Steve Carrell heads up "The Office"'s American remake
For fans of the series, news that NBC would be attempting to recreate the magic of "The Office" for American audiences was greeted with emotions ranging from disinterest to sheer anger. After the disaster that was the import remake "Coupling," expectations for "The Office" were lower than those of any show in recent memory. Those expectations were blown apart once the show hit the air, taking the concept of the British original and creating a show that's smart, dark and highly funny.
All of which meant the ratings were dismal. Americans don't like to be uncomfortable, especially when they are told they are supposed to be laughing. But "The Office" is all about being uncomfortable, as that's what makes the show funny. Instead of ending a scene on a punchline, the show waits a moment longer, until everyone, including the viewer, is shifting in their seat. The result is funnier than anything a laughtrack could punctuate (a sitcom staple that's thankfully missing here.)
The show centers around Michael Scott, a regional manager at a Pennsylvania paper supply company, played by Anchorman stand-out Steve Carrell. Carrell, possibly aided by years as a fake reporter on "The Daily Show," can project a sense of respectability that's mixed with pure stupidity. That's important in portraying Michael, who has to be believable as the boss, but also completely worthy of his workers' contempt. Carrell has that act down cold.
While Gervais' boss character was often the best part of the show in the British version, the cast is so uniformly wonderful in the U.S. edition that it's hard to pick someone as the best part of the series. It's tempting to choose the show's hero, a salesman named Jim (John Krasinski), as he's the one to "stand up to" Michael more often than not, but then one of the villains, oblivious nerd Dwight (Rainn Wilson), will do something eminently laughable to steal the spotlight.
As the show was shot in a mockumentary style, with help from veteran documentary editor Kathryn Himoff and This is Spinal Tap cinematographer Peter Smokler, who provides some truly beautiful faux-documentary camerawork, there's action going on constantly in the office and tons of storylines to follow, which makes for a show that's far from the ordinary Point A to Point B show. Subplots like the burgeoning relationship between Jim and office receptionist Pam (whose fiancÚ Roy works in shipping) and the possibility of downsizing in the company help prevent the show from getting bogged down in sitcom formula.
There are plenty of hilarious moments in this first season, but two stand out above the rest if you're looking to sample the series at its best. In "Diversity Day," Michael comes up with a way to teach his staff about tolerance, by making them put cards with various races written on them on their foreheads. The employees then have to treat each other as if they are that race. Of course, this only encourages intolerance, and leads to some spectacularly uncomfortable, yet funny moments.
While that's enjoyable, "Health Care" might sum up the show perfectly, as Dwight gets assigned to pick a health care plan for the employees, because Michael doesn't want the responsibility. What follows is a war between the staff, led by Jim, and Dwight, who cuts their benefits to the bone. One exchange, about the difference between a vagina and a uterus is so insanely ridiculous that I defy you not to laugh at the poor staffer forced to explain it. This episode does everything perfectly that makes "The Office" such a unique and enjoyable show for those who can laugh while cringing.
The sound for these episodes doesn't impress the way the look does, with only Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks available for each episode, but there's nothing wrong with the audio. The dialogue comes across crystal clear, when it's supposed to, which helps the documentary feel of the show.
The tracks feature a ton of background info about how the show was shot, which is definitely a unique technique among network sitcoms. The cast and crew have plenty to talk about, from the writing to their acting to the design of the set and sponsors' reactions to episode content. They also have fun with their commentaries, cracking jokes often. It's interesting to hear them talk about the original British series, as there are plenty of ways the shows contrast and compare with each other.
Almost an hour of deleted scenes are included on this DVD, and unlike the majority of such material, most of these could be put back in without negatively affecting the series. There's some seriously funny comedy in these excised moments, most of which seem to have been cut for time purposes only. They can be viewed in one large group, or by episode.
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