Over the course of twelve episodes and two specials, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office changed the landscape of television sitcoms, earning near universal acclaim and stylistically influencing dozens of sitcoms that have co-opted its documentary aesthetic. When Gervais and Merchant developed the show for American audiences along with American writer/producer Greg Daniels, they copied almost every element from the original show, from the character dynamics to the plots. The show’s brief first season received a lot of attention and praise for its cast, but was seen by many critics as a pointless, toothless retread of Gervais’ acidic original. Only in the show’s second season, when Daniels began to evolve the tone of the show to reflect a more distinctly American sensibility did it begin to receive acclaim. After 201 episodes and several changes of cast, the American Office finally ended in 2013 similarly to how it began, with an overwhelming sense of ambivalence. Several seasons as one of the highest rated and most acclaimed shows on network television had long since past, leaving the show a hollow shell of itself in the eyes of many critics and viewers, a feeling only exacerbated by star Steve Carell’s departure in the show’s seventh season.
What do The Office and its American counterpart tell us about the creative and economic norms of both the British and American television industries? A cynical reading might suggest that American television (especially network TV) is built of extending a show’s lifespan until it is no longer financially viable, driving it into creative stagnation. In the case of The Office, this argument is tempting to consider and not without merit. Still, it feels insufficient, and, I think does a disservice to what Daniels was able to accomplish on the show. If the American Office had only been given the twelve episodes the original had, it would never have become the show that was so beloved by American audiences. It needed time to evolve, to come into its own as its own distinct show. This development was also true of Daniels’ follow-up Parks and Recreation along with along with various other beloved, long-running sitcoms that started on somewhat bumpy footing before evolving.
This is not the case with the original Office. The show remains fundamentally unchanged from its first episode to its last. Moreover, the show feels like a discreet unit, a story conceived from the beginning with a specific ending and lifespan in mind. This feels like an instructive avenue to me. I am not an expert in British television, and I know that there are some long-running British programs (Dr. Who springs to mind), but I’ve observed many British shows that rely on the model of short runs, often a dozen episodes total like The Office. The question I have then is this: Does this difference in narrative and economic structure of British TV reflect British TV audiences as a whole having a different relationship to television than Americans, and if so, what are the dynamics of this relationship? For example, to what extent does the ubiquity of state-run TV (such as the BBC) mediate or modulate a populace’s relationship to content? Thoughts?