20 Years On, Ricky Gervais’ Original The Office Is Still The Best
Don’t get me wrong, I love The Office US, with its quirky, offbeat humour and moments of genuine sweetness.
I still laugh out loud when Dwight (Rainn Wilson) cuts the face off a CPR dummy, Hannibal Lector style, and choke back sobs every single time Jim (John Krasinski) proposes to Pam (Jenna Fischer) at their rainy halfway point.
Indeed, The Office US helped ease me through the cold, dreary evenings of lockdown January, a time when I would often find myself gorging through four, five, six episodes in a row, the tinkly theme tune warming me like hot chocolate stirred into my favourite mug.
But as brilliant as The Office US is, I’m afraid it can never quite match the greatness of Ricky Gervais’ original masterpiece, a quintessentially British sitcom which remains gloriously toe-curling twenty years after David Brent first showed us ‘some of the laughs we have around here.’
Although arguably not quite as binge-able as its louder, brightly lit American cousin, The Office (2001 – 2003) is unparalleled in its heartfelt, grimly funny – and often quite sad – depiction of ordinary office life.
While the drabness of Pennsylvania’s Dunder Mifflin is undercut with a prevailing sense of wackiness, Slough’s Wernham Hogg has a very real, exhausted feel of dreariness baked into every frame. You can almost smell the photocopier overheating, the stale familiarity of the break room.
The Office US ends on a gleeful high, a newly successful Jim beaming as he reflects upon his hum-drum yet fruitful years at Dunder Mifflin, confidently declaring, ‘everything I have I owe to this job. This stupid, wonderful, boring, amazing job.’
Indeed, in keeping with differing ideals about work ethic and industry, the American version very much treats the workplace as a space where ‘life happens’, relationships, opportunities and moments of joy mixed in seamlessly with the everyday business of paper.
Over and over again, we see new romances blossoming over the reception desk, eyes locking in the warehouse or across a conference room, quite literally at times turning staff into family.
Babies are very nearly born there, and – in the closing episodes – it’s clear the years of sharing desks and grievances have bonded the characters, forging them as an unlikely group of friends rather than simply a room filled with reluctant, mismatched co-workers.
Indeed, the office in this version is shown to be a structure where you better yourself, where you grow up and learn hard-won life lessons. A crucial series of steps to take before you emerge, a successful, fulfilled and above all respected individual.
This is starkly different to the reality presented in the UK version, which casts a far more cynical eye over the more stifling aspects of office life.
Under Brent’s regime, the plod of unsatisfying office work is shown to be a corrosive, flattening force that ultimately leads to petty cruelties, mid-life panic and quiet, self-effacing desperation.
Compare Tim’s own remarks at the close of the final episode, during which he ponders over the bizarre nature of giving so much of yourself and your time to a job you’re ambivalent about at best:
The people you work with are people you were just thrown together with. You know, you don’t know them, it wasn’t your choice, and yet you spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family.
But probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.
As the series wears on, Tim’s (Martin Freeman) additional responsibilities strip away some of his easy wit and likeability. His ascent is framed as less of a progression, and more of a steady chipping away of his psychology degree dreams, a slippery slope towards Brent-esque delusions.
On paper, The Office sounds almost unbearably downbeat, but it’s also life-affirming in many ways, and the notable moments of joy feel sincere and well-earned.
Who among us after all doesn’t feel a surge of triumph after Brent tells the odious Chris Finch (Ralph Ineson), ‘Finchy, why don’t you just f*ck off?’ Or when Dawn (Lucy Davis) finally rallies enough courage to ditch dreadful Lee (Joel Beckett) in favour of someone who genuinely respects her?
Such moments are genuinely affecting because they hold so much truth. Far too many of us, sadly, have limited ourselves or put up a false front at work at one time or another, cowed ourselves to fit with a bully or a narcissist.
And The Office captures this uncomfortable pressure with such measured empathy, carefully showing the glimpses of vulnerable, lonely humanity beneath Brent’s socially awkward persona.
Most importantly, of course, it’s a very, very funny watch, with the cast navigating every awkward moment with a grace and subtlety no other mockumentary series has quite managed, before or since.
This is a sitcom that doesn’t shove characters down your throat or thrust tiresome catchphrases at you. It respects the intelligence of its audience and their ability to interpret a nervous vocal inflection or painfully long silence.
Famed for its perfectly delivered dialogue, there are so many lines that I’ll find myself parroting in a way that I just wouldn’t with any other show, slipping out the occasional daft ‘they know I’m rock and roll through and through’ or ‘just the eight pints for me last night’ when the moment suits.
As the popularity of The Office quotes Facebook group Do You Not Know Who Eric Hitchmough Is? shows, it’s clear that there’s many others who are constantly reminded of various Brent-isms as they go about their day, musings which have had a far greater impact on modern comedy than Michael Scott’s (Steve Carell) juvenile ‘that’s what she said’.
In terms of hilarious scenes, the British version may not boast a full-blown beet farm or talks from ‘Prison Mike’, but there are moments that still make my eyes water even after a good few rewatches.
To me, there are few sitcom moments that tickle me quite as much as Keith’s (Ewen MacIntosh) ‘word of warning’ about bum bags, or when Brent dashes out of his business seminar to the sound of Tina Turner’s Simply The Best.
In an age where a work-life blend is so often encouraged above a work-life balance, such characters continue to feel all too real, the many mortifications of early ‘OOs office culture enduring into the age of Zoom calls and working from home chats.
The Office US may make for better gifs – and is of course brilliant in its own right – but nothing will ever quite match Gervais’ peerless original. After all, a good idea is a good idea forever.
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