Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Office: A Character by Character Battle for Supremacy

Recently, David Brent stopped by the U.S. version of The Office. You read that right, not Ricky Gervais people…F’in DAVID BRENT. The legend.

With Steve Carell leaving the show just before the impending doom that is the Season 7 finale, they felt it was time to pass the guard. What transcended was compact and quick, yet glorious use of television space. Flawless execution. It left you wanting more.

That is where I come in…

There is nothing like a good showdown. Just ask the band E.L.O. If I were to name my Top 5 television shows throughout history, without a doubt I would have to include The Office, but as two separate entities, for obvious reasons. Though the later version from the Americans was the remake, like all good covers it has taken on an ambience of its own.

So, the competitor, analyzer and mathematician within me wanted to take a deeper look and pin these two powerhouses of television delight head-to-head by character for sake of Office supremacy. Characters can each earn up to 10 points for their respective side and the winning side will have won the most points in the character-by-character showdown. Kind of like a wrestling match. This seems like the best way to shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of their respective programs.

This is the Super Bowl of Zerfas television with only Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm being the only other programs able to hold their own in my respective television coliseum. And for sake of this piece, let’s pretend they got upset early in the playoffs; much like the Patriots did this year. (I dedicate that joke to the beautiful Melissa Leite)


The most glaring difference between the series is sheer number of episodes. The British version has 12 half hour episodes and two one hour specials for a total of 14 episodes. Compare that to the US version which has over 130 episodes to date and over the years NBC has granted them many extended episodes from 40 to 60 minutes in length depending on writers strikes, Olympic games, season finale’s, sweeps week shenanigans, etc.

This comparison to me shakes out like comparing Weezer’s first two albums against their entire own entire catalogue. Sure, The Blue Album and Pinkerton are concise, masterful efforts, but even with some of the duds, I wouldn’t give up some of the moments on The Green Album, The Red Album and Maladroit for anything in the world. Not even peace of mind in pursuit of perfection. This does make for a fun discussion as this concept unfolds through the course of pop culture. What if the Beatles recorded for 40 more years like The Rolling Stones? That is what we have at hand here, on a smaller scale of course.

The purists want to dismiss the US version of the show for many reasons. Some say it has been Hollywood dramatized. Others say there is no way to recreate the Brits fine use of awkward timing and quick wit. Then there are whole communities of Ricky Gervais cults out there who swear by anything the man does as it’s all gold. I believe all of these theories hold some weight, but you can’t write off the Americans just yet. Over the course of seven seasons, a great deal has taken place, and it’s easy to forget all the funny moments as you’d have to sift through them over time to collect them all. I’m here to tell you they ARE there folks.

This character by character analysis could be closer than the experts would think…

David Brent (Ricky Gervais) vs. Michael Scott (Steve Carell)

This was the toughest concept for me to get over as a huge Steve Carell fan…Ricky Gervais is BOSS. Before I had seen the original, I was a big fan of Steve Carell dating back to the Dana Carvey Show (how the hell did THAT show not stay on air?) and previous to my British viewing(s) everyone told me Gervais was the superior boss. As stubborn as I am, it doesn’t take Gervais long to cut through and break down my loyalty walls. His boss is just THAT good.

It’s apparent from the opening lines of the first British Office. It hits you like a pure, cold, brisk wind off Lake Superior. It’s undeniable. The timing is unnatural, yet engrossing. His gesticulations are annoying (like the constant moving of the tie), but plausible. He’s a liar that’s truth remains steadfast like that of George Costanza. He makes you cringe like a car accident you just can’t take your eyes off of. He’s not pretty, yet not repulsively ugly. It’s a magnificent motion of character excellence that rises above the show and all else with floating majestic grace. There is nothing like it anywhere and nobody should even try.

Which leads us to Steve Carell, who flawlessly crafted his own boss character in Brent’s likeness, but without impersonation. It is interpretation without imitation. True THAT. It really is Carell’s own entity that takes over. In an interview when the show first came out Carell said himself,”Ricky Gervais was so good and so definitive…there was no way to replicate or duplicate or improve upon what he did…” Carell finished, “I just figured take a different shot at it.”

