The challenge that faced the American “Office” was to honor the spirit of the original while tweaking the workplace dynamics so that audiences would want to watch more than twelve episodes. The British scabrousness and barely suppressed violence is gone, and the Scranton office -- brighter and noisier, with more posters, parties, and pep -- is Slough on Zoloft. Scranton has its thwarted lovebirds, too, Jim and Pam (the boyishly appealing John Krasinski and a depressed but radiant Jenna Fischer), who are better-looking and more assertive than Tim and Dawn. But two more office romances have been woven into the mix, and where Ricky Gervais’s David was nearly asexual, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott is weirdly and delightfully pansexual. Ryan, the go-getter junior salesman (B. J. Novak, one of several writers on the show who also play characters), tries never to be alone with his boss. It’s not just that Michael slaps him on the rear and calls him on his cell phone to coo but that Michael once proclaimed, when everyone was playing Who Would You Do?, “Well, I would definitely have sex with Ryan!,” adding, a moment late, “ ’cause he’s going to own his own business.” Which makes it perfectly understandable.
Referring to such differences, Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment, has remarked that “Americans need a little bit more hope than the British.” In fact, conditions in Scranton are fairly hopeless: when it appeared, earlier this season, as if the branch might close, many of the employees were delighted. Toby, the doleful human-resources nebbish (Paul Lieberstein), told the camera, “For a minute there, I saw myself selling my house, moving to Costa Rica, learning how to surf. But, Costa Rica will still be there . . . when I’m sixty-five.”
What distinguishes Dunder-Mifflin from Wernham Hogg is not hope but consolation. In the British “Office,” we never learned most people’s names; the American version lovingly anatomizes everyone and takes advantage of the long-take documentary format to reveal the full complexity of everyone’s feelings (we glean, for instance, that Toby has an unspoken crush on Pam, and therefore resents Jim). Lost is the condemnatory power of the anonymous British chorus; gained are both a standard American melting pot and a commedia-dell’arte stock company, featuring Kelly the Yakker, Meredith the Lush, Kevin the Letch, and Creed the Cantankerous Freak, who is just a possession or two away from being a hobo.
Dinkin' flicka, indeed.