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Lost at Work: The Sideways World of the British <i>Office</i>

I have no good excuse as to why I had never seen the British Office before now. I watch more television than anyone I know, I love Ricky Gervais and most of my friends own a copy of the complete series. Also, I've been a huge fan of the American adaptation from the very beginning. So you can understand why, when all of the episodes of the original Office series were recently posted on Hulu, I was literally assigned to watch it.

Just a few weeks ago, when I was a Dunder Mifflin enthusiast with no knowledge of Wernham Hogg, I found it so obnoxious when people would rant that the U.S. version was nowhere near as good as Ricky Gervais' original. It's a boring argument, not only because it's been said 10,000 times, but also because these series are two different, well-established entities at this point. In fact, Steve Carell's Office now in its sixth season, while the original only lasted for two six-episode seasons and two Christmas specials. However, I have to admit that lately I've been disappointed with NBC's Office, though I couldn't quite put my finger on what I didn't like about it... That is, of course, until I finally got around to watching the British version. Besides being absolutely fantastic indeed, it was a total eye-opener.

Gervais and Stephan Merchant created a universe full of boredom and defeat, not unlike the atmosphere in the stereotypical office we all think of when we hear the words "cubicle" or "9 to 5." I constantly cringed while watching the show, especially during the quintessential episode of the series, "Charity." In that half hour alone, we see a whole lot of office workers in a whole lot of undeserved pain. Take for instance, the scene in which Tim talks about "quiet dignity" while David Brent and several other men in the office hoot and holler as they hold down one of their co-workers, pull off his pants and boxers to reveal this poor guy's crotch while he screams in embarrassment. And then to follow it up, shortly thereafter, David and Gareth gracelessly talk with Brenda, the wheelchair-bound worker, about their theories that people fake disabilities in order to collect government money.

But it's important to note that the UK Office doesn't rely solely on cruelty to be funny. There are plenty of moments that are perfectly hilarious because of comedic timing and great commitment to character. Look at when Brent, Gareth, and one of the office workers start a spontaneous round of "Mahna Mahna." The men have a great time singing, and it's not only funny to watch them be so innocent and into the moment, it's also so rewarding to hear Brent point out at the end that they're singing a song from The Muppet Show. And Brent didn't do anything wrong pointing that out, it's just that it was totally unnecessary and thus totally in character.

It's also great to see these people ruin each other's jokes due to their massive egos, notably in "Party," when Rachel and Tim laugh about a dildo and Tim describes his own assets as "very, very tiny and made of plastic," while Gareth interrupts that his is "massive, and ain't made of plastic." Sometimes, it feels like the writers (Gervais and Merchant scripted every episode) are just letting us bask in how ridiculous this setting is, and the show becomes a time bomb to see how far it'll let a character go before someone finally tells them to cool it.

Of course, this happens the most with Brent, whether it's when he's dressed up as Austin Powers or when he's caught red-handed dreaming up his own game show instead of doing work. When he takes things too far, we're rewarded with things like his ridiculous disco dance, where he totally humiliates himself but still beams with confidence. We go back and forth with Brent, hating him for being such an over-compensating jerk, but feeling bad when people (pretty constantly) tell him off and feeling even worse when he's finally fired -- though even that moment is a hoot because he's laid off while wearing a ridiculous man-riding-a-giant-bird costume.

But as over-the-top as Brent's terribleness is, it fits in well in the depressing, regretfully true-to-life environment of the Wernham Hogg office. Characters are constantly disappointed and embarrassed, like when Trudy and Oliver make out at the Christmas party while the woman who we learned had a crush on him hysterically cries in the background. Even though we sympathize with her, it's an uproarious moment because it's based in the painful reality of how it feels to have a drunken heartbreak.

In a way, I actually found watching the original Office to be comparable to watching the current season of Lost. Bear with me here (and don't worry, there are no Lost spoilers ahead, just general talk about the final season's set-up).

I just spent the last six years of my life watching the American Office, and I feel comfortable saying that I know these characters and their problems, their love interests, their pasts and their roles. I can say the same for how well I understood my Lost friends before they started flashing sideways. Even though I generally know the sideways Losties' personalities and pasts, I can't say with absolute certainty what will happen to them. I had a similar experience while watching the British Office: I knew the basic outline of each of the central characters and was well aware of their motivations, but because the series was so short, I never could predict exactly what was going to happen. From my latecomer perspective, the world of Wernham Hogg was akin to a sideways version of Dunder Mifflin.

For example, since I had seen the American Office spend 53 episodes getting Jim and Pam together, I felt pretty safe assuming that Tim and Dawn would eventually end up a couple, too. But I was still excited to watch it happen because I wanted to see how PB&J's sideways versions would eventually get together, in the same way that I want to see how Lost's sideways reality eventually dovetails into the primary timeline. The pleasure is in the journey.

It was also illuminating to see just how much the American Office altered the British original. Gervais' series was plot-heavy and centered on the absurd mundane-ness of working at a crappy job with an idiot boss. Compare that to the American version, where everyone is zany, unique and wonderful. The idea of the terrible place to work vanishes and we instead have a series about nutty people who all found themselves working for a paper supply company. And I knew so much about this big group of U.S. characters that it was strange to discover that their UK corollaries were just background players who only got an occasional line or two.

That being said, those characters' relative anonymity was a major part of the UK Office. It's insane how Gervais' series made such a stark point that the employees of Wernham Hogg were, like some of their very jobs at the paper supplier, redundant. We were rarely told when someone was fired because the workers were basically extras, and for a reason. All we really need to know about them is that they're also annoyed with David Brent, creeped out by Gareth and painfully aware of Tim and Dawn's chemistry. They are boring, bored and supposed to be sad, generic clones.

This is all totally believable because it just wouldn't make sense for everyone to be compelling. Instead, the UK Office wanted to be painfully true to life to the point that it embraced the feeling of uselessness in a corporate environment. In that mean-spirited context, people are so much cruder than they are in the American version. It's a place where a warehouse worker might actually tell a pregnant woman that she's not special "just because [she] let some useless tosser blow his beans up her muff."

After watching almost eight hours of that sort of dark, at times tragic, comedy, it was almost a shock to go back to viewing a campier, more kind-hearted version of the same place on NBC. As I was late to learn, the UK Office is not only a perfectly satisfying masterpiece, but a show that stays with you long after it's over. Lost fans can only hope their show's voyage sideways ends up with a dénouement that's remotely as satisfying.

TAGS: the office

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