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"The Office" Sets Farewell

By Rich Heldenfels Published: August 21, 2012

The coming season will be its last. One of the stories about the decision is here. I was long fond of the show, but struggled to keep up with it last season. I think the season finale is still sitting, unwatched, in my DVR. But the announcement of its conclusion had me thinking back to when it premiered. And here is that column:

 No matter what the Nielsens end up saying about The Office, it has already triumphed in one way.

It doesn't stink.

In fact, the NBC sitcom -- which has a preview at 9:30 tonight before moving to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday -- is often very funny. And I say that as one of the many fans of the British series of the same name which inspired this American version.

That gets us into the triumph of The Office. There have been other attempts over the years to retool British shows for U.S. TV and many of them have been resounding failures.
Yes, All in the Family and Sanford and Son were great successes in the '70s. But more recent history, including NBC's, has included Coupling, a disastrously unfunny attempt to Americanize an amusing British comedy of the same name.

Making that even worse was Coupling's obvious roots in Friends -- and that NBC was having to go overseas in its search for a comedy that might succeed that long-running hit. But that was hardly the only Britain-to-U.S. flop. USA Network did not stick with an adaptation of British thriller Touching Evil.

And the Britcom classic Fawlty Towers has led to two different American flops: Amanda's, with Bea Arthur, and Payne, with John Larroquette.

There are plenty of reasons why British shows are so difficult to adapt. Despite the more-or-less common language of England and the U.S., there are still notable cultural differences. British television has long been comfortable with material which is politically incorrect here.

And, for some reason, British actors can say extraordinarily dirty things and sound amusing while American actors saying the same thing just sound, well, dirty.
Viewers also have plenty of chances to make comparisons, since British comedies can be found on public-TV stations and on cable operations like BBC America. (For example, BBC America plans a marathon of the British Office at noon Saturday.) There have also been DVD releases.

So British shows that succeeded here did so by developing their own sensibility. When you look back at All in the Family and Sanford, you find shows that simply used their British forebears as a framework for a singularly American vision. All in the Family was derived from producer Norman Lear's view of its characters and world; Sanford is very much a vehicle for the comedy of its star, the late Redd Foxx.

The Office was fortunate not to have to make such a great leap because it started with a universal notion: a workplace where the boss is a remarkable idiot.

Indeed, one reason the British Office attracted an adoring American fan base is that David Brent (brilliantly played by writer-actor Ricky Gervais) could easily have been a nightmarish American boss. His self-absorption, bureaucratic ineptness and social clumsiness all had echoes in the worst workplaces here.

And in Michael Scott -- played by Steve Carell -- the American Office has found a figure who would be equally frightening and recognizable to British viewers. Still, Scott and Brent and the people around them are carefully kept from becoming cartoons.

Over the run of the British series, it was actually possible to feel pained at Brent's limitations -- and even a measure of sympathy when things did not go his way. The supporting players were also shown as people, not caricatures, so viewers' reactions can spread to emotions other than simple amusement.

The new series, made by the British producers in conjunction with savvy American TV writer Greg Daniels, has the same understanding that we have to recognize Scott and his office team as people we might find at a neighboring desk. Then it spins wonderfully out from there.

Yes, for those of you who love the British series, there are many echoes in the American version. But much the way the British version held up with repeated viewing, the American version works even when it is replicating something from the original show.

There's a rich range of characters, good and bad, in the workplace and issues such as racial sensitivity are given a distinctly American spin. The Office may not have an old idea as its basis. Still, as you can see beginning tonight, it generates lots of new laughs.
And that should be good news for the audience, no matter where it lives.

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