What Made The Office (US) Good

February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

As if the world needs another article comparing the British and American versions of The Office, here’s mine. I like the American version better because it’s richer — it went to stranger places and filled in its world with interesting details. It had to! A season of the American version was 20-30 episodes while a season of the British version was 6. Both came out once a year. So the American writers had to hustle and churn out content, and if you force a good writing staff into such a grueling regimen, they’ll have no choice but to give in to some whims to fill in one episode after another. They have to take the cast out of the office, or throw party after party, or bring character X and character Y together to see what happens, because they just have that many scenes to fill.

By contrast, the British series hews a controlled story arc. The ups and down between Tim and Dawn, and David Brent’s fall and redemption, are calibrated episode by episode. They’re also more conventional — Tim and Dawn’s relationship is umblemished in its ideal tension and consummation. But the tidiness and care of the British version’s structure is, in the end, a virtue of taste rather than creativity.

For example, there’s an early episode in the American version where Jim throws a party for the office at his apartment, he and Pam end up alone together in his room, and she starts going through his high school yearbook. She finds his picture, and there’s a moment of Jim fawning at rapt Pam:

office-yearbook

The idea here is that Jim’s past and his present with Pam have fused in a weird amalgam for a moment, and the crossing of different lines in his life — when Pam’s presence touches his “real” life — is a heady (and inarticulable) thrill.

I think the significance of this scene is that it steps out of the office in a deep way. Earlier in the scene Jim and Pam joked about Jim sitting at his desk in his room, and where Pam and Dwight would be correspondingly. Then Pam spots his yearbook, and the new and strange possibilities of the setting open up.

You couldn’t really have a scene like this in the British version, where the format practically demands a constant barrage of indignities against every character. With only twelve episodes in the entire British run, what room is there for an excursion to Tim’s apartment? On the other hand, if you’re a harried writer on the American version and you’ve got an idea for a long scene with few lines (conveniently romantically charged), you’d be stupid not to include it.

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