Thanks to the magic of the Internets (via Golden Fiddle, but the link to the video is already down), I was able to watch the pilot episode of NBC's Americanized version of The Office (subtitled An American Workplace), and all I can say is it's freakin' bizarre. It's essentially the same as the first episode of the original, only with the names changed (David Brent is now Michael Scott, etc.) and the British colloquialisms replaced with their American counterparts ("He was rubbish" becomes "He sucked," for example). So it's not exactly a disaster, because the writing is still top-notch, but if you've seen the original, it's deeply unnerving. Steve Carell takes over Ricky Gervais's part as the boss who thinks he's God's gift to comedy, and he does a good job, though his funniest moments come when he is able to do his own thing and not merely mimic, however skillfully, Gervais's masterful performance. I laughed out loud, for example, when he put a stapler under his nose and did a Hitler impression, or said that the four people he most admires are "Bob Hope, Abraham Lincoln, Bono and God," but for much of the episode you're only reminded that this character has been done before, and better. Carell's rhythms in this episode belong more to Gervais than himself, and he looks faintly embarrassed to be doing what is, essentially, comedy karaoke. Anybody who's seen The Daily Show or Anchorman knows that Carell is a brilliant comedic performer in his own right, and I think the show's success will largely depend on his being allowed to develop Michael Scott into a character distinctly different from David Brent.
And that's the big problem facing this show: how to keep it from being just a karaoke version of the original. The other actors manage this with varying degrees of success. Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute (the Americanized Gareth) thankfully doesn't try to copy Mackenzie Crook's mannerisms, nor does he look like Crook (Wilson is more a younger, skinnier Milton Waddams than an emaciated weasel). But the character, as written, remains nearly identical to Gareth, in his humorless obsession with order, his pseudo-military background and his ineffectual asskissing. This character illustrates one of the problems with this version of The Office: instead of trying to create new characters that fit the broad templates of the original's, the writers have instead simply changed the names and shoehorned in actors who, no matter how good they are, simply remind us how much better suited the British actor were for those characters. The only one who doesn't seem completely out of place is Jenna Fischer as Pam Beesley, this show's version of Dawn. She looks like a cross between Maura Tierney and Mary Lynn Rajskub, and maintains the appropriate air of quiet desperation without aping Lucy Davis.
John Krasinski as Jim Halpert (the American version of Martin Freeman's Tim) mimics Freeman's timing and expressions to an uncomfortable degree, even goggling his eyes at the unseen documentarian just like Tim does. But Tim's lovelorn sadsackery, which worked so well when portrayed by the "Fisher Price doll"-headed Freeman, seems out of place on a guy who looks like the president of your local Phi Gamma Delta chapter. The whole concept, in fact, seems out of place in an American setting; the odd rhythms and awkward pauses that made the original great are an uncomfortable fit here. Warren Ellis has written a lot about how many modern superhero comics are "cover versions" of older comics, and how the most successful are the ones that give the audience what they want and expect from that particular superhero while adding new layers and developing new insights. The Office: An American Workplace faces the same challenge. If it continues to mimic Gervais's The Office, it's going to be more like some sad drunk singing "Sweet Caroline" at a karaoke bar than Jeff Buckley doing "Hallelujah." It needs to find its own stories, its own characters, its own rhythms, if it's going to be successful. Otherwise, what's the point? The original isn't exactly a lost cult classic: it won a Golden Globe, and the DVDs are everywhere. But if it strays too far from the original, then what's the point in calling it The Office in the first place? "Workplace comedy" isn't exactly such an original idea that you have to buy the rights to a British sitcom to do one. The writers, producers and actors need to figure out what makes this Office an "American workplace" if it's ever going to be more than a footnote in Ricky Gervais's Wikipedia entry.