I’ve always subscribed to the M.O. “go big or go home”, and apparently Carell subscribes as well. What he lacks in David Brent’s subtleties, he makes up for in genuine spirit. You want to believe in Michael Scott. In a way, Carell brought this character to the next level in the movie Dinner For Schmucks. He’s so sweet and endearing you love him…but he’s just so stupid. Even though the movie wasn’t great, Carell made his character in that movie seem as if Michael Scott was an Olympic training exercise for idiots you love. The antithesis of this character is Ed Harris’ General Hummel from The Rock—characters that are geniuses you love to hate.

Back to the point!? They are both great at what they do. They have a need for attention and just thrive on wanting the spotlight so bad, yet can never handle the necessary pressure, alike. The British show tends to be more obscene for no reason and Gervais can sink to levels Carell wouldn’t even dream of. However, some of that I would attribute to length of the show. Michael Scott has to do work to keep his job, whereas David Brent losses his job in Season 2.

When Brent has to do a report he writes a quiz show (go upstairs get a clue…come back down the stairs…). When Scott has a report, he makes a stupid video (Great Scott productions, classically misused U2 song), but more importantly when asked for the report…he delivers. They had to probe him, but he delivered nonetheless. There is actually proof that Michael Scott was a great salesman and worker, whereas Gervais never had to prove himself in the show. This is the huge character difference in a nutshell.

In my opinion that gives Gervais more room to be crude, crass and the quintessential ass, without the pressure of holding up for seven seasons. I call this Groundhog Day theory. However, the genius of Gervais flies off the screen in an indescribable way. If Steve Carell dares not try, why would I try to make a case for his supremacy? It’s like trying to argue horses are better than unicorns. Even a magnificent stallion can’t fly.

Verdict: Brent |___X_______| Scott (U.K. Office +7) Brent by a landslide! I give Steve Carell points for effort. In any other battle Michael Scott would be a tough out, but David Brent is on another level.

Gareth Keenan (Mackenzie Crook) vs. Dwight K. Schrute (Rainn Wilson)

This to me is the biggest blowout of the bunch. This may separate me from the UK Office purists. I think the strongest part of the American show is Dwight Shrute, and the weakest part of the UK offering is Gareth Keenan. I don’t think Gareth is a bad character or even a weak character. I just think Gareth is more of a “setter” as in he sets up Tim and David while Dwight Schrute is more of a “spiker” on the American show always taking existing jokes over the top…with AUTHORITY.

The greatest example of this is the “sweet, lovey dovey” episode in which Jim and Pam have their baby. I watch the whole episode for the plot in which Dwight K. Schrute infiltrates their home looking for Pam’s I-pod, but instead finds mold. Of course, the natural reaction is for this character to start tearing their kitchen apart, putting in new cabinets, sleeping in their bed naked, hitting on Pam’s best friend and signing baby-making contracts with Angela. So fucking ridiculous, yet it adds humor to an otherwise very heavy episode. Schrute is the driving force of the American Office. If Carell is the glue, Schrute is the flashy packaging that makes the glue have that extra punch of marketability.

Both characters have a natural disposition to be funny. Anybody in life that follows rules with perpetual blindness is hilarious. We have all worked with these mopes. They are hysterical! Gareth really does embody the Forest Gump like military man who relives those days like Uncle Rico (from Napoleon Dynamite) does high school football. You add his sexually charged outward curiosity and it’s and endless setup for funny shit. No question. It works. It works very well. He’s the perfect antagonist for Tim, but there is just something about him that is too annoying for me to like. I just don’t respect Gareth. I don’t think he can carry many moments of a show like a Dwight Schrute can.

I think Gareth’s best scene is the training scene when he’s moving the coffee cup to different places on the computer screen. This comedic timing was amazing and it was all on him as a character. It was true. And actually, my favorite moment in ALL of the Offices is a small moment dominated by Gareth. Tim is trying to mack on the new girl…they are talking…and in a small moment of silence Gareth chimes in with…”snacks.” Epic. It’s one of those things that could be easy to miss and would never make a highlight real, but I live for that moment everytime I see that particular episode. Not even a humidifier could cure the dry comedic air.

