I love NBC’s The Office. The source material, however? I’m not really a fan. To my surprise, many people don’t actually know that NBC’s The Office is (loosely) based on a British sitcom of the same name created in 2001 by comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Being a fan of the US version, I decided to watch its British precursor so that I could compare the two. In a nutshell, I found the UK version depressing and unfunny, but most of that may be chalked up to cultural differences in humor. The plotlines and characters of the shows also differ to such an extent that it may not even make sense to compare them. It might be like comparing Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and the well-known rom-com Ten Things I Hate About You. Sure, the plot of the movie is vaguely inspired by the Shakespearean play, but beyond that, the two works have very little in common. Nevertheless, I thought I would share some differences between the American and British versions of The Office and let you decide for yourself which is better. (Warning: Spoilers ahead).
The US version of The Office ran for 9 seasons whereas the UK version ran for only two. Measured in number of episodes, the American version of the show consisted of 201 episodes, compared to just 14 episodes in the UK version. I’ve heard people describe the UK version as a masterpiece, but in my mind, it’s just a sketch that was only really fleshed out in the US version, due in part to the longer running time of the latter. The difference in length makes me question whether the two shows can even reasonably be compared.
The characters in the US version are generally more caricature-like than those in the UK version. For example, Jim is basically faultless in every way: he’s the perfect boyfriend/husband to Pam, he’s great at both his jobs, and he’s a top-notch prankster. He’s mild-mannered and quietly charming, yet confident and self-assured. He comes off as a bit of a slacker in the beginning of the show, but he develops as a character and finally leaves his office job at the end of the show to continue working on his very own sports marketing start-up. On the other hand, his British counterpart, Tim, is much more realistic as a human being, with all the flaws that that implies. Don’t get me wrong–Tim is competent, funny, and likeable–but he lacks the confidence and ambition that Jim has. For example, he’s a lot meeker in pursuing Dawn (the British Pam), unlike Jim, who very daringly kisses Pam while she’s still engaged to Roy to show her how he feels. Tim also gets bullied by some of his coworkers, as in S1E3, where they tear off one of his shoes to throw over the roof of the building. In contrast, Jim simply would not have stood for this and would have concocted some kind of prank for revenge. Finally, Tim’s character does not develop significantly throughout the show; he starts off as a bored office-worker and ends as one too, again unlike Jim. Overall, Jim is a fantastical hero, and Tim is a vulnerable human being. Perhaps I have poor taste for preferring the more cartoonish Jim, but who would want to watch a perfectly nice character like Tim waste his life away in a dead-end office job? It’s too depressing.
To give another example, David Brent (the British Michael), is a complete jerk of a boss, but with none of Michael’s redeeming qualities, making the British Office extremely painful to watch. Michael could be self-centered, immature, and lacking in self-awareness, but he could also surprise you with moments of pure kindness, and sometimes, even brilliance. For example, he eventually grows on all the other characters and they genuinely mourn his departure in season 7. He also manages to blackmail Dunder-Mifflin into giving him his old job back after being fired by making a rival paper company to steal their business. David, on the other hand, is completely and utterly unlikeable, in addition to being incompetent, which makes me seriously wonder why anyone would have him be a lead in a show. Even villains have redeeming qualities to make them likeable, so why doesn’t this one? The saddest thing about David is that he gets fired and becomes a traveling salesman, although he’s always lurking around the office as a visitor out of resentment and loneliness. After the documentary about the office airs, he also does random gigs at clubs since he’s a minor public personality, and of course, these gigs always end in the collective mortification of the audience due to his social ineptitude. He’s just a sad old man. He is somewhat redeemed in the last-ever episode of the show, where he brings a cute date to the office Christmas party, stands up to his old boss, and manages to make his ex-co-workers laugh for once, but these little victories are not worth 2 seasons of cringe-worthiness.
As a Canadian, I didn’t understand many of the culturally-specific jokes, references, or the context of the British Office, and I would not have been able to even understand what the characters were saying without subtitles, both because of their accents and the poor audio quality of the show. But, in addition to this, the actual style of comedy in The Office UK and US are culturally different, and this can also help explain their differing choices in characters and plot. Whereas the humor of the British Office is cynical, biting, and cringey, that of the American Office is much more lighthearted and silly. What it mostly boils down to is that Americans are more optimistic–about the ability of people to change for the better, about the future, and about fulfillment in one’s career. This is why Jim grows as a character, why Michael is made into a likeable if incompetent boss, why the comedy always has a bit of heart to it, and why, essentially, all the characters live happily ever after. In comparison, the British don’t have this kind of raging optimism, which explains why Tim stays at his dead-end job and David gets fired. I would still take the unrealistic and sanitized perspective of The Office (US) over the raw and pessimistic one of The Office (UK), and if this makes me a poor connoisseur of art, then so be it.
In conclusion, if you’re into dark humor and cringe-comedy, then you’ll probably enjoy The Office (UK), but if you prefer screwball and feel-good comedy, then stick to The Office (US).