The Office (U.S. version)

Seasons one and two on DVD. Season three debuts Thursday, September 21, at 8:30 on NBC.

I should acknowledge up front that, though I have great respect for Ricky Gervais’ The Office, on which the American version is based, I have never been able to sit through an entire episode. The painfully awkward humor and the merciless probing of embarrassment, folly, and ennui makes me so uncomfortable that eventually, inevitably, I give up and flee from the television. I appreciate the show’s insights and perfectly drawn characters, but I’ve always been too susceptible to vicarious humiliation, and the British Office is more than I can bear.

The American Office, on the other hand, is comparatively gentle. I might view some scenes through my fingers—(Yes, really. I’ll watch grotesque violence with no more than a wince, but show me a shame-faced person surrounded by a laughing crowd, and I run for cover. I have issues.)—but the American show is more generous about relieving the tension, perhaps more forgiving toward the characters, no matter how foolish or weak they might be. Some might argue that its relatively gentle nature indicates that it is more conventional and timid than the groundbreaking British version, but I think that would be unfair. Rather, it indicates that the American version has found its own path and its own sensibility—not better or worse but different.

Steve Carell stars as Michael Scott, the well-meaning but insufferable boss of a paper supply company’s Scranton branch, the subject of a documentary on the workplace. The “mockumentary” genre has been all but run into the ground since This Is Spinal Tap popularized it back in the 1980s, but The Office finds a way to make it funny again, in large part because its subject is so hilariously mundane. An average episode might focus on performance reviews or a Secret Santa gift exchange or a kitchen fire, but the “plot,” such as it is, is never really the point. The fun of The Office is in watching all the employees interact with each other.

Even minor characters develop into fully formed individuals over time because the show pays so much attention to would-be throwaway comments or looks exchanged in the background. The writing is organic, and the acting is beautifully spontaneous and fresh; each performance feels lived in rather than acted. That’s what makes the show endearing. It’s easy to start thinking of the characters as people, people whom you care about and whom you want to see happy.

One of the continuing storylines of the show involves the suppressed attraction between salesperson Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and receptionist Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer), whose fiancé, Roy (David Denman), works in the warehouse. Jim and Pam truly care about each other (and the chemistry between Krasinski and Fischer is intense), but both of them have been setting aside their dreams and desires for too long to know how to act upon the unspoken yearning beneath the surface of their friendship.

It’s a delicate, tenderly written story (one can only hope that the kiss in the second season finale doesn’t derail it), and it reflects the rest of the show perfectly: Jim and Pam aren’t the only Dunder Mifflin employees who want more out of life but don’t know how to find it. Ryan the temp (B.J. Novak) is terrified that his future holds nothing more than his present. Michael’s boss Jan (Melora Hardin) is divorced, lonely, and afraid of being trapped beneath a glass ceiling. Oscar (Oscar Nuñez), one of the accountants, is desperate to keep his private life separate from his work life, and Meredith, another office drone, is nursing a serious alcohol problem.

Indeed, a note of melancholy permeates the deadpan humor of The Office. It doesn’t drag the comedy down, but it sharpens it considerably and gives it humanity. The show excels at both high-energy farce—the episode in which Michael’s devoted underling Dwight (Rainn Wilson) suffers a concussion is howlingly funny—and real poignancy, such as in the episode in which Jan encourages Pam to pursue her artistic talent, a pursuit Jim encourages and Roy dismisses.

Those two complementary elements—the farcical and the poignant—co-exist most strikingly in Carell’s performance as Michael. Carell has not recreated Gervais’ unctuous David Brent but fashioned an entirely new character. Michael might be a terrible boss, but his vulnerability and good intentions keep him from being contemptible, and his buoyancy is, oddly enough, rather inspiring. Like he did in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell takes what could have been a tired, pitiful, hackneyed character and finds the absurdity in him, yes, but the dignity, too.

Carell’s performance is exemplary, in large part because he doesn’t monopolize the show, even if he is (at least for now) the one “big name” of the cast. A lesser comedian (or a more insecure one) might have hijacked the sitcom, but Carell is smart enough and magnanimous enough to share the spotlight with his talented colleagues. He clearly understands, much to his credit, that this is The Office, not Michael Scott—and the show is all the better for it. Michael Scott (or Jim & Pam, for that matter) would become wearisome before long. The Office is a true ensemble success, a lively comedy that thrives not in the individual characters but in the myriad bonds between them. It might not be as mercilessly pointed as the original, but its sense of mercy, its compassion, is one of the reasons I love it.