Overall, I feel like these moments are too few and far in-between as opposed to Dwight Schrute who can save an entire episode of The Office with an over the top dialogue or gift of physical comedy. Much like how Seinfeld used Kramer. Anytime Seinfeld wanted to venture way the hell out of reality, the vehicle was Kramer. The first time they did this, they used Kramer as a detective. Who else on that show could ransack someone’s apartment acting like a detective?

The same is done in The Office with Dwight Schrute giving him personalities such as Recyclops, safety officer, volunteer sheriff, owner of Schrute Farms bed & breakfast, etc. It got to the point in Seinfeld around Season 5 when the show would come to a screeching halt every time Kramer would make an entrance to a standing round of applause. They actually had to ask the audience to stop doing it as it became quite a distraction to the show. Kramer’s moments rose above the show itself. I feel like Dwight Schrute has the same effect on The Office. He may not be the lead character, but his versatility allows the show to get away with just about anything they write. And Rainn Wilson will execute with flawless precision.

Verdict: Gareth |_________X| Dwight (U.S. +10) Dwight K. Schrute is the horsepower that has made The Office so versatile and viable as a go-to television program for the masses for seven seasons and counting. If you watch Season 1 this was not the case, but the power of Schrute is undeniable. He is the Scottie Pippen to Steve Carell’s Michael Jordan.

Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman) vs. Jim Halpert (John Krasinski)

The battle of the guys you just can’t help but feel sorry for. This is the most relatable character in both shows, because you just empathize and feel like you’re right with them in dealing with the other nutty characters. Both guys play the control variable perfectly.

This is another match diversely affected by time. You can’t really empathize as much for Jim after he gets everything he wants. He gets 1) promoted 2) gets the girl (a hot one at that) 3) gets married 4) has cute baby. It’s truly impossible to empathize with someone who gets everything they want in life.

This relationship with the character is hard to bear over the seven seasons of the show. Jim becomes kind of a choch as a boss and movie star heartthrob (the latter the show obviously can’t control his rise of fame as an actor). You still love him, but he’s just no longer the shaggy haired quintessential office relatable target. He’s grown up, bought his business suit and takes his pay-checks back to the wife and kids. It’s not bad, it’s just the “chase” is over, everbody knows it and it’s tough to figure out what his role on the show is now. Tough for the viewers and writers alike.

Tim on the other hand is the perfect example of embattled integrity. He fights for the girl time and time again. He even dumps a hot girl for one small punchers chance at the girl of his dreams. That’s integrity folks. He gets offered the promotion to take David Brent’s job and turns it down, because he knows his heart wouldn’t be in it. Wow. He even knows the perils ahead of giving that kind of power to Gareth, but remains steadfast in the name of integrity.

Again, you can’t help but know a character can’t hold rock steady to their guns for seven seasons like Tim did for the short run of the British version. But, you MUST give the man credit for all he endured. I think the greatest Tim scene is when the pregnant lady moves next to his desk (in the reunion episode) and is describing the sexual position she believe the baby to be conceived in. Holy shit, that is awkward! This is the life of Tim “Canterbury Tales” and one can only sigh in his entire disposition.

Verdict: Tim |___X______| Jim (U.K. Office +7) I have to side with my man Tim and his endless pursuit of love and happiness. I do love the glory days of shaggy-haired basketball throw down Jim Halpert, but now those days are gone while somewhere in Slough you know Tim is still pining for Dawn. Sigh. Poor Tim.

Dawn Tinsley (Lucy Davis) vs. Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer)

As the main love interest for their respective show the first thing you’ll have to compare is straight up sexiness. Perhaps, it’s the American in me, but I believe this first line of business is a hands down advantage to Pam Beesly.

The nature of the character is an understated grace that is very sexy to Tim/Jim, but not necessarily as fetching to the “common man” as would a typical sex symbol. However, it’s just hard to make Jenna Fischer not sexy. In most cases, it’s glaringly obvious she is “dressing down” for the part of Pam Beesly. I’m just the kind of guy that likes that t-shirt and jeans, hair up, natural type of beauty. I much prefer girls going to class just out of bed to the girls on the way for a night out.

