During the run up to Christmas (and don’t tell me you’re not already feeling that Christmas kick in the air…) I’m going to be taking a look at some recent and not so recent DVD releases to entice (or dissuade) your festive purchases (or rentals…). The Office: An American Workplace has been out on DVD for a while now but was recently rereleased in a nifty and affordable box set, containing seasons one, two, and three, which you can now pick up for under twenty quid (available from all good online retailers – you know the ones), so without further ado…
It was with much trepidation that I first started to watch the American remake of the British classic. I, like most of the nation, shed a tear when Dawn returned to give Tim that kiss and it scared the hell out of me that someone was going to mess with that perfect TV moment. The original 12 episodes (and those note-perfect Christmas specials) redefined British comedy and transformed Ricky Gervais (undeservedly?) into the worldwide star he is today (star of A Night At The Museum 2!).
In fact, the pilot for The Office: An American Workplace is simply a rehash of sight gags and dramatic pauses that worked far better in the dulcet British tones of the original performers. It’s not dreadful, but it’s not original, and that makes it redundant. Why watch a rehash of something you’ve seen done better before? However, as the course of the first season progresses, our protagonist Michael Scott (the versatile Steve Carell of Little Miss Sunshine and The 40 Year Old Virgin) becomes someone who we are able to sympathise with. He’s by no means a likeable guy but he gives the character a childlike innocence which makes him a little less grating than David Brent and gives the show the longevity it needs to sustain the 22 episode American format.
Once the teething problems are over, The Office becomes one of the finest American sitcoms, probably ever. I would argue that the writing on television is more interesting than anything on at the cinema right now. Television is no longer a throwaway medium. DVD and online on-demand programmes allow viewers to consume television in concentrated doses and also means that they never miss an episode. This allows for a far greater sense of continuity than older programmes that you could just dip in and out of. The Office benefits from the extended length and, whiles never falling into a Friends style descent into soap opera, it allows relationships to develop and change. Over the first three seasons we see a variety of romances between the characters and the dynamics are constantly evolving amongst the staff of Dunder Mifflin.
The Office’s greatest strength is in the development of the minor characters. In the English counterpart, they were just familiar faces but the American version casts fantastic character actors who are the true stars of the show. Against the drab setting of a paper company these characters seem larger than life but remain true to themselves and consistently funny. For example, Kelly (played by Mindy Kaling, a writer of the show) begins as a one-note Indian joke and is then given a relationship with office temp Ryan (B.J. Novak, another writer) and her character is revealed to be sweet yet obsessive and wholly naive. Kaling plays her as incredibly annoying yet incredibly vulnerable and consistently amusing. Similarly, the stern and uptight Angela (Angela Kinsey) starts off as a one-dimensional thorn in everyone’s side and is then given a softer side with the introduction of a surprise secret romance. My personal favourite character quickly became the ineffectual HR advisor, Toby (Paul Lieberstein), whose recent divorce has made him basically give up on life. He is the bane of Michael’s life and manages to do this without doing much at all. Lieberstein’s subtle and understated performance doesn’t go for the big laughs but manages to flesh out the character and make us feel for him. It is rare that a television show doesn’t feel overcrowded with more than about six major characters and The Office manages to juggle the lives of about twenty main characters. No easy feat.
The DVD features definitely give the viewer an appreciation into what makes this show work. It becomes clear from the commentaries that the makers cast established comics to take the most minor parts and the serialised format allow them to tweak things over time according to what works and what doesn’t. Like any good show, it learns from its mistakes and this is why it is such a slow burner. The show also employs some of the best directors working today including Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon and Ghostbusting Egon Spengler himself, Harold Ramis. Ramis contributes to some audio commentaries and reveals he is as much of a fan of the show as anyone else. The audio commentaries span about 20 episodes throughout the second and third seasons and are almost as entertaining as the show themselves. Featuring most of the cast and behind the scenes personnel, they are an interesting insight into the making of the show, and also track the rising stardom of Steve Carell as different participants comment on his evolving superstar status.
All the episodes are all presented in anamorphic widescreen and almost all of them feature a wealth of deleted material which offers up material which is just as good as what ended up in the show. I would definitely recommend checking them out. The DVDs are rounded out with ‘made for Internet’ webisodes, trailers, bloopers, and an on-stage cast interview which runs for about 20 minutes. The 9 disc box set offers a wealth of bonus material for such an inexpensive set. The only downside to the box set is the box itself. It’s made of a flimsy cardboard and is a completely different size to any other DVDs. It also features no episode guides or booklets so good luck revisiting a specific episode without a little trial and error.
Whether as a gift or something to keep you entertained through the cold winter nights, I would highly recommend The Office: An American Workplace. It benefits from the DVD format in that you don’t have to wait too long to get through the shaky start and at under 20 minutes each, they are incredible… more-ish. The second and third seasons were undeniably the shows’ strongest so far and include such memorable material as Michael’s homocidal improv class, Dwight’s Macbeth style takeover of the office, and Pam and Jim’s first kiss. The episode plots are mostly throwaway but each has at least one or two genuine laughs which is rare for even the funniest of sitcoms. Forget the inherent baggage it carries from its English predecessor and just enjoy one of the greatest and consistently funny American comedies since Seinfeld. The only downside is that the UK are still yet to see a release of seasons four or five but sales of this box set might prompt someone to do something about it. Do yourself a favour and pick this one up.