was Le Bureau, for which I had no subtitles. While I know very little French, the script was so similar to the original Gervais and Merchant script that I basically knew exactly what was going on throughout. (Those who think the American version is a direct copy should see this one. So far as I can tell, it’s a scene-for-scene remake, though the few small changes made are mostly baffling.) Stromberg started life as a show that claimed no connection to The Office, and there are numerous attempts to draw some sort of distance between itself and the original, though the copying is so blatant that it’s a wonder the Germans thought they could get away with it. (The BBC eventually got them to add an “inspired by” credit, citing Gervais and Merchant’s influence.)
Watching all four, however, I’m most struck by how firmly all have the tone they’re going for in place at the very beginning. The original series is aiming to be a comic tragedy of workplace minutiae. The American series—even in the pilot—is a more traditional workplace sitcom, one that’s aiming to be a sometimes tragic comedy, rather than the inverse. The French version is far more broad and theatrical, and it also feels more like a television series than either of the earlier two series. And the German series is much more in the line of a workplace farce. All are mockumentaries. All feature storylines about two branches being forced to merge. Three of the four feature scenes where the boss threatens to fire the secretary and scenes where the goof-around guy has done horrible things to his nemesis’ office supplies. But all have surprisingly different tones and aims.
My main memory of watching the original pilot for the American Office was one of horror: Why had Greg Daniels—a guy I really liked the work of—mostly repurposed the original series’ first episode script, particularly when the American series would start charting its own territory right away in week two? (In retrospect, I do wonder if Gervais and Merchant and/or the BBC eventually insisted on some sort of requirement to have new versions of the show use the first episode’s script as much as possible, just to establish the creative foundations of the series had been laid down by the original.) On paper, I figured Daniels and Steve Carell were just the guys to make The Office work on our shores. In practice, the pilot was a badly judged piece of television, one that could never escape the shadow of a stronger, more confident version of the same story.
And yet for this project, I’m struck by just how different the American series already was. Of all of the characters, the only one who seems mostly a carbon copy of the original series, even in the pilot, is Pam, who’s simply a new version of Dawn in this episode. Jim is a happy-go-luckier version of Tim. Dwight is a more aggressive, more cartoonish version of Gareth. Michael Scott plays up his “I’m just a good-hearted man who wants to be the best boss and have my employees love me” aspects far more than David Brent ever did. And Ryan is much more integral to the story than Ricky was in the original, even as he has no real scenes that differ from Ricky’s in the original. (Pay attention to how the camera often situates Ryan as our point-of-view character, a choice made to highlight him as the “new guy” being our eyes and ears into this office.)
The biggest difference is the tone. Though many of the scenes are the same—right down to the dialogue—everything’s been broadened just enough to suggest that this is a show that could run for hundreds of episodes, not just 14. Crucially, the sense that working at this paper company is a Sisyphean ordeal has been greatly reduced. The scene where Jim talks about how terrible his job is is a far cry from the scene where Tim realizes how he’s wasted his life in the original series’ first episode. The American series has also placed far more of an emphasis on the relationship between Jim and Pam; much has been cut from the other characters to get a 30-minute script down to 23 minutes. Virtually every Jim and Pam interaction remains intact. And there’s never a real sense that any of the characters hate working at Dunder-Mifflin. It’s a goofy, kinda friendly workplace, even if many of the characters wouldn’t mind getting laid off. This transition works mostly because it fits American ideas of the workplace. Once you find a job that pays well and gives good benefits, the temptations to find the good in it and stay put are very strong indeed. (Really, this is similar to the difference between British and American TV, too.) The American pilot is, yes, blatantly copying the British original in many scenes, but noticing what’s been enhanced and what’s been taken out shows just how far Daniels had gone in thinking about how to Americanize the show, even if he wasn’t all of the way there yet.
Meanwhile, I’m not entirely sure what Le Bureau says about France, other than all French people are really, really attractive. Everybody in the show is much better looking than their American or British counterparts (even the French Gareth, Joel, would be the “cute nerd” on an American series). But in particular, the French Tim and Dawn, Paul and Laetitia, are ridiculously gorgeous. (Just look above if you don’t believe me.) In addition, the performance of Francois Berleand as the boss is much bigger and more farcical than what either Gervais or Carell did, and the show seems, at many turns, to be much more interested in him and the outlandish things he’ll do next than in those forced to put up with him. This subtly shifts the dynamic from outright cringe comedy to a weird hybrid of cringe comedy and more traditional “look at the funny man do stupid things” comedy. In addition, the scene where Tim hides Gareth’s stapler in gelatin has been replaced here with a scene where Paul puts cheese in Joel’s desk. Then there are lots of jokes about cheese. The French! (There’s also a woman of African descent here, who mostly seems to exist for Berleand to toss jokes at.)
