Handbags and Gladrags (and Abrasive Beatings of the Corporate Wage Slave’s Soul)

I used to watch the NBC version of  “The Office.”  I always laughed at the antics of Dwight Schrute, Jim and Pam, and the indefatigable Michael Scott–comedy legend in his own mind.  “The Office” was well-written and nicely acted, and gently poked fun at life as a cubicle jockey.

Last week, I used a Target gift card I’d received, and I ordered the original, BBC series, “The Office.”

Holy crap.

The American version has already pumped out 127 episodes over seven seasons.  The original ran two six-episode seasons (2001 & 2002), plus a two-part  Christmas special in 2003.  That was it: 14 episodes, soup to nuts.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant wrote and directed all 14 of the BBC episodes, and they were frequently very funny.  What got me, though, was how awfully bloody sad they were as well.  The folks in Scranton dealt with some tough issues from time to time, but there were moments in the UK version that just hurt. 

Michael Scott comes off as a sort of slightly buffoonish buddy character as he runs Scranton’s Dunder-Mifflin .  He fancies himself a comic genius, but he has a big heart.  He has a warm smile and kind eyes.  Even at his most-misguided, he’s not intentionally cruel.

David Brent, GM of Wernham-Hogg’s Slough location is a different sort entirely.  He, too, envisions himself as being full of comic bonhomie, beloved buddy of his employees. 

Instead, his crew don’t find him funny at all.  His manic desire to be liked and to be found entertaining…it’s like biting tinfoil.  In one episode, he’s talking to one coworker about his love of practical jokes, which he demonstrates by telling the receptionist he’s firing her for stealing.  Shockingly, she didn’t find that especially amusing.

To me, there are few things sadder than somebody trying to be funny and failing.  I used to see that a lot in radio.  I worked with some really funny people, professional entertainers and comics.  Sometimes, a group of us would be riffing and cutting up, and somebody would try to jump in only to fail.  Ouch. (Lord knows I had my share of excruciating failures, too (but I was better than Jennifer the Traffic Girl (whom my boss required to raise her hand if ever she tried to make a joke, since her attempts never worked)))

That’s what Ricky Gervais’s character David Brent does.  Other people will be effortlessly funny, and he’ll try to jump in and…Ouch.

In the Christmas Specials, we follow David Brent after he’s been laid-off.  He’s doing promotional appearances based on his small flicker of fame from the “Documentary on BBC-2.” He ends up doing a sort of Dating Game appearance, and he tries to channel Austin Powers (all the way down to a rented costume).  Once, he comes out and throws hats into a nightclub crowd, only to have partyers throw things back at him.  Worse yet, he keeps going back to Wernham-Hogg, where he’s desperate to find that he’s being missed. 

He really isn’t–not only is the office running just as smoothly without him as it did with him, people still manage to laugh without him.

The highs in the U.K. version are higher, and the lows are lower. 

Martin Freeman’s character Tim Canterbury is the emotional heart of the show.  There are all manner of oddballs around him, and Tim does enjoy mocking his crazy desk neighbor, Gareth, but we pull for Tim, both to succeed in his day-to-day life, and in his seemingly impossible relationship with Dawn, the engaged receptionist. 

Shortly before the end of the very final episode, Tim has a great soliloquy about work: 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 then 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 8 hours a day.

It’s sad but true.  I see that here in my workplace.  My fellow cube-jockeys and I are like a family.  We have all manner of dysfunctional members, but we’re in it together, being nice and following the rules (well, to some extent ;-)).  Nobody in the Scranton Office is really that abrasive.  In Slough, as in St. Petersburg, people do not always play so nicely.  The rewards are there, as are the pokes in the pancreas, as we try to navigate through our 40 hour weeks. 

Just spare me, Universe, from people committing comedy suicide and not even knowing it.

Oh, and “The Office (U.K.)” has the better theme song: “Handbags and Gladrags,” a suitably bittersweet melody for the show. 

In summation, I quote a reviewer on IMDB.com, who just nailed it: Simply revel in the glorious dissection of the human condition, the frustrations of under-achievement and personal delusion on a grand scale, cringe at excruciating faux pas and marvel at pomposity and sexism of breathtaking scope. All without a laugh track.

And God knows, life just doesn’t have a laugh track.  Happy Saturday.

(It looks like you can watch all 14 episodes of The Office (U.K.) on IMDB.com, via hulu.com; check it out here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0290978/)

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5 Responses to “Handbags and Gladrags (and Abrasive Beatings of the Corporate Wage Slave’s Soul)”

  1. I love both shows, but the way I describe the difference between them to people who haven’t seen the British one is that the Americans are good at doing comedy that approaches but doesn’t quite get to the ridiculous, and the British are good at “uncomfortable” comedy.

    One thing I’m glad the US version didn’t change was that the office is staffed by people who look like real people, not all Hollywood glamour. That’s a wonderful thing about British shows, consistently. People look like ordinary people.

    • That’s a great point, Laurie: Dunder-Mifflin’s happy krewe are definitely not the cast of “Friends,” hotness-wise. And you’re right: the Brits are brilliant at showing “uncomfortable.” In “Keeping Up Appearances,” for example, Hyacincth is really insufferable. Even the conceit in how she pronounces her surname “bouquet” instead of “bucket” shows how pretentious she is. And the people around her genuinely dread being in her presence.

      Interestingly, our local PBS station has a four hour “Brit-com” block Saturday nights, and they follow “Keeping Up Appearances” with “As Time Goes By,” which is the sweetest, warmest hug of a show. I even got my parents hooked on it.

      I always liked the U.S. version of “The Office.”

    • (Apparently, I liked it so much that the DorkFone didn’t let me finish it)

      The Scranton crew are quirky and odd, and I have enjoyed seeing their parallels in Slough, how Gareth and Dwight serve similar purposes, e.g. As I immerse myself in the original, I grow more impressed at how the U.S. producers let the characters evolve organically, playing out their own lives as opposed to mimicking their English counterparts. In short, somebody seemed to care enough to do it right.

      Then again, there’s no way they could’ve gotten away with the giant pink dildo in the U.S. version. (Hell, possessing such a thing might even be illegal in the real-life Scranton, PA ;))

      Happy Saturday.

      • After loving the UK Office so much, I watched the first episode of the US Office when it began, which used the exact same script of the first episode of the UK Office, and hated it. It wasn’t till it was in season four that someone convinced me that they had successfully gone their own direction with the American version and I sampled a few episodes and then hurriedly caught up on all of it, because it was so good at doing its own thing.

  2. British humor is so much dryer and wittier than in the US. We have laugh tracks because we are idjots who need to be gently reminded to laugh at certain parts.

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