Screen savors

Unlike most British imports, the Yankee version of "The Office" works.

the office 88.298 (photo credit: )
the office 88.298
(photo credit: )
Environmentalists must love TV executives, because almost no one recycles as much these days as the major American television networks. When they're not lifting ideas from each other - ABC has Dancing with Celebrities, Fox has Skating with Stars - they're reworking material from overseas. "Overseas," of course, usually means England, and it is British TV that has supplied the format for a number of recent American talent and trivia contests. The biggest of them all, American Idol, is almost a carbon copy of England's Pop Idol, and The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire also achieved varying levels of success after moving west across the Atlantic. More difficult to reproduce has been viewer enthusiasm for Americanized English sitcoms, which have mostly bombed upon arrival. NBC's version of Coupling is perhaps the best-known example, making it less than a season and earning derisive reviews from virtually anyone familiar with its vastly superior BBC predecessor. NBC network was roundly criticized for its apparent assumption that American viewers weren't capable of watching something involving foreign accents, and the contrived changes to the series ultimately stripped it of the offbeat humor that made the original appealing. NBC has redeemed itself somewhat during the current season with The Office, a mostly loyal adaptation of the hit BBC series that originally aired in 2001. Gone are the accents and original cast, but NBC's replaced them this time with actors and a set-up that preserve the distinctive qualities of the show's massively popular predecessor. The resulting series has proven a solid hit for the network, which has taken a tumble in the ratings after the 2004 conclusion of Friends. With its unglamorous setting and even more unglamorous characters, The Office contrasts with that earlier series in almost every way. Set at a paper supply company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the new Office is run by the bumbling Michael Scott (Steve Carrell), a buffoon desperate to be liked by his perpetually flustered staff. The workers' biggest problem, beyond their boss's outrageous incompetence, is the fact that he considers himself quite the "comedian" - and consistently subjects them to his painfully unfunny brand of "humor." It was an act of pure hubris to think producers could replace Ricky Gervais, Scott's absolutely excruciating counterpart in the original Office series. But NBC hit the jackpot in landing Carell to play the character this time around. An hysterical almnus of Comedy Central's Daily Show, Carell's played pompous and idiotic before, and whatever vanity he has he sacrifices to play Michael, whose idea of "funny" is to tell an employee she's fired and then laugh about it. He doesn't understand when she starts to cry. The logical fallacy undergirding the series - that someone so inept could rise to a position of power - is also its strength. Few positions outside the American presidency are open to someone so vacuous, but the show makes good use of every employee's creeping suspicion that his boss is an idiot. The other characters in The Office are smarter and more professional than their supervisor, including sales associate Jim (John Krasinski) and office secretary Pam (Jenna Fischer). The only exception among the works is Dwight (Rainn Wilson), the self-aggrandizing geek constantly sucking up to the boss. Very little happens in the average episode of The Office, which airs Wednesdays at 9:10 p.m. on HOT 3. Some sort of pointless staff meeting usually takes place, with Michael inadvertently embarrassing himself with some off-color remark or inappropriate personal disclosure (whether he realizes he should be embarrassed is another issue). Viewers inevitably end up sympathizing with Jim, Pam and new temp worker Ryan (B.J. Novak), who form a natural alliance simply because all are relatively well-adjusted. Jim earns laughs from both co-workers and the audience with pranks mostly targeting Dwight, such as repeatedly putting his stapler in a bowl of jello. The behavior is juvenile, amusing and entirely understandable, a benign revenge fantasy most people would love to act out at their own workplaces. The BBC's Office worked this formula for two wildly popular six-episode seasons, returning to the air briefly for a 2003 Christmas special. Extending the set-up for a 22-episode American season is a gamble, but NBC can take satisfaction merely in the program's successful early transition. And if the show does begin to decline, the network can instruct viewers to expand The Office's guiding idea: on TV as at work, things could always be worse.