That nugget aside, my crush on Jenna Fischer in no way diminishes the torture Dawn Tinsley puts on Tim. Some of this credit has already been given to Tim above, but Dawn has to be good at what she does in order for you to properly empathize with the crucifixion she implores onto him. Ladies if you want a textbook example of how to lure a guy in and crush all his dreams, look no further than the philosophies of Dawn Tinsley. Just merciless execution Dawn.

In that way, these characters are very different. There is no question the British Office is very much a darker look into the motives and unbalance of human existence. Pam is a lighter offering for all the dork lovers out there. Nothing is better than when she gets drunk at the Dundies and surprise kisses Jim or when she gets all corny swinging arms with a “hey-o!”, but again this just seems slightly watered down to the brutal religious ceremony Dawn conducts on Tim.

Verdict: Dawn |___X______| Pam (U.K Office +2) I want to date Pam Beesly, but I recognize the shenanigans that Dawn gets away with, while still being likeable.

Keith (Ewen MacIntosh) vs. Kevin (Brian Baumgartner)

Kevin Malone is a character. Seriously, my biggest issue with him is that he doesn’t resemble any person that’s intelligent enough to function in society. He makes Brick Tamland (Steve Carell in Anchorman) look like Jason Bourne (Matt Damon is always astute), but somehow he’s sharp enough to drum and sing in a band, which we all know is the Ryan C. Zerfas ultimate sign of respect. Respect.

Seriously though, I have a serious problem with this. That is why the best Kevin storyline is when Michael convinces Holly that he hired him because he’s retarded. This is hilarious and should somehow be something legit to this “miss-accusation.”

Other than that, Kevin is a delight.

Keith on the other hand is a dominant force of comedic timing. The genius of Keith therein lies with how little he’s used. Much like the Clint Eastwood dialect method in the Man With No Name Trilogy, Keith abuses the empty space, creating fantastically awkward tension, leaving the audience hanging for what little amount of words he utters.

This is perfectly depicted in his review with David Brent when he’s asked to survey his strengths and needs in a multiple choice survey. The struggle to get him to participate is so eerily like my little brother…it’s uncanny and plain to see. For a character in a sitcom however, it’s just brilliant and should be enjoyed in heaps and bounds. As the moments are few and far between I find myself craving Ali Keith and his “chats” in which he’s eating a fruit that looks like a Styrofoam basketball.

Verdict: Keith |X________| Kevin (U.K. Office +10) This match is as close as challenging a mule to a game of Bananagrams.

Chris Finch (Ralph Ineson) vs. Todd F. Packer (David Koechner)

Speaking of Anchorman (it’s hard for me not to), it’s always nice when Todd F. Packer drops by. The February 24th episode is titled “Todd Packer” and should give us some more insight to everyone’s favorite William Hung plated traveling salesman. That is the problem with this comparison is Koechner comes off as a tribute to Carell and Koechner in Anchorman rather than an important entity to the show, which he isn’t. Chris “Finchy” Finch however, is.

Chris Finch highlights with authority the severe pathetic nature of David Brent. As his “so called best friend” Finch does nothing more than berate Brent to his face in absolute crudest manner imaginable. We’ve all seen this in action. One person for some reason brands another their BFF, but the writing is clearly on the wall for others to see, yet nobody is crass enough to call shenanigans.

Perhaps, David Brent needs a Kevin Malone?

Verdict: Finchy |___X_____| Todd Packer (U.K. Office +6) Koechner is the master at over the top annoying, but his role isn’t big enough to keep the pace.

The Bosses to the Boss: Neil/Jennifer vs. Jan/Ryan/David Wallace

The extended plotline of the American Office gives much more depth to the plethora of storylines surrounding the management of the unmanageable Michael Scott. Really, what CAN they do with Michael Scott? Jan was medically insane!? Ryan was a hipster druggie. David is a nice guy without a load of better options, yet continues to settle for Scott. He DID allow himself to be worked by Michael Scott Paper Company, but justice is served in the form of walking papers much later. Integrity upheld.

