The [American] Office and the Britcom
Having already pledged allegiance to the British series The Office, I watched the Americanized version last night on NBC with trepidation. I'd already made predictions about the show and about the ability of Steve Carell to create a character as compelling as David Brent, but I hope that I'm always able to reconsider my rash prejudgments. The short of it is, I watched the new show prepared to dislike it, but hoping that I wouldn't be constrained by foolish principle from liking it.
Although I think comedy can be a very important and serious enterprise (a characteristic I share uncomfortably with David Brent), the first thing it must do is be funny. On that front, The [American] Office did not begin promisingly. It was a bit amusing at times, especially when the material departed in a meaningful way to accommodate the American setting, but I didn't really laugh. Now, one episode is not nearly enough exposure to be able to evaluate the new series, especially since the pilot was so dependent on the material from the British pilot. As an experiment, I watched the first (and the second) episode of the British series right after the American version ended, just to see if the same jokes were still funny or if I was just too familiar with them. By and large, I still think the British version is funny. The American performers suffer in the shadow of their predecessors, especially Carell. This won't be as much of a problem, I hope, once Michael Scott (Carell's Brentish character) is doing things Brent never did, although I think Scott is already a bit more baffoonish than Brent and not to his favor.
All that aside, I think The [American] Office deserves a chance to win my affection. I was appreciative of the effort, even if not the results, of the first episode. I found myself thinking several times as I saw certain jokes approaching "Are they going to leave that in? Are they going to do that? Yeah, they did..." even with certain bits I thought an American version would discard as inappropriate. This isn't the same as laughing at them, but with hope the American series will stretch out into material both unexpected and unfamiliar before too long.
As fate would have it, BBC America showed an episode of Blackadder the Third last night as well. Not surprisingly, that was never turned into an American series. I can't imagine what it would look or sound like. Before I come off as a complete Britcom snob, however, I think it's worth saying that the last NBC pillaging expedition abroad, for the Steven Moffat show Coupling, didn't work partly because the original show wasn't that great to begin with. The British series was often derided as a Friends ripoff, and I think NBC went for it because it was familiar. There are plenty of comedies on BBCA that I can't get into: Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances, Manchild, Father Ted, Trailer Park Boys, even The Thin Blue Line, which reunites Rowan Atkinson with Ben Elton doesn't have the same zing. Other shows, like Yes Minister and Spaced (from the creative team behind Shaun of the Dead) are OK, but nothing special. All these series have their fans, though, and I understand Father Ted has a quasi-religious devotion in some circles.
To get into fundamental Britcom territory, I've always thought Fawlty Towers was somewhat overrated. Not that it isn't funny, but it does get a bit tiresome after awhile. The same can be said for Absolutely Fabulous, which Comedy Central did its best to drive into the ground in the mid-90s. The Young Ones is quite funny, but I appreciate that show in part, I think, because I was the right age when I first saw it (mid teens) and haven't watched it too much since. I recently watched the first season of Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall's Bottom for the first time and didn't care for it much. Why the full series is now on DVD when I can't find anything from the fantastic series The Comic Strip Presents even on tape is beyond me.
There are still a few comedy shows on BBCA I've been meaning to try out (Black Books, Worst Week of My Life, Catherine Tate, My Family) and I can think of several British comedy series I'd like to see but haven't been able to. I've never seen The League of Gentlemen and seen little from Steve Coogan, but what I have seen I've liked and I'm desperate to see Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible. The appearance of Only Fools and Horses at the top of the BBC Britain's Best Sitcom poll makes me curious, but with The Vicar of Dibley at #3 I can't be too excited. I've always wanted to see The Good Life (#9), but mostly due to Vyvyan's violent outburst about how much he hates it in the Young Ones episode "Sick".