Is NBC's The Office Too Prickly for Primetime?

010806 article classics Is NBC's The Office Too Prickly for Primetime?“I’m breaking down in all kinds of stress-related illnesses,” confessed Greg Daniels, the 41-year-old executive producer behind NBC’s The Office: An American Workplace, the forthcoming remanufactured British comedy starring former Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell. “Just because it’s something I want so badly to work, because it’s something that I would want to watch.”

Though Mr. Daniels confessed that he was exaggerating about the work-related illnesses, he would’ve been justified in having a bout of hives or acid reflux. Devotees of the original BBC version of The Office–which aired in 2004 and 2005 on cable on BBC America–have reflexively disdained the idea of an American edition of the deadpan workplace faux-documentary.

And Mr. Daniels’ version has to appease not only the hard-core fans, currently wearing out season two of the BBC version in their DVD players, but millions of unwitting Nielsen viewers accustomed to the laugh-track cues of Everybody Loves Raymond.

With six episodes completed, Mr. Daniels’ direction is now clear: NBC’s version is a weird, airless show, unusually faithful to the original created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and therefore wildly experimental for American network TV.

NBC is sneaking it out on Thursday night, March 24, wedged between reruns of The Apprentice and Will and Grace.

“From the beginning, we talked about getting on the air in a place where they don’t need a lot of ratings,” admitted Mr. Daniels, a former writer for The Simpsons and King of the Hill. “Even now we keep saying, ‘Don’t expect it to be a hit!’”

But that’s exactly what NBC needs right now, following its post-Friends fall to third place among the networks. So it’s fair to wonder just what NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly was thinking when he bought a gray-toned, single-camera, mock-documentary series starring a shamelessly smarmy boss character who makes the nattering neurotics of Seinfeld look like inspirational characters from Good Times

The second episode, “Diversity Day,” is the first one shot from an original American script. It’s the kind of thing that would kill on Comedy Central, but might kill a little too much on NBC: When the hyper-slick and smarmy Michael Scott, played by Mr. Carell, is humiliated by a professional diversity trainer, he decides to illustrate his open-mindedness by holding his own diversity session. His method is to tape index cards to the heads of everyone in the office, each with a different race or creed written on it (black, Jamaican, Jewish, to name a few).

He then asks them to figure out who they are based on how co-workers treat them.

Before long, Mr. Carell is doing a jaw-droppingly misguided parody of an Indian convenience-store clerk as he tries to relate to the Indian employee. When she smacks him in the face and skulks off, he’s left dumbfounded before a room of silent, morose employees. With no canned laughter, no music and just a shaky handheld camera trained on his confused expression, it’s a crushing TV moment that trumps the worst feel-bad incidents on American Idol.

“You’ll notice I didn’t have anyone be an Arab,” the boss confides in one of the show’s trademark documentary cutaways. “I just thought it would be too explosive.

“No pun intended,” he adds, with a painful-to-watch wink.

It’s very funny. The effect is vaguely reminiscent of the long, awkward pauses that Norman Lear once shot on All in the Family as Archie Bunker was confronted with his own bigotry. Only this time, it’s also an embarrassing gaffe caught on video. The camera, in effect, defines the self-conscious humor: Because Mr. Carell’s character seems only dimly aware of what has just happened, the recognition of shame—and the nervous laughter—is left to the viewer.

“One of the things we’re desperately trying to do is be grounded in some reality,” said Ben Silverman, the 34-year-old president of Reveille LCC, which imported and produced the show for NBC. “And by ‘reality,’ I don’t mean reality television—I mean truthfulness. And I think people are racist, people are un-P.C. while communicating in P.C. language, people are in love with the wrong person, people are overweight, people aren’t all beautiful. And I think the audience—at least Greg and I believe—wants to be communicated to in that way.”

That’s a huge bet considering that the flagship program on NBC right now is The Apprentice, a reality-free game-show spectacle featuring the impossible fiction of Donald Trump’s hair. Not only that, but Mr. Silverman’s first whack at a Lear-style renaissance of British imports, Coupling, was a stupendous flop for NBC.

But Mr. Silverman, Mr. Daniels and the NBC brass are betting that those who saw the BBC America version of The Office—or rented it on DVD—will help lay the foundation for a network hit. According to BBC America, about two million American viewers watched the original British show across the two seasons it aired on cable. “The rabid base is hopefully going to be our core,” said Mr. Daniels.

But he added later, “I think it has the potential to be bigger than just the cable audience, because it’s about real life and it relates to a lot of people. But it’s got that style that was first on cable.”

While the characters have different names than those in the BBC version, the basic story line remains the same: A hapless boss attempts to save his department from layoffs, all the while inadvertently doing everything possible to keep the company in trouble.

The pilot episode was directed scene-for-scene from the original British script. Invariably, that has had an unpleasant echo effect for fans who love the original. When an illegal downloadable copy hit the Internet, it yielded pages of critical reactions from fans.

“That’s so incredibly lame,” wrote one viewer. “Reminds me of the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho in the 90’s.”

“Wow, maybe the original is coloring my expectations, but this is really, truly flat and unfunny,” wrote another critic.

It only proved to some that NBC wasn’t fit to produce a sophisticated comedy: “If you watch network TV you need to shoot yourself,” one viewer wrote.

“The English show is a wonderful gem, and it’s done,” responded Mr. Daniels. “And we’re all doing it out of love of the English show. We have to get Americans to have that kind of thing, too …. I think for the deep, deep fan of the English show, they’re not going to really start enjoying it until after the pilot.”

Whether he was a fan of the original or not, NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker warmed to Mr. Daniels’ version only after subsequent episodes were shot.

“I think he’s turned,” said Mr. Silverman. “I think initially he’s like, ‘What is this show?’ It’s a little different—maybe I’m reading into it, but it seems to me he’s a big fan of it now.”

“I think when we started writing our own scripts, he got more into it,” added Mr. Daniels.

During the January TV press tour in Los Angeles, Mr. Zucker compared the show’s prospects to those of Seinfeld.

“When Jeff Zucker connects it to Seinfeld, he’s connecting it to the beginning of Seinfeld,” observed Mr. Daniels. “It was a weird show, and when it started off a lot of people didn’t get it and it took a while. But there was always a little group that did get it and started telling their friends.”

Mr. Daniels also pointed out that it wasn’t so much the content that would challenge audiences, but the format, which he said in the end wasn’t really different from The Simpsons.

“It’s a single-camera comedy without a laugh track,” said Mr. Daniels. “That’s what animation is.”

In fact, NBC’s The Office occasionally feels like a live-action version of the iconic Matt Groening show, with its layered jokes, playful skewering of American clichés and variety of elastic characters. That’s not a coincidence: Ricky Gervais, the star of the British series, served as an executive producer on NBC’s version and advised Mr. Silverman to hire Mr. Daniels based on his work on The Simpsons.

Both Mr. Daniels and Mr. Gervais recognized that Michael Scott shares a crucial trait with Homer Simpson.

“He is resistant to learning,” observed Mr. Daniels. The Michael Scott character “could have learned after the pilot, but he was blind to it because it said so much about how his life wasn’t going the way he wanted it to …. Homer doesn’t learn. Isn’t that wonderful for comedy? A lack of self-knowledge.”

Mr. Daniels has plenty of people supporting his effort to make the show work—especially other TV writers, who hope Mr. Daniels’ success will expand the creative terrain for scripted shows on broadcast TV.

“Even the writers I couldn’t hire, they would say to me afterward, ‘Please make it work!” said Mr. Daniels. “Just so this kind of comedy could be on the air and other people will try and imitate it or something. People are sick of the old form.”

As it happens, a handful of writers actually appear as cast members in the first few episodes, including Larry Wilmore, the creator of The Bernie Mac Show, who plays the beleaguered black diversity trainer. The trainer, named Mr. Brown, quietly suffers Mr. Carell’s spastic and horrifying renditions of a Chris Rock standup routine, which ends with Mr. Carell screaming the N-word over and over again (casually bleeped out by censors, à la Comedy Central).

While the show was in production, General Electric, which owns the network, was giving the writers plenty of material to work with. The company required the cast to attend a sexual-harassment seminar, at which Mr. Daniels and his writers took copious notes.

“So they played videos of what not to do, and there was a lawyer leading it, and the entire time we were just taking notes, going, ‘Oh, yeah—this is going to be good.’”

But suddenly, the material is flowing in the other direction: General Electric decided to splice scenes from “Diversity Day” into its own diversity-training videos.

“So even if the show doesn’t go,” said Mr. Daniels, “at least we got some new material for those harassment seminars.”