Neil is written as a character you’re not supposed to like. To me, he’s too nice of a guy to dislike and you can’t help but respect him. He however is brilliantly cast as “the jack of all trades” that we all look to expose in life. We all have that guy. Although his shell doesn’t get cracked he provides a formidable foe for Brent and serves time after time a reminder of the pathetic nature portrayed by Gervais. You want to forget and side with Brent, but solid characters like Neil provide a gauge to remind you what you’re seeing is out of whack.

Verdict: |____X_____| (U.K. Office +2)

The Supporting Cast: Malcom, Sheila, Trudy, Ricky, Lee vs. Stanley, Phyllis, Creed, Angela, Darryl, Meredith, Mindy, Ryan

Continuing to beat a dead horse here, 131-14 leads to many more interesting side stories for supporting characters. Over time, numerous people have joined, left and rejoined the American show. Most of the characters are one dimensional, one-line punchers and set up for the prime time players.

For the British, the other characters on the show, you probably don’t even know their names. Perhaps only Malcom, because he exposes the real reason David Brent “turns down” the better job with corporate, leading to another season of the show. And he just looks like an annoying old man you’d never want to work with. Everyone would want to work with Craig Robinson (Darryl).

Verdict: U.K. Supporting Cast |_______X__| U.S. Supporting Cast (U.S. Office +7) Even taking into account the longevity advantage, there is no doubt The U.S. fields a deeper cast. Perhaps it helps that many of these side people are key writers to the show and get credit in my mind for that talent, much like Gervais is granted earlier. That means you Mindy Kaling (Kelly, 22 episodes), B.J. Novak (Ryan, 15 episodes), Paul Liebertestin (Toby, 13 episodes).

The ‘Nard Dog Quotient

There really isn’t a British equivalent to Cornell’s finest product Andrew Bernard. The character Ed Helms has created here just oozes with talent and humorous whimsical candor. He really gives the writers many avenues to peruse like a multi-leveled Barnes & Nobles (R.I.P. 66th St and Broadway B&S). He plays seemingly every instrument imaginable from the banjo, kazoo, the sitar, guitar and of course his famed Acappella group whose buddies folklore rivals Kramer’s buddy Bob Sacamano.

His wardrobe is a character in itself. I literally cannot wait to tune in every week just to see what ridiculous combination he is wearing. Baby blue sweatervest with a pink shirt…yessh. Also, his anger management strikes very close to home and Ed Helms nails this aspect EVERY…SINGLE…TIME. He’s a perfectly executed character that continues to gain strength on the show. If they are able to move forward without Michael Scott, there is little doubt that Ed Helms will take a lion’s share of the focus. He showed he has the gusto in more way than on in “The Seminar.”

Coach…put him in the game!

Verdict: +10 for the U.S. Office. An unparalleled titan of the industry is on the rise. I hope Cedar Rapids is to Helms as The Hangover was to Zach Galifianakis.


Final Score:
U.S. Office 27
U.K. Office 34

The British win by a touchdown! Via my mathematical assessment the U.K. Office is 11 percent stronger than the U.S. Office. The matchups do not lie.

The purists may scoff at how close this turned out, but I really believe the American Office is a reliable source of laughs and the accurate scope of office culture Gervais and Merchant set out to explore in the original. We’ll never know what would have happened if the first series hit the 100 episode milestone anymore than we’ll know what Jeff Buckley’s third album would sound like.

The song remains the same. The UK version is a tightly executed slice of genius. The U.S. Office has weathered the test of time, in a world where sitcoms aren’t as much a part of pop culture, but The Office has maintained its stamp as an enterprise critics and superfans alike can count on. It’s a better world for having both options…


Friday, February 4, 2011

A State of Shock

The Michigan State basketball team finds itself in a precarious position. I don't think anyone would have predicted this. It's not quite possible Tom Izzo's 13-year streak of making a dance in March Madness will come to an end.

This will not come easily to fans. Especially this one. My thoughts on the state of affairs after another disappointing loss to Iowa (if you remember football season!?). Perhaps, the worst loss I've ever seen.