In the early days of The Office USA (Channel Ten, 10.10pm, Mondays) it was oft-said that it didn’t work because Americans “don’t get irony”. Quite apart from this being a staggering generalisation that left millions of Yanks wondering why they so enjoyed Frasier, it was also a convenient piece of historical revisionism.
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the flagships of British comedy were getting their laughs not by savagely dissecting the petty cruelties and kindnesses that make up contemporary human existence, but with mincing queens and bum jokes. Or have we all forgotten the heady days of Are You Being Served? and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em? Not to mention that here in Australia we would have done better to keep our mouths shut altogether, lest someone point out that our well-honed comedic instinct produced fourteen seasons of Hey Dad.
Ironically, it was those overly-literal Americans who reinvented sitcom in the early 90s with Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show. Yet somehow the brilliance of The Office had wiped our memories of an American-led revolution that gave birth to the cringe comedy of The Office, Summer Heights High and dozens of others. To us, great comedy was, and had always been, British.
But The Office USA is pretty bloody good. It’s certainly American – the first thing you notice is how attractive the cast are. But that’s not surprising. If their respective soap operas are anything to go by, American audiences love watching impossibly glamorous people living impossibly glamorous lives, whereas English viewers prefer to look down on the detritus of the working class and marvel at how far they’ve come. Comedies, it seems, are much the same.
However, being shiny and American doesn’t mean being soft. In Monday night’s episode, guest written by English Office creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Michael (the David Brent of the American version, played by the increasingly brilliant Steve Carell) greets his new black staff as “slaves”, then dismisses his ghastly faux pas with a charming smile to camera. But the historical significance of his word choice, as relevant in the USA now as it ever was, lingers uncomfortably even after he’s moved cheerily on.
It’s pretty dark. The thing is, it doesn’t seem dark. The British Office was quite baldly bleak, but the American version might be even bleaker precisely because it appears so bright. Its characters are positive, they’re confident, they’re good looking, so when the satire rears its head, it bites even more sharply than you expect. Like I said: pretty bloody good.
So forget your prejudices – Americans can do irony. It just looks a little different.
If you haven’t yet taken the time to get to know Vinnie Chase and his boys on Entourage (now into its fourth season on Arena), then rent the DVDs and clear the weekend. At only 20 minutes an ep, it’s the TV equivalent of jelly snakes: absolutely no nutritional value whatsoever, but they’re so sweet it’s all you can do to not eat ten in a row.
And I feel it is my duty to apologise to any fans of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em that I may have offended. As a peacemaking gift, please accept this American remake.