With Steve Carell's last episode about to air, an accounting of what makes his version of the show superior
A few rules for the proper consumption of pop culture: The book is better than the movie. The original is better than the sequel. Bad movies are good at a twenty-year ironic remove, but their remakes remain bad.
And of course, British is better than American.
Like all rules, this last one doesn't always hold true. It may be an unfashionable opinion, but I maintain that American version of The Office has always been better than the British original. With the departure of Michael Scott bringing the end of The Office as we know it, as well as the reappearance of Ricky Gervais as David Brent, the boss of the original Office, it's a good time to revisit what has made the American version so successful in the first place.
The American office has now run five seasons longer than the British, but just looking at David Brent next to Michael Scott makes it clear what kind of a different show NBC started to make right from the beginning. Brent was a petty, mean-spirited son of a bitch nearly devoid of redeeming qualities. Scott, on the other hand, was a child, at times as uncomfortable, but loveable in a way Brent could never manage.
The other characters follow suit. In the British version, Gareth seems to be borderline socially autistic, and Tim's abuse of him feels cruel before funny. Gareth's American counterpart, Dwight, on the other hand, is a bombastic ass so beyond reality that he comes out on the other side of likeable, and Jim's pranks border on public theater. Lee, Dawn's fiancé in the British version, was cruel, controlling, and hinted at being emotionally abusive. Roy was just a well-meaning if somewhat violent buffoon.
The British office was full of warm bodies just trying to get their work done under the oppressive. But as time went on in the American version, minor characters developed into weirdos to give even the boss a run for his money. Around the end of the second season, the writers decided that everything Creed said should be batshit crazy. Kevin went from being just a fat guy to Brian Baumgartner's brilliant, childlike masterpiece. Meredith turned into a sex-crazed drunk. Also hilarious.
The differences in the two shows also play out in their plot arcs. The British Office and the first four seasons of the American are love stories at their core. The end of Tim and Dawn's story is brilliant and beautiful, but heartbreaking. Tim rushes out of the interview room, asks Dawn to talk behind a closed door, and takes off his microphone. We see some hand gestures, surprise, a silence, and a hug. Tim sits back down at his desk and picks up his microphone:
"She said no, by the way," he says. He goes back to work. It cuts to a scene of a desperate Brent begging for his job back with tears in his eyes, and the series ends.
The first part of Jim and Pam's story ends, like Tim and Dawn's, suddenly: Pam rejects Jim after they share a secret kiss, and Jim flees to another office to escape the pain of seeing her every day.
But nobody watching the American office ever thought that Jim and Pam ended there. Jim came back, he had a girlfriend, Pam was reengaged, Jim got offered a job in New York. He gave it up. He like, the audience, knew how it had to end. They started dating. They drive out to a gas station halfway between New York and Scranton and Jim proposes to a speechless Pam in the pouring rain. It was a moment with an unmasked, unapologetic sentiment that would have been purely antithetical to anything the British Office would have been up to, but it was a moment they'd been fighting for for five seasons.
Ultimately, not even Ricky Gervais and the Brits could stay as depressing as they had been. The first half of their post-series Christmas special was among the most challenging hours of television ever produced—Brent is fired, drunk, failing at an attempt parlay his role on the office documentary into a career appearing at clubs, and making an ass of himself online dating. Dawn is living in Florida with Lee, miserable and quiet like always. Tim is still in the office.
The second half, however, offered the small moment of joy that the show also had been fighting for the entire series. Dawn kisses Tim in the middle of the office Christmas party, and the audience has the hope that maybe that story could have an ending like Jim and Pam's, had the series run as long.
The British Office, like the American Office, was an exceptionally well-made show. It accomplished what it set out to do. But both shows started with the same idea: turn a lens on the most mundane, pointless existence in the modern world. Where the British found despair, the Americans found hope. Where the British saw pain, the Americans saw joy. Where Tim and Dawn seemed to die a thousand small deaths every episode, Jim and Pam found a thousand small moments of happiness.
There's no accounting for which vision of existence is more accurate, or has more artistic merit—life is boring, great, and awful at times. But the British office was mean where the American office is nice. And that's better.