History repeats itself, yes, but not as often as television does. Last year the NBC peacock stubbed a toe on an Americanized version of the British comedy hit "Coupling," all about sex. Redone for domestic consumption, the NBC version never quite clicked and was haunted by the ghost of the superior original.
Now NBC is trying again -- not trying to fail but to accomplish what it set out to do with "Coupling," this time with "The Office," a dry martini of a sitcom that attracted a small but loyal cult audience when it played here on cable's BBC America channel. NBC assumed that not that many people could have seen it and so ordered up a new American edition with different actors and writers.
The result is not the mishmash that "Coupling" turned out to be, but again the quality of the original show causes the remake to look dim, like when the copying machine is just about to give out. NBC has scheduled the premiere for tonight at 9:30, then moves the show to Tuesday nights at 9:30 starting next week.
Largely faithful in tone to the BBC series, which concentrates on the maddening banality of workplace-as-microcosm, NBC's "Office" still fails to score a direct hit, settling instead for an amusing approximation.
Actually, there's really already been an American version of "The Office," but an unofficial one, each episode of which is only a minute or 30 seconds long. Perhaps you've seen this series -- commercials for Burger King in which a little band of office workers try to survive the ineptitude of supervisors and the punishing tedium of their meaningless work.
There's a chubby guy who is hung up on delusions of self-importance -- to such a degree that he's thrilled to learn he ordered the same kind of burger that the boss did. The ads are perceptive and clever; unfortunately, there's no way to tell when one of them might pop up.
Back at "The Office,"' the central problem is the star of the show -- Steve Carell as boss Michael Scott is simply not as good as was Ricky Gervais as the boss in the British prototype. The differences are subtle. Both men are fatuous boobs with a nearly flawless ability to behave with stupefying insensitivity even when, say, delivering a lecture about sensitivity -- but Gervais would invest such a situation with his own whiny irony, whereas Carell tends to start over the top and stay there.
Scott's fat foot is permanently mounted in his mouth, but in the British version, as Gervais (a co-creator of the show) played him, the leader of the little band had a definite streak of pathos that made him something other than a fool for all seasons. Carell plays the boss as genuinely mean, not just a hapless scoundrel but a dirty rat.
Others in the cast are nearly as good as their British equivalents, including sweetie-pie Jenna Fischer as wistful Pam, the office receptionist who dares now and then to dream of escape from this drably suffocating environment, and two competing salesmen, John Krasinski as the coolly flippant Jim and Rainn Wilson as the slimy little Dwight.
The boss is the boss because his ineptitude dwarfs all the others.' Gathering the staff to observe "Diversity Day" as a morale booster, the clueless boob suggests this exercise: "Everybody say a race that you are attracted to sexually."
Alas, the consummate clod rarely realizes how wrongheaded his brainstorms manage to be. Of his role as a manager, he declares, "I'm a friend first and the boss second. And an entertainer third." Oh yes, one of his most painfully embarrassing fantasies is the absurd notion that he is funny, that people go wild with delight at his impressions of, say, Moe Howard and Adolf Hitler.
His idea of a practical joke is to accuse poor Pam of stealing Post-it notes and firing her on the spot -- then, once she's in tears, revealing it's all a hoax. He launches "Diversity Day" by doing a series of Chris Rock jokes, not realizing that context is everything; what's funny when Rock says it can be stupidly offensive when stolen by Scott.
And so it goes at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Supply Co., where feelings are needlessly hurt, lamebrained schemes thrive, and genuinely good ideas are shot down by the boss because he failed to think of them first. The workers are resigned to a world not only imperfect but unfair, trying their best to ignore each day's idiotic indignities and their boss's delusions of competence.
Any resemblance between this fictitious office and thousands of real ones is painfully accurate. Unfortunately, the resemblance of the American "Office" to the original British version isn't quite accurate enough.
The Office (30 minutes) will be shown tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4. Beginning next week it will move to Tuesdays at 9:30.