Another thing that might be instructive is observing the one scene that all three of these pilots have mostly in common: the scene where the boss pretends to fire the secretary for a practical joke. (Really, if there’s a relationship that’s most similar between all three versions, it’s the one between the boss and secretary.) In the British original, the focus is rather firmly on David Brent’s gradual realization that Dawn’s not taking things so well and on Dawn’s tears. Then, it explodes in an outburst where Dawn underlines just what kind of a man Brent is (a very small one). The American version is somewhat similar to this, but it more explicitly underlines the practical joke nature of the gag (with Michael actually saying that Pam’s been “punk’d”), and it doesn’t give Pam nearly as much of an outlet. She merely calls Michael a “jerk,” and the series is on to the next thing. It’s clear the show’s already worried about having Michael come off as too unlikable, so this scene is robbed of a lot of its power. (Another subtle way the show accomplishes this is via framing the shot so Michael and Pam are on equal levels of power within the frame, as seen in the screengrab above. In both other versions, the boss is framed in a position of authority over the secretary.) The French version is very, very similar to the British one but for one thing: Laetitia never gets a chance to say anything! Her boss (Gilles) tells her she’s fired, then she cries, then he says it was a joke (in a much goofier fashion). And then we cut to the scene where he says that what’s really important is the people of his office. It’s another example of how the French version seems much more interested in the buffoonish antics of its leading man than anything else.
The odd show out in this equation is Stromberg, a show with a title sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place on ABC’s old TGIF bloc, honestly. The series is the only one I watched that doesn’t use the Gervais/Merchant original as a blueprint (so thank God for those subtitles), but it’s also a deeply odd series that seems schizophrenically caught between copying The Office and getting as far away from it as possible while still remaining in the same basic territory. (Tellingly, the show is named after the boss, not the workplace.) At the same time, though, the first episode of Stromberg deals with the show’s Gareth surrogate—Berthold—investigating an off-color joke made about one of the employees, as Gareth does in episode two of the original (though here, the off-color joke is made about the Dawn surrogate, Tanja, who’s not a secretary but a fellow salesperson) and with two branches of the insurance company at the show’s center being forced to merge. It’s also filled with lots and lots of scenes of Stromberg saying inappropriate things and doing inappropriate things that are far more inappropriate than anything Brent ever did. (He actually hits on the wife of a man he put in the hospital at one point, then purposefully backs into her car.)
There’s basically no subtlety to Stromberg. Everything is right there on the surface. Hell, the German Tim—Ulf—and Tanja might as well be fucking for how handsy they are in this episode. (Curiously, Tanja also seems a touch handsy with Berthold, which is a love triangle I’m glad Gervais/Merchant and Daniels never tried.) Berthold gets some marker on his face, and when he wipes it off, it appears he has a Hitler mustache. (There are actually quite a few World War II jokes, which suggests Germany’s in the “Let’s tell jokes about it!” stage of getting over that particular national trauma.) Stromberg goes on a lengthy rant about his Turkish competitor in the other branch, a rant that reveals just how racist he really is (even though he claims not to be) in ways that the original series wouldn’t have dreamed of. (There, Brent was clueless both about his own prejudices and the true reasons for political correctness.) The central gag involves everybody in the office drawing Tanja naked, then writing “Tanja” beneath it so Berthold can find the culprit, a gag that’s repeated over and over. Everything is broad and cartoonish and farcical, and that makes the mockumentary format seem that much more unnecessary. All of the self-deception is right out there in the open, in a way that never allows for anything truly nuanced to develop.
It’s obvious why the BBC went after Stromberg, and it’s also obvious why future versions of the show have used the Gervais/Merchant blueprint for the pilot. It necessarily grounds the characters—even if they’re played broadly, as in Le Bureau—and it lays in exactly why The Office worked when similar ideas might have failed. But at the same time, Stromberg is an interesting way to show just how difficult Gervais and Merchant’s original task was. Say that the original false claim that Stromberg had nothing to do with The Office was accurate. Is it at all difficult to imagine a version of The Office that made (or was forced into) as many bad creative calls? And Stromberg isn’t a bad show, either. There are a few chuckle-worthy lines, and the overall tone comes from a different enough place to suggest ways that The Office could have been just another goofy mockumentary, more Christopher Guest than anything else (and I love Christopher Guest’s films). In the end, the reason it’s necessary to copy The Office, not to just pay homage, is because so much of what makes it work is intrinsic to the original document. It’s not just about bad bosses or sad secretaries flirting with bored salesmen. It’s about the very tedium of the workplace life and the ways that gets expressed differently around the globe. Farcical here, warm and friendly there, borderline suicide-inducing elsewhere: They’re all just sides of the same drudgery-based coin.
Next week: David Brent’s got a music video to show you as we look at the first Christmas special.