Television: The (Awkward) Pause That Refreshes

The American version of The Office doesn't reproduce the British humor of the original, but that's a good thing

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Ever since NBC announced plans to remake The Office--the critically adored BBC sitcom about white collar dronesmanship--fans of the original prepared to be disappointed. Americans, they surmised, could not reproduce its discomfiting British humor.

They were right. And thank God. The Office (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.; preview March 24, 9:30 p.m. E.T.) keeps elements of the original, like the mockumentary format and the long, awkward pauses. But it finds a discomfiting American humor all its own.

The first dead-on choice was hiring executive producer Greg Daniels, whose animated King of the Hill is TV's most acute satire of suburban mores. The second was casting Steve Carell to reinterpret the nightmare boss originated by Ricky Gervais. Carell's Michael Scott, like Gervais' David Brent, is a paper-company middle manager who believes he's a sage, a comedian and his employees' best friend.

But like many an American reality-show subject, he's really a boor trying to impress the cameras. Introducing receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer), Scott compliments her thusly: "Pam has been with us for--forever. Righty, Pam? You think she's cute now, you should have seen her a couple years ago! Rrawrr!" Her response--a fleeting "Wha?"--is one of many priceless moments in a comedy of subtle background reactions and self-delusions. In his office, Scott shows the off-camera interviewer his World's Best Boss coffee mug. "I think that pretty much sums it up. [Pause.] I found it at Spencer Gifts."

The pilot--largely a copy of the British one--is funny enough. But a better episode is an all-American one about diversity. After Scott offends the staff by doing Chris Rock's "black people and n______" stand-up routine, corporate holds a mandatory racial-sensitivity meeting. Scott responds by hosting his own session, in which he asks a Mexican-American staff member, "Is there a term besides Mexican that you prefer? Something less offensive?"

It's ironic that NBC's most original sitcom in years is a remake, but who cares? The Office is a daring, unflinching take on very American workplace tensions. And network TV needed this jolt like a cubicle jockey needs the morning's first cup of coffee. --By James Poniewozik