The Office is 10 years old. The first episode aired in the UK in the summer of 2001, assigned a 9:30 p.m. timeslot on a Monday because the BBC thought it was a loser. By the time it debuted on NBC in March 2005, it was anything but. (It returns to NBC with new episodes, and a new company CEO played by James Spader, at 8 p.m., Thursday, September 22.)
Losers, of course, are what made this series a winner. The central character in the original, paper company office manager David Brent, is a world-class loser. Played by series creator Ricky Gervais (who co-wrote the BBC series with Stephen Merchant), Brent was based on a real guy Gervais worked with in a cubicle farm job from 1989 to 1997. The characters around David Brent - gawky Gareth, lonely pencil pusher Tim, pretty receptionist Dawn - were a combination of people he knew in real life and loser-y qualities of other TV characters he liked, including Norm from Cheers and Chandler from Friends. (If you recall, Chandler's office job was so nebulous - transponster? - that show built a whole episode around Monica and Rachel not knowing what it was.)
David Brent and Michael Scott, the American counterpart played by Steve Carrell, could be loved and loathed in equal parts. As he's said in many interviews (including on BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs), Gervais felt great affection for his character because Brent's worst mistake was confusing respect with popularity. He chose the wrong one and tried too hard to make co-workers his friends. The cringe-inducing ways Brent does that - racist jokes, backfiring pranks, over-sharing - are what made The Office feel real.
We all know someone like David Brent or Michael Scott. They're sweet guys who are just a little out of step, too insecure to really get anywhere in life. Brent was a fame-craver above all. The second season of the BBC version found him floundering in low-level showbiz like a contestant just out of the Big Brother house. He'd never find enough fame to make him happy, a theme Gervais also explored on the HBO series Extras.
Brent and Scott are funny little boys in business suits, never growing up, never aware of how they appear to others. We laugh at their awfulness but love their vulnerability (a quality Carrell was better at projecting than Gervais). The brilliant balance is what makes The Office a great television show.
BBC's The Office
The twist, and this is where Gervais got it exactly right, was to present it as a mockumentary. The false sense of reality - all those quick glances by the characters at the unseen camera crew - amplifies the embarrassment factor. Not only are David Brent and Michael Scott making fools of themselves in their working environments, there's a camera capturing it for the world to see. We feel for them as they trip into faux pas after faux pas; and we might see a little of ourselves in their behavior and thank our lucky stars there was no camera around to see us. Or we feel for them and realize we're too smart ever to do what they do. Whichever, we feel the sting of their humiliation and maybe think twice about telling that off-color joke at the water cooler.
The false reality also creates an emotional connection with the community of the workers in The Office - Wernham Hogg in the BBC show and Dunder Mifflin in the NBC series. (Those names are shear perfection, too.) The furtive reaction shots, "confessionals" by individual characters and the wide views of blank-faced office workers going about mundane tasks have just enough static, authentic weirdness to feel real.
Gervais hit on something universal with The Office. There are now versions of the show in six countries. In Quebec, it's La Job. In Chile, La Ofis. The French version is Le Bureau and in Israel it's called Ha Misrad. In Germany, they named it after their take on the Brent character, a bumbling boss named Stromberg.
Opening credits of the international versions:
There are lots of clips on Hulu and YouTube of the internationalOffice
spin-offs. They all retain the style Gervais and Merchant created for the BBC series and you can easily pick out the Gareths, Dwight Schrutes, Dawns and Tims.
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The lovable loser is an archetype in every culture. "Who needs winners?" Gervais wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay in July. "They're not in the slightest bit funny or interesting. Give me a loser any day."
Michael's Farewell (full episode) The Office: