NBC’s sitcom The Office is heralded as one of today’s most iconic shows. Launching the careers of several cast members including John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and Ed Helms, the comedy catapulted actor Steve Carell into superstardom.
Despite the sitcom’s current notoriety, the Americanized version of the BBC comedy was originally panned by critics with Carell taking a lot of the flak.
‘The Office’ goes to America
Airing from 2001 to 2003, The Office debuted on BBC from creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Implementing the ‘mockumentary’ style which many felt suited British audiences, some were skeptical when the show was brought over to the United States. Show producers decided to replicate the original show for the NBC pilot.
“The pilot was pretty much word-for-word the British show, which I know we weren’t all super excited about,” John Krasinski (who played Jim Halpert) told Andy Greene for his book The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s. “But we could understand why we had to do it to see how it stacked up against the other show.”
Gervais wasn’t a fan of the idea either, thinking the American version should have its own voice. “I thought it was odd they just redid our pilot,” he said. “I don’t know why they did that. I thought there was no point to it. It got better when they went on their own.”
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Steve Carell takes a hit in the pilot
When The Office debuted in March 2005, the pilot included a scene where Michael Scott (Carell) pretends to fire Dunder Mifflin’s receptionist Pam Beesly (played by Jenna Fischer). The setup was a replica of the British show, but ended up falling flat.
“I watched the pilot and I really didn’t like it,” critic Alan Sepinwall told Greene. “I had known [showrunner] Greg [Daniels] a long time by that point and he said ‘Alan, what do you think?’ I said, ‘Greg, I don’t know. The moment when Michael fires Pam, I really kind of hated him.’”
Many reviews agreed with Sepinwall, giving Carell’s performance low marks. “The first mistake NBC made was giving the Brent role to Steve Carell,” The Kansas City Star wrote. “He was a riot on The Daily Show but ill-suited for this part… Here, Carell crawls under your skin.”
“There’s a menace to Carell’s character that I didn’t want to feel, a sociopathic, beady-eyed quality that’s too cartoon, and that gives the show a colder edge,” a reviewer from the Los Angeles Times commented.
A widespread opinion from critics was that Carell could not carry the show as the star. “The unsurmountable problem for this version may prove to be Carell himself,” the USA Today noted. “He’s an amazing sketch comic, but he comes across as an actor doing a bit, not a person running an office. Worse, he makes the character too one-dimensionally unsympathetic.”
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Ricky Gervais’ spot-on prediction
After the icy reception of the pilot, The Office producers were a bit discouraged. Yet Gervais had been down this road with the British version and knew they would work out the kinks.
“I remember they tested it and Greg Daniels sent me a disappointed email saying, ‘It scored very low,’” Gervais recalled. “I wrote back, ‘Congratulations! The [UK] Office tied with women’s bowling for the lowest score ever and we didn’t change a thing.’”
Advising Daniels to stay the course, Gervais encouraged the team in the States to expect resistance when launching something new.
“I said to him. ‘That’s a good sign. Anything to do with innovation suffers on the test score because people go, ‘That’s not what I expected.’ They mark it down because it’s not like the sitcom they thought it was going to be. You can’t let that stop you.’”
Turns out Gervais was right. The Office ran for nine seasons and holds a proud place in television history, and Carell turned Michael Scott into one of sitcom’s most iconic characters.
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