The UK and US versions of The Office, while nearly identical in premise, reflect the cultural differences between their respective homelands. Created by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant and Greg Daniels respectively, both the British BBC sitcom mockumentary series and its American NBC adaptation find humor in the foibles of the characters working in a mundane office environment.
The original UK series wasn’t an overnight sensation, but it soon spread across the globe and became a cringe-comedy classic. The US adaptation was also a slow burn, initially criticized for its tired rehashing of its source material. Following its first season, the adaptation diverged from the original in story, characters and tone, taking on a life of its own that resonated with an American audience.
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The original version of The Office ran for two six-episode seasons, plus a two-part Christmas special (as is customary of British television classics). The adaptation’s creators took the show’s success and ran with it for nine seasons, even after star Steve Carrell’s controversial season 7 departure. Unlike many US adaptations of UK shows, such as Skins and Coupling, The Office US ended up being as popular as the original was. Praised by viewers and critics alike, both beloved series are often counted among the funniest TV shows of the century so far, but there are several differences between them.
The Office Characters: US Vs. UK
The Office UK characters’ relatability lies in their misery and boredom, while the US characters carry an all-American optimism. The crux of the UK series is narcissistic boss David Brent’s tone-deaf attempts to impress his colleagues, which fail due to his inadvertent racism, sexism, and general social ineptitude. In season 1 of the US series, district manager Michael Scott echoes David Brent’s delusional self-confidence and offensive faux pas. But throughout the following seasons, writers developed Scott into a more naive, clownish character who was more likely to win the American audience’s favor.
The American writers also tweaked the supporting characters to make them more likable. Both Gareth Keenan and Dwight Schrute are nerdy brown-nosers, but Gareth is a humorless ex-military soldier, while Dwight is an absurdist beet farmer. Gareth’s rival Tim Canterbury is a bona fide underdog who still lives with his parents, while Dwight’s rival Jim Halpert is a more upbeat character who gets by on good looks and easy charm. Tim and Jim flirt with their respective office’s bored, girl-next-door receptionists: the jaded, resigned Dawn, and her softer, more smiley US counterpart Pam. Celebrated for its ensemble cast, the American series also strayed from the original in its ongoing addition of zany new characters.
The Office Companies: Wernham Hogg Vs. Dunder Mifflin
Both versions of The Office take place in regional branches of corporate paper companies in industrial towns. The UK series is set in the fictional Wernham Hogg office in the Slough Trading Estate in England, while the US version is set in the Dunder Mifflin office in the “Electric City” of Scranton, Penn. Each office is neutral-toned and fluorescent-lit, but the American writers brightened up the lights after the adaptation’s first season, as the dim office lighting that set the mood in the British series may have been too drab for American audiences who weren’t as accustomed to gray skies.
Everyone in the British series is glaringly white, which Brent addresses in the pilot. “I haven’t got a sign on the door that says ‘white people only,’ you know,” he says. “I don’t care if you’re black, brown, yellow…” This particular satire of inadvertent racism was omitted from the American series, which features a slightly more diverse albeit similarly white male-dominant cast. Still, Michael Scott’s lack of racial sensitivity is lampooned in the second episode, “Diversity Day,” when he performs a tactless retelling of a Chris Rock bit.
The Office Story: US Vs. UK
The driving comedic force of each iteration of The Office is the disconnect between the manager’s perception of how others see him and the reality of how he is perceived by others. Another comedic thread throughout both series is the rivalry between two salesmen: The dynamic between Gareth and Tim in the UK series is more of a genuine mutual hatred, but Jim’s practical jokes on Dwight in the US version are mere distractions from the boredom of office life. The central romantic storyline sees Jim and Pam happy together in seasons 4 through 9 of the US version, while Tim and Dawn don’t couple up until the Christmas special at the end of the UK series run.
The US adaptation of The Office worked because it didn’t lean too much on its source material beyond its rocky start. The American Office pilot episode was a direct adaptation of the British one, from the managers’ cringeworthy telephone calls to the stapler in the jelly. This drew some criticism from fans of the original series, as well as from American newcomers who didn’t quite get it. Starting with season 2, the adaptation grew in originality as writers began to tailor jokes and subplots to the American cast members.
The Office Humor: US Vs. UK
The overarching punchline in both versions of The Office is a lack of professionalism. Both shows feature core comedic themes of social awkwardness and practical jokes. In keeping with the British comedy tradition, the original series is built upon biting commentary on reality, ridiculing characters’ personal failures and inflicting secondhand embarrassment on its audience. But each series’ approach to the trivialities of office life showcases the differences between British and American humor.
The original sitcom is simultaneously more subtle and more blunt than the adaptation. The language is more profane and the jokes are more objectionable: David Brent’s declaration that “every bloke in the office has woken up at the crack of Dawn,” for example, is more explicit than Michael Scott’s customary bark of “That’s what she said!” Still, the delivery of the original series’ jokes aligns with the subtleties of dry, deadpan British humor. The US adaptation is a goofier, slightly diluted take on the original material, drawing laughs instead from the American comedy tradition of wacky antics and exaggerated delivery.
The Office Ending: US Vs. UK
Both two-part finales see the office crews reuniting in celebration. Three years after their fictional documentary has wrapped, The Office UK characters deal with defeat ahead of the company Christmas party. David Brent has become a traveling salesman and failed singer with a disappointing dating life. Dawn is miserable in Florida with her inconsiderate fiance Lee. Tim remains trapped in a job he hates with nemesis Gareth as his boss. Luckily, the second part of the special turns these dire circumstances around: Brent goes on a successful blind date and finally manages to make his coworkers laugh, while Dawn leaves Lee and reunites with Tim in England. Still, it’s not a definitive feel-good ending, as viewers don’t know whether it’ll all work out. “I don’t know what a happy ending is,” Tim says. “Life isn’t about endings, is it? It’s a series of moments.”
Across the pond, Michael Scott makes a surprise comeback appearance at Dwight and Angela’s wedding with a final, heartfelt “that’s what she said” and shows the team photos of his happy family. Dwight has the district manager job he’s always dreamed of, Jim and Pam start a new life in Austin, Tex. and Ryan and Kelly essentially run away together into the sunset. Ultimately, while the Dunder Mifflin community finds its happily ever after, the Wernham Hogg employees face an uncertain future.
The pivotal distinction between the US and UK versions of The Office is the British original’s undercurrent of misery versus the American adaptation’s undercurrent of optimism. The two iterations of The Office‘s contrasting endings solidify the comedy gold that sets the two series apart and accounts for their lasting success: The UK version established the million-dollar, million-laugh formula with its cringey characters and sharp realism, and the US version altered the formula with the warm, fuzzy idealism of a happy but unconventional family.
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