Monday, November 20, 2006

The Office (US)/Knowing Me, Knowing You

Recently, I've been watching the the American version of The Office, through episode 2x06. I watched the first episode when it aired and was pretty unimpressed. It felt like a community theater group ding a take on a show I'd just seen on Broadway, the lines were the same, but something was off. However, watching the first twelve episodes on DVD, I've seen the show grow into its own thing, a thing that is good, but nowhere near the quality of the original.

My major issue with the show, particularly in the second season, is that every episode seems to be scrambling to get the characters out of the office. The whole point of the show is to dwell on the mundane realities of day to day life, and find humor in the interactions between people at work. Sure, the British version had the club episode and a couple of other field trips, but generally speaking, most of the plots revolved around goings on in The Office itself, and the difficulty of navigating the office social scene.

However, with the American version, there's all kinds of outside plots being brought in to punch things up. David Brent didn't do much work, but at least he was in the office, Michael Scott is out all the time, and seems to make no effort to do anything. I could believe that Brent didn't get fired, but it's hard to imagine they're happy with what Michael's doing. Now, I think the character does work on some level. The second season premiere found that perfect awkwardness when the people make fun of Michael's song parodies. That scene was tough to watch, and emotionally satisfying when the others stood up for him. However, having Michael crank call Ryan as Michael Jackson is more absurd than sad. He's a less believable character then Brent, because with Brent you got the sense that he was trying to hard to perform for his office mates, while Carrell seems to be trying to hard to perform for us, the viewers. His acting is so over the top it takes me out of the reality of the show, the one thing the British show never punctured.

The American version frequently makes note of its status as a documentary, but it feels much more artificial than the raw British version. A lot of that is simply due to the sitcomy nature of a lot of the plots. Dwight in particular feels totally removed from reality, whereas Gareth seemed like a believable loser. Pam and Jim do the best in translation, but I don't feel the investment in their relationship that I had for Tim and Dawn. That's largely because I've already seen the resolution for their counterparts, and that relationship has been mythologized in my mind, standing over the Pam/Jim dynamic. I think the most fruitful territory there is in seeing both Pam and Jim's defensiveness about their flirting. The moment where Angela tells Pam about her game is fantastic, as is the unease when they have their mock fight in the dojo.

I think the major problem is that the show has to sustain an indefinite length. As any comedy goes on, the plots get more and more outlandish and the rough edges are hewn off characters. The UK Office is like the first two or three seasons of Seinfeld, painfully sharp in its distillation of human interaction. The US version is like the later years, still funny, but much broader. Because the UK version had so few episodes, we never had to delve into the issue of where David lives or who Gareth's sensei is. Instead, we only see the characters in the work environment, and as viewers, we are immersed in that world. Some of the most memorable moments in the UK version are those quiet shots of stuff printing and people working, downtime that is allowed because of the longer running time of UK episodes. The eight additional minutes per episode gives them the chance to have a slower pace and give a better sense of actual work going on.

And ultimately I feel like the UK version told the story. Despite the growth, the basic plot arcs still draw from the British series, and I've already seen Brent redeemed and Tim and Dawn united. I don't know that I really care to see it happen again. Plus, I tend to find British restrained pompousness funnier than the American outright stupidity when it comes to comedy.

That's a good segue into the other show I've been watching, Knowing Me, Knowing You. Ah ha. I first heard about this show from Tristram-Shandy, and now I get the contsant references to Knowing Me whoever, Knowing You Steve Coogan. I'm sure in the UK this was played out as an Austin Powers quote in 2000, but it's just so fun to say. And, luckily, this is not the UK. The downside is that no one would have any idea what I'm talking about if I reference the show. Anyway, I read an article that talked about how "I'm Alan Partridge" focused on the character after his show had ended. I love works that explore multiple layers of a piece of fiction, and I think it's a fantastic conceit to position Alan as a real person outside of the show. This intrigued me enough to give Knowing Me, Knowing You a look.

This show was made in 1994, and its style of awkward embarassing comedy clearly went on to influence many other shows, particularly The Office. Like The Office, this show focuses on a man who's got a massive ego and no clue about the total disdain or indifference others feel towards him. Coogan plays the character in such a way that there's very few explicit jokes. For the first few minutes of the first episode, I wasn't laughing too much because it just felt like a standard, uninspiring chat show. However, once you figure out this guy, his rampant egotism becomes increasingly hilarious. I love the way he constantly says his own name and forces everyone else to adopt his catchphrase, even a widow standing over her husband's coffin.

As the series wears on, bits like his constant punning on chat and his antagonism with Glen Ponder yield many laughs. The series also perfectly captures the dynamic of banal chat shows, with Alan constantly trying to control the dynamic of the conversation, but frequently finding himself losing power. Much like Brent on The Office, the humor comes from watching someone who thinks he's much funnier than he is come up against the reality of the situation and struggle to deal with it. Partridge is essentially a conservative guy, and he can't deal with the people he's forced to work with on the show.

The show works best when everyone plays things straight and lets Partridge simmer in his own issues. A bit like the Kojak Slaphead scene at the end of episode five goes too over the top, out of the realm of reality. Of course, a lot of my criticism of both this and The Office is based purely on personal taste. A bit like the jacuzzi scene at the end of episode four could be criticized as equally ridiculous, but it's funny, so I forgive it.

I also like how the show does give Alan the chance to be right occasionally. By making the French designer's clothes so ridiculous, we can easily agree with what Alan's saying. There, the humor comes from Alan's tactless treatment of his guests more than his innatte wrongness. And he also gest some nice moments, like the Abba medley, which is played for laughs, but ends up being pretty sweet and entertaining on its own.

It's pretty easy to trace a line from this show to the comedy of Borat or Stephen Colbert. If the show was done today, we'd probably see the Partridge character interviewing real people and provoking them in the same way he provokes the fictional people here. The show is a critical step in creating a style of comedy with few overt jokes, that instead presents a character who is inherently ridiculous and lets the audience laugh at his behavior, to the point that his attempts at humor become funny because of how they fail as jokes, rather then their actual value as humor. It's a complex blend of fiction and reality, and I'm excited to see it further complicated with "I'm Alan Partridge."

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