NEW YORK, N.Y. – As “The Office” airs its series finale after eight years on NBC, the time feels right to salute the show that spawned it.
I’m talking, of course, about the BBC-produced, British version of “The Office,” starring a previously unknown scamp named Ricky Gervais, who also served as its co-creator, -writer and -director.
For viewers who stumbled on that scruffy, off-kilter little comedy way back in 2001, “The Office” was a sensation and its doughy leading man someone clearly worth watching.
Soon it gave rise to the NBC version, which premiered in March 2005 and concludes Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT with a 75-minute finale that will gather the cast along with guest stars, past regulars and maybe even Steve Carell (the network isn’t saying for sure), who left as series lead two seasons ago.
Transplanting “The Office” to American soil was an exacting business.
The forlorn workplace of Wernham Hogg Paper Co. in its grey London suburb was transformed to the not-quite-so-dreary regional branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Co. in Scranton, Pa.
Steve Carell was tapped as the crisp, chirpy doofus-in-charge. His character, Michael Scott, a man of grating foolishness, emerged as a sleeker version of British forbear David Brent, who, as played by Gervais, was a rapacious joke-spinning narcissist with a cajoling grin and wild delusions of charm.
Ever eager for approval, Michael Scott saw his supervisory role as that of “a chilled-out entertainer.”
But for Brent, entertaining his minions was a sacred charge indivisible from any practical accomplishments.
“When people say ‘Would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss?’,” Brent once explained, “my answer is the same: To me, they’re not mutually exclusive.”
With his cringe-inducing loutishness, Brent was often painful for the viewer to take. So was the rest of the show, where an air of desperation gnawed at the employees, trapped as they were by their dead-end jobs and obligatory contact with their overwhelming boss.
The British “The Office” rocked viewers with just 12 half-hours soon followed by a pair of hour-long sequels (all available on Netflix and highly recommended for fans and newcomers alike).
By contrast, the Yank “Office” has always been more soft-hearted and digestible.
Consider the mating of Pam, who began the series’ run as the sweet, wallflowerish receptionist, with Jim, the sensitive sales rep who secretly adored her.
These characters were direct counterparts of Dawn and Tim from the original (played by Lucy Davis and Martin Freeman), who were cruelly kept at arm’s length until the series’ final moments. But the relationship between Pam and Jim (played by Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski), progressed steadily into flirtation and dating, then marriage and parenthood, with the occasional tiff and re-declaration of love. A major through-line for this show has been their romance.
At the same time, the show stayed faithful to the fundamental precept of the original series: Here was a documentary film crew shooting wage slaves at their workplace.
This was the device that set “The Office” apart from other comedies. The original series looked like nothing that had come before, and dared to satirize a media-beset world most people were only beginning to acknowledge. This was 2001, which predated the full onslaught of reality shows. There were no iPhones. Self-generated video was in its infancy and there was still no place to put it: There was no YouTube yet.
However exotic, the premise of “The Office” resonated with the viewers’ own latent narcissism — their appetite for playing to any camera pointed at them. The breakthrough message of “The Office”: We are all David Brents by way of Michael Scott.
Of course, the premise had great comic payoff. Introducing this “meta” component gives any comedy a self-referential streak, a postmodern knowingness that can be mined for laughs. Characters can step outside the action to react for the camera (and the audience beyond) with a grin or wink or roll of the eyes. Characters directly addressing the camera provide a forum for bonus wisecracks. No wonder within a few years, the “mockumentary” format was adopted by “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family.”
Except these days, unlike in 2001 when “The Office” was born, being caught on TV is a normal state for all of us. Everyone is liable to be on TV most any time or place, if only from surveillance cameras planted everywhere. We are routinely exposed and exposing ourselves.
At the end of last week’s episode, the gang from “The Office” was happy (if nervous) about seeing the results of their years of exposure by the documentary crew: Arrayed in front of TVs at a local bar, they were about to watch “The Office: An American Workplace” as it finally hit the air.
But simply being on camera isn’t always enough.
It hasn’t been nearly enough for Andy Bernard. Ignoring the advice of his Dunder Mifflin colleagues, Andy recently resigned his job as a Scranton regional manager to chase his fantasy of show-biz stardom.
As played by Ed Helms, Andy is a chap of unrivaled stupidity and cluelessness even in this crowd of oddballs. But he spoke eloquently for a fame-obsessed culture as he prepared to leave the office in pursuit of his dreams.
“Every minute that I spend here,” he told his co-workers, “is time NOT spent making audition videos for reality, dating, cooking or singing shows. I am pursuing fame of any kind. I owe it to myself and my future fans.”
Trouble is, in this media-glutted world, Andy’s “future fans,” whoever they might be, are probably consumed with finding fame of their own.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier.