Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Core Post 5: The Office - Demonstrating the Promise and Perils of Adaptation

            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?

3 comments:

  1. Hi Lance, really great post. I agree that what made the American adaptation of The Office so successful was because of its distinctive American sensibility and humor that was able to come into fruition because of the extended episodes. Also, I do think that the model of short run British TV shows like The Office offer a different viewing experience and relationship to TV than with Americans. Like the gif above, I think British viewers want a sense of closure that the short run shows offer instead of an ambivalent ending like the American Office.

    Side note* I was talking to an English friend about how funny/good the American Office was and he was really in favor of the original British series, so he strongly disagreed and told me that: "Americans don't know when to stop." He went on to say that Americans ruin good shows (haha) and that they should learn to end it when it's still good.

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  2. Hey Lance,

    I don't have a well thought-out opinion, but I'd just like to add that I think this is a really great post and concluding question!

    I'm not especially familiar with British TV, but from what I have watched, it's interesting to see the very clear distinction between British and American formats. The cynic in me would say that *most* American productions hold out for as long as they are profitable (I'm currently in a TV Industry class at CAA, and from what we hear each week, it sounds like money always trumps quality/content). From an outsider's perspective, it seems that the British industry cares more about audience/narrative than their American counterpart, but maybe I'm just being ultra negative?

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  3. I''m going to hop on the cynical train about American Television and point to a slightly different example. Arrested Development's cancellation from the lack of viewership over the course of three seasons was brought to an end when after a nearly decade long battle with fans, studios, the showrunner, and the actors when the series was resuscitated by Netflix for a fourth season. The recpetion was mixed to positive, but definitely a step down from the perceived perfection of the prior seasons and tarnished the show's reputation. We got what we wanted, but it wasn't what we wanted.

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