Is there something intrinsically funny about Jell-O? That quivery texture? Those see-through Crayola colors? The legacy of tacky recipes-Jell-O salad, Jell-O vodka shots, and the like?

Certainly when Dwight (Rainn Wilson, the self-important nerd in NBC’s The Office), whipped out the evidence of a colleague’s prank-a stapler congealed inside a bowl-shaped mound of Jell-O-it was the lightest moment in this new comedy’s pilot episode. Sunnyness, after all, has scant place in the series, based on the British television hit (of the same name) whose dark and often agonizing humor has made it a cult sensation in the United States, where it’s been aired by the cable channel BBC America. Brilliantly conceived and written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Britain’s The Office is a mock documentary about Wernham Hogg, a drab paper company whose staffers toil and bicker through monotonous days, patiently enduring the torments inflicted by their appalling boss, David Brent (Gervais), a smug, lecherous egoist who considers himself a superb comedian.

Over the course of the show’s mere dozen installments, David and the other actors turned in dazzlingly naturalistic performances, but what made The Office truly seminal was the flatness of its humor and the bleakness of its vision. The jolting hand-held camera, reproducing the look of a real documentary, captured Wernham Hogg staffers in situations of soul-numbing tedium and excruciating embarrassment-again and again, we wallowed in the moments when characters’ jokes (usually David’s) fell flat, when staffers humiliated themselves in front of their colleagues, when they exchanged listless, vapid, or stunningly coarse remarks, when boredom and bureaucracy ground the workday almost to a halt. A sequence in which David bungled an obscene joke about Michael Jackson, in an effort to be chummy with a circle of appalled Wernham Hogg underlings, typified the style, as did the heart-wrenching set piece in which he amused himself by accusing the receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis) of stealing and fired her, reducing the young woman to tears before explaining that he was kidding. Watching these kinds of tableaux, one sometimes had to resist the temptation to close one’s eyes, out of sheer mortification for the characters.

Despite the involvement of Gervais and Merchant as executive producers, the creative team behind the U.S. version has not had the guts to recreate such a cheerless aesthetic, and for this reason the new series-at least, to judge by the first couple of episodes-comes across as less distinctive and less wickedly funny than the original. Admittedly, the NBC scripts, set in the Dunder Mifflin paper-supply company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, aim in the right general direction, enlisting the smarmy boss figure-here named Michael Scott (Steve Carell, of The Daily Show fame)-in antics so inappropriate and demeaning as to obliterate the character’s dignity altogether. The scene in which Michael attempted to one-up his company’s diversity initiative-in the process, essentially forcing his colleagues to enact racial stereotypes-could even boast a certain politically incorrect edginess. A dozen white-collar employees milling woefully around a conference room with labels like “Jew” and “Asian” plastered on their foreheads? That image made one gulp.

But overall, a range of visual and writerly details in the U.S. Office dilute the potency of the U.K. brew. The colors are brighter in the NBC adaptation, for one thing, turning Dunder Mifflin into an environment far less dreary than Wernham Hogg. The U.S. camera jolts less, giving the show a smoother, more processed look-less like a documentary, more like a run-of-the-mill sitcom. Furthermore, the actors in the remake are undeniably more attractive than their British counterparts: whereas David Brent was a chunky and a slightly seedy-looking bloke with a puffy face and an icky beard, Michael Scott is relatively handsome, in a stuffed-shirt sort of way. And the looks of Jenna Fischer, the pre-Raphaelite waif who plays the receptionist Pam Beesly on NBC, beats out those of the BBC’s Lucy Davis by a mile.

Or consider the significant matter of the Jell-O. In the original Office, the episode in question showcased a single gelatinous prank, involving the aforementioned stapler-a wry gag, to be sure, but one that looked unlikely to really perk up a workday at Wernham Hogg. (My own personal favorite on-the-job pick-me-up, blowing up marshmallow Peeps in the office microwave, would probably fall flat there, too). By contrast, NBC’s adaptation brought Jell-O in twice: the show concluded with the amiable and easy-going sales rep Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) gleefully flourishing a Jell-O molded around boss Michael’s favorite coffee mug: Jim looked happy, and given the generally upbeat associations that come with Jell-O, one could only conclude that at least a few morsels of comfort and personal satisfaction are available in life-even life at Dunder Mifflin. NBC’s Office seems to favor this kind of resolution; the limey program tended to leave you dangling in a sea of meaninglessness and painful absurdity.

It’s refreshing, all the same, that NBC has gambled on translating a modicum of Gervais and Merchant’s dark humor to the airwaves, and it’s probably good for us to spend time mocking the inanities of the 9-to-5 world. Everyone who’s been a working stiff, after all, can dredge up a few priceless anecdotes. I remember all too well, for instance, the time my boss skipped out on work for two days because, he later reported, a moth had flown into his ear.

So we should take consolation from the fact that, when the new Office is removed from the NBC lineup, as it undoubtedly will be before long, the show’s creators and the network’s employees will be able to chalk it up to experience. As the saying goes, another day, another dollar.

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: View Contents
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