Wednesday, September 21, 2005

New TV Season: The Office

NBC is promoting The Office with footage from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and good for them. It must be pretty exciting to discover you already have a show starring the main guy from one of the biggest hits of the summer. Hopefully Carell’s popularity will translate into ratings.

It looks like they’ve taken a page from Virgin and parted Michael Scott’s hair on the side this season. Last season, he wore it slicked straight back, a no doubt intentionally ugly choice that accentuated a thinning hairline and gave him an unpleasant appearance to go with his unpleasant personality. I think the side part is a big improvement. This sounds like a small issue, but the bad hair was maybe a bit too much. This softens his look and makes him much easier to watch, without really spoiling the comedy at all. It allows us to love hating him, rather than simply hate him.

By the same token, the season premiere suggests that maybe they’ve softened Michael Scott a bit, too. That is also good—he’s the same character Carell played last season, but subtly toned down. It was over-the-top before anyway—and too one-note loathsome, without the pathetic subtext that made Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of David Brent so hilarious. Without imitating Gervais, Carell is now bringing a hint of that pathos to Michael Scott, and the US Office is that much better.

The writers still struggle to find the right note of political incorrectness, and too many jokes still hinge on Michael being overtly racist or sexist for no reason. Racism was an element of the UK Office, but the funny part was that David Brent was always trying really hard to be PC but just didn’t get it, and somehow came out sounding more racist the more he tried to sound sensitive.

The US version just has Michael cluelessly trotting out racial stereotypes for a laugh as if he’s never heard of political correctness or racial sensitivity, and it strains credibility that he doesn’t get sued. His employees would certainly have a better case than plenty of real-world discrimination suits. Many critics liked last season’s “Diversity Day” episode, which based its whole plot on Michael’s unintentional (?) racism, but I didn’t buy it at all.

The supporting cast is also doing well, and continues to make the roles their own. The US Jim (the counterpart of UK “Tim” played by Martin Freeman) is actually very low-key likeable and funny, and brings a lot of Martin Freeman’s qualities to the role without imitating him (aside from the bed-head). Both are easygoing and dry, but Jim seems much more confident and secure than Tim did. In last season’s basketball episode, Jim proved himself a capable athlete, and in “Hot Girl,” he effortlessly picked up the hot saleswoman from under Michael’s nose. So while he may have that ongoing romantic tension with receptionist Pam, we’re really not too worried about his prospects.

One other interesting note on last night’s premiere. One of the most amazing things about the UK Office was its boldness in being so relentlessly bleak and downbeat, for episode after episode, while perfectly maintaining its tone. As credits rolled, you felt your body relax, at last able to take a break from laughing, but also able to break from the excruciating tension of the show's trademark uncomfortable silences.

Last season, the US version’s efforts at bleakness often felt strained and simply mean rather than oddly bittersweet as in the UK version. Now the season premiere finds that bittersweet note. It’s much more upbeat than any of the regular British episodes, actually, and hinges on revealing Michael's vulnerable side (though again, earlier and more overtly than they did David's in the UK version). But it works surprisingly well. It works for this version, which is at its best when it’s preserving the original spirit without being a carbon copy. It’s worth considering that the UK version only had to maintain its bleakness for twelve episodes and change, whereas the US version (though only on episode 7, I think) is expected to be ongoing and maybe can’t afford to clobber us emotionally week after week.

The season premiere was good and it looks like the show is on its way to correcting many of last season’s flaws. Still, they’ve got to get a handle on the racism jokes. Right now they’re way too on-the-nose and not funny.

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