It’s an eternal argument: which of the two versions of The Office reigns supreme, the original brutal UK version or its heartfelt US spinoff? The Spinoff staff finally weighs in.
This post was published in August 2018.
The Office UK is coded into my DNA unlike any other show. I bought the boxset for a bargain $20 from Whitcoulls in 2005 and I thrashed those DVDs all the way through my high school years. I’m talking curtains closed every weekend, I’m talking special features, I’m talking “BISHOP MUZOREWA”. It was – and still is – a masterpiece, capturing the excruciating truth about human blind spots and casually changing comedy and television forever. David Brent was my hero. I even wrote an embarrassing thing about it in the cave painting days of The Spinoff.
But here’s the thing: these days I would much, much rather watch The Office US.
Like many, I resisted The Office US for years. I scoffed at it loudly at it whenever I had the chance. I watched the first few episodes and rolled my eyes. I was right. I was smart. It was a shambles of a show, a cheap knock off that lifted the script and lost all the nuance. But then I watched it coast to coast, and I laughed and I cried and I laughed some more. Grinning over nine wondrous seasons, the relationships mutate and evolve far deeper (imagine if Tim and Dawn had a goddamn baby, for example) and there are so many more characters to fall in love with.
The Office UK might well be a groundbreaking, genre-defining piece of art, but The Office US is pure sitcom joy that wraps you up tightly and never lets you go – which is what I need over the brutal, crushing truths of The Office UK. God! Think about when Jim and Pam got married! When Meredith got trapped in a rubbish bag with a bat! When Ryan started the fire! IT’S BRITNEY BITCH! I suppose what I’ve mostly realised is this: at the end of hard long day, I’d much rather hang out with Michael Scott than David Brent. Again, unorthodox… sue me.
Once upon a time I insisted that The Office UK was far superior to The Office US and in fact you shouldn’t even bother watching the US version since it’s not an original. That’s because once upon a time I was a dumb first year uni student who desperately wanted to seem cool and didn’t know how to form my own opinions based off what I actually liked and not what others said I should like.
The Office UK is great. I could watch Youtube clips of Ricky Gervais/David Brent dancing and speaking aspirations directly to camera for hours. But I could watch The Office US for days. Because Michael Scott may be annoying and infuriating and sometimes the worst, but David Brent is actually the worst. And you can only laugh at the worst people for so long before it gets a bit grim. I watched Requiem For A Dream one time and thought it was great. But I’ll never watch it again. In the same vein, I know that ‘technically’ The Office UK is more impressive, but I’m happy not watching it again. The Office US has as many laughs, with half the grim realism of terrible people. There are enough terrible people to encounter in real life, I’d rather not encounter them in a comedy TV show.
I was honestly astounded that some of my colleagues argued on Slack that the US version of The Office was better than the UK version of The Office. Maybe this is what is wrong with the world right now. I guess I’ve been living in a bubble for the last 17 years, assuming that a ground-breaking, no-bad-episode TV show was better than the pretty-good-at-times watered down version of the other show. I need to get out more.
But, in case you’re wondering, here’s my argument:
The Office UK was both funnier and more discomforting than The Office US, which was a pretty good network sitcom that hammed up the best bits of the UK version.
While his recent work (and, well everything about him) is, um, objectively bad, I don’t think it can be denied that Ricky Gervais was a comic revelation, bringing an intensity to uncomfortable comedy, the ripple of which extend over so much contemporary comedy. Steve Carell, on the other hand, actually kind of sucks. His comic annoyingness has a shallowness which made it impossible to sustain over the 200-odd episodes of the show.
Same with Rainn Wilson. Dwight Schrute is an easy joke told five times an episode, whereas Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth Keenan is a genus performance that is, yes, hateable, but also nuanced and, ultimately, relatable.
Weighing Tim and Dawn against Jim and Pam is where things get interesting. The will-they-won’t-they romance is, like the rest of the show, colder than the loved-up US version. And, of course, I think that’s a good thing. But, to me, Jenna Fischer (Pam) is the best performance about the main four characters of the US-version, so that’s a big plus, while (brace yourself) John Krasinski is actually pretty cheesy and not that good (at anything, movies included).
If the the US version has a strong suit, it’s the supporting cast. Mindy Kaling (Kelly), BJ Novak (Ryan), Angela Kinsey (Angela), Phyllis Smith (Phyllis), Craig Robinson (Darryl) are all hilarious. And I’m probably forgetting a bunch. Not Ed Helms (Andy) though. Ed Helms sucks.
Not that I don’t love the UK’s supporting cast. I do. Just thinking of the names Keith, Finchy and Trudy crack me up, but given the show’s much shorter run (14 eps compared to 201), there just isn’t as much room for the minor players.
At the end of the day, what it comes down to is this: The Office US is a well-above-average network sitcom. But nothing more. Shit, Parks and Recreation did pretty much the same thing just as well (maybe even better). The 14 episodes of the UK version of The Office were and (despite the hundreds of shows it influenced) remain like nothing else we’d seen before. Or since.
Disclosures: I have watched all of The Office UK and, I’m pretty sure, all of the The Office US. Some episodes of each multiple times. I will probably never watch either show again.
I’ve never seen The Office UK outside brief YouTube best-ofs, but I’ve seen enough of the American version to definitively state there is NOTHING charming about that smug shit Jim. Raise your eyebrows at these hands, doofus.
The American version of The Office is fine. It’s a perfectly serviceable sitcom, which could have run and run forever. But the original British version was one of those rare moments of culture in which a horrifying glimpse of modern life was brought into being, and then allowed to rest forever.
Watching Ricky Gervais torment his employees with cloying sociability was real and true. The lovesick patheticness of Tim, the grotesque misogyny of Finch being rewarded with laughs as it so often is in the real world, the inertia of Dawn, those younger characters whose names I forget who just floated through, unconcerned and above it all – these were more than just archetypes. They were richly drawn human characters who, after watching the show, became impossible not to see in others around you. The Office didn’t just reflect the world of work as it actually existed, it was a modern day Grimm fairytale, a cautionary tale. And it did it all in about seven hours of television, and could call itself a comedy throughout.
Sam Brooks, TV and gaming editor
Let’s be frank: It’s hard to look at The Office UK in the wake of everything that Ricky Gervais is now; a petulant child and a lazy stand-up comedian who can’t take it even a fraction as hard as he thinks he can give it out. He’s turned from someone who simply played David Brent into someone, it’s now clear, whose worst qualities were filtered the character. The rest of the show absolutely holds up, but unfortunately for the show, Gervais is its centre, and everything about David Brent that makes you uncomfortable as a watcher is doubly, triply true of Gervais.
The Office US has no such problem. The problematic part of The Office US is that it falls to shit almost the moment Steve Carrell leaves. Not entirely to shit, as there’s still a lot of fun to be had with James Spader heading up the show, and the emotional core of Jim and Pam remains, but it becomes a different show entirely. It didn’t run out of steam, but it definitely made sure it used up all the gas in the tank, to mix metaphors.
Ultimately, I fall on the side of The Office US because of its more accessible heart. There’s heart to The Office UK too, but you need to crawl under a bunch of barbed wire and lava pits to get there, and in our dark times sometimes what you need is a show that wears it’s dorky heart on its sleeve.
The verdict: Three for The Office US, two for The Office UK, one for fighting Jim from The Office UK. Our numbers say The Office US is the victor but ultimately, like most things in this world, it’s a taste thing. Go with your soul.