The Office USA : "The Dundies"
The US version of The Office shouldn't work. Irrespective of whether or not you liked the original series (and let's be honest, there are those who downright loathe it, either since it was first broadcast or in the inevitable spirit of the backlash), it just shouldn't work. At all. Yet the first series, largely due to the talents of Steve Carell, somehow managed to be one of the best sitcoms to come out of the States in some time. Even more surprisingly, after a pilot episode that borrowed heavily from Gervais and Merchant's scripts, the series managed to strike out on its own and firmly stamp down its own identity, with plotlines and gags that - and here's the important thing - simply wouldn't have occurred to G&M.
Against all odds, therefore, series two speedily arrived on US screens last week to no small measure of - dare we say it - anticipation. Disconcertingly, though, there's little indication as the show starts as to where we're up to in the series' chronology. Everyone has new haircuts, and Michael (Carell) has lost weight (probably through filming The 40-Year-Old Virgin) - but we don't know how long it's been since Jim (the eerily Martin Freeman-ish John Krasinski) went on his date with the "hot girl" from the end of last series, nor indeed what's happened to her. The original incarnation was very keen to impress on us that only another week had passed by between series, despite there having been a lot that had changed, and that it was still basically the same single documentary series. Here, we don't know if the cameras have returned to Dunder Mifflin, or if they've been there all along.
Then again, the pretence of being a documentary isn't kept up to anywhere near the same extent here as in its British counterpart. The characters still speak to camera throughout, and there are plenty of talking heads, but if anything this actually gives the programme more of a sense - probably an accidental sense - of being a fourth-wall-breaking sitcom in the mould of - dare we say it - Filthy, Rich and Catflap than it does a realistic docusoap like the original Office. It's hard, after all, to maintain the facade of reality when the show opens with, as is customary in the US, a title sequence that includes all the actors' names, and writing/production credits that appear onscreen for the entirety of the episode's first minute. Perhaps a bold step could have been taken in having the characters' names be the same as the actors'; or maybe they could just have done as the UK series did and leave all credits - and thus all hint of unreality - to the end of the episode. But then, the fact that The Office is supposed to be a docusoap, and could indeed be mistaken for one if stumbled across, is far less important to the US version than the UK one, and this second series seems in fact to have gone further in acknowledging that, now looking as if it's been shot in a far more conventional sitcom format than previously. There's one moment where Pam (Jenna Fischer, somehow managing to be even sweeter than Lucy Davis' Dawn) is about to say something to Jim, but thinks better of it when she realises the camera is watching them; and early in the episode Michael shuts the camera crew out of his office in order to argue (in vain) with his boss (forgetting in the process that he still has his microphone on); but moments such as these (and the talking heads) aside, the actual shooting style doesn't suggest "documentary" nearly as much as it perhaps should.
Series two kicks off, then, with Michael preparing to give out his "Dundies" awards to a thoroughly underwhelmed group of staff. The usual formulae appear to be in place - Michael is an arrogant tosser, Dwight (the Gareth equivalent) is just a tosser, and Pam and Jim are doing the usual Tim and Dawn skirting around things. The episode rattles along, and despite the cosmetic changes it's pretty much business as usual, although you could be forgiven for thinking the gag count isn't quite as dense this time out. In the second half of the episode, however, something quite unexpected happens. It's akin to the moment in the UK Christmas specials where, in the face of Brent being pretty much outcast by everyone, Tim agrees to go for a drink with him; here, it's Pam who performs the good deed of restoring Michael's confidence in a "ceremony" that had been lambasted first by the office workers, and then by a bunch of random people in the restaurant. Suddenly, for a brief moment, everyone begins to enjoy themselves - and you can almost imagine Michael as the sort of boss who did used to make people laugh, who did used to get on with everyone.
It can't last, of course, and I'm sure by the second episode (which promises the introduction, finally, of Finch-equivalent Todd Packer) Michael and the staff will be back to their old selves. But it's a nice way of opening up the programme's dynamic somewhat. Michael is actually far, far worse than Brent, on the evidence of the first series - a touch of softening up, it seems, was necessary to prevent him from turning into an outright Sitcom Monster. Meanwhile, it seems the focus in season two is going to be quite heavily on the Jim-Pam relationship, which again could provide some interesting opportunities to break away from the show's source material.
It wasn't until the second episode of the first series (the pilot being far too reliant on recycling Gervais/Merchant material) that The Office USA really began to take off. So it's not unreasonable to suggest that the second series could be finding its feet again over the course of its opening couple of episodes. Certainly, though, the series still looks worth sticking with - if it keeps this up, we could be looking a decent mid-to-long-term success, and the first successful translation of a UK sitcom to the States in quite some time.