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Forever envying the British

I’ve always envied the British. The idea of hopping a train to zip around a comparatively small country to see my favorite soccer team is just part of it. They’ve produced far more than their fair share of the world’s finest academic work, music, comedy and drama. They have the BBC, a sober-minded, community-building outlet for all of those things and the world’s best news organization. Besides, who could see Jamie Oliver zipping around the streets of London and not feel the slightest twinge of envy?

But today, I just envy them because they’re able to keep their version of The Office on the air.

I made a point of waiting to see the U.S. version of the show before seeing the original BBC version. (It helped that we just got BBC America a few weeks ago.) In many respects, the BBC version is indeed better. The British do absurdity better than we do, and they have a knack for finding understated beauty in dreary situations. That comes from a colorful history in which their nation has made intellectual and societal progress through scores of maniacal monarchs and a couple of world wars whose toll we can barely contemplate. The Office is really a loving tribute to those who try to find some humor and a bit of solace in their daily drudgery.

Yes, so is Dilbert — we Americans get it right from time to time. And the people making the U.S. version of The Office got it right, losing very little in translation and adapting it nicely to American topics. The boss’ car is full of Filet-o-Fish wrappers, and a “friendly” basketball game ends up in a lot of macho posturing.

One criticism I read (I forget where) is that the character we know as Pam is too pretty in the U.S. version. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve joined the thousands of men who’ve decided that Jenna Fischer is our new TV girlfriend, but I don’t buy this. In today’s America, we’re trained to think beautiful women are the ones using various feats of engineering for better cleavage display at the newsstand. The Office offers a subtle satire of today’s tongue-dragging American men. Steve Carell’s obnoxious boss character buys into the Pamela Anderson standard of beauty and makes outrageous comments at Pam’s expense, as if assuming she pines for the magazine cover. The fact that Pam is pretty by any reasonable standard makes Carell’s cutting comments howlingly ridiculous.

Her appearance also makes it that much sadder than she remains with the Neanderthal guy even as she and Jim are so obviously smitthen with each other. And that storyline is done remarkably well in this show. A couple of episodes ago, she fell asleep with her head on his shoulder — a brilliant bit of subtle acting by John Krasinski shows that this little bit of comfort made his day. In the season finale, Pam and Jim share a lot of laughs as Dwight makes an idiot of himself, and then Pam is visibly jealous as Jim gets a date with the handbag saleswoman whose visit stirs up the whole office. (A handbag saleswoaman stirred up the whole office? Hey, they do the drudgery very well.)

In the British version, the equivalents of Pam and Jim eventually ended up together. But because no one’s watching The Office other than me and a couple of Anglophiles who aren’t hung up on the notion that the British version is better, we probably won’t get to see this happen.

And for that, I’m really mad at all of you. Well — that, and the possible cancellation of Arrested Development.

And so this is why I envy the British. Yes, they only make 12 episodes of their best shows, but they properly revere them and make DVDs out of them.

Think I’ll watch my Young Onces discs and go to sleep.

One thought on “Forever envying the British

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