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Tuned In: British 'Office' crosses the pond, but will it work?

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Want a glimpse of the possible future of prime-time television? Just watch BBC America. The digital cable channel airs several series that are about to be redeveloped for American networks. Perhaps the best is "The Office," which premieres at 10:20 p.m. tomorrow on BBC America (Channel 162 on AT&T, 109 on Adelphia, 423 on Armstrong).

The 12-episode series is a mock documentary about the world's worst office manager, David Brent (Ricky Gervais, the show's co-writer/director), and the childish interoffice bickering of his staff at a paper company.

"I'm a friend first, a boss second and probably an entertainer third," Brent says, speaking directly to the camera. Later, he threatens to fire secretary Dawn (Lucy Davis), accusing her of stealing a stapler. Then he tells her it's a joke.

"You wanker," she says. "Such a sad little man."

Indeed he is, and so is Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), the "team leader" who wants to be taken seriously but behaves so desperately he's a joke.

"I'm the team leader, I should know first," he tells Brent while standing in front of the staff at a meeting. "Very quickly, just whisper it to me."

Ash Atalla, producer of "The Office," said he chose the setting because it's a shared experience.

"I don't think there is anyone ... who hasn't gone through an office at some point in their career, and with shows like 'Ally McBeal,' they tend to be quite glamorous offices," Atalla said at a BBC America press conference earlier this month. "And there was nobody making a program about [lousy] offices and people who are trapped in crappy jobs, earning bad money. This is a show for those people, which is sort of all of us in a way, and the rubbish that you do to pass 9 to 5 every day."

The David Brent character embodies the most small-minded boss imaginable.

"His whole life revolves around crappy paper merchants, but in his mind, he's running IBM or something like that," Atalla said. "That's a trait of a lot of people who have very little power, you think you're better than you are."

The show is filmed documentary-style, in part because it was quicker, but producers ultimately stuck with the format.

"These characters are aware that they are being filmed. ... We wanted the documentary and the way that we direct the show to add to the reality of the situation," Atalla said. "I think the whole reason 'The Office' has gone boom in England is because people think it's about their office."

Now the question is whether "The Office" will be a hit after it gets Americanized. Sarah Timberman, president of Universal Television, said she intends to make the American version true to the original.

"There's a subtlety to it and something that feels universal in terms of people who work in any sort of a company or organization and have to work out different relationships with their colleagues," she said. "I don't see anything particularly British about it."

Universal is about to close its deal to buy "The Office" and in turn sell an American network on the series, but other British shows are already in development for American networks' fall schedules. It's not a new phenomenon -- "Sanford and Son" and "All in the Family" were based on Britcoms -- but as American networks and studios grow more desperate for new comedy hits in an era of few popular comedies, they're once again looking across the pond.

Their success Americanizing European reality shows, including "Survivor" and "Big Brother," probably encourages the overseas shopping spree.

"Unlike most of the reality shows, 'The Office' is a very, very different thing to reformat," said Paul Lee, CEO of BBC America. "It'll be very interesting to see if they go for it, whether they try to construct a character as fascinatingly, brutally bizarre as [David Brent] at the center of it."

Last season, The WB tried to Americanize "The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star" (renaming it "My Guide to Becoming a Rock Star"), which quickly failed in the ratings.

"It didn't work," said WB Entertainment president Jordan Levin, "but it had this very specific pace and feel that was somewhat akin to independent British cinema."

Nina Tassler, senior vice president of drama development at CBS, said her network was pitched an Americanized version of "Monarch of the Glen," which airs on BBC America. CBS passed, but Tassler sees value in taking cues from some British hits.

"It gives you a little bit of a sneak preview of how well a show can do," she said. "It gives you a rare vantage point."

CBS is developing an American version of the Brit hit "Manchild," often described as a "Sex and the City" about men in their 50s. Wendi Goldstein, senior vice president of comedy development for CBS, said seeing a completed British show gives her a shortcut in doing her job.

"When I hear a pitch, it's all playing in my head. I've cast it in my head, I've written it in my head, but when you get the script, it may or may not be good," she said. "Even though it's a different version of it, you can see it in its finished forms. It gives you a much better sense of if it might work."

Goldstein said "Manchild" appealed to her because it felt modern and unlike other programs on American TV.

"Grown men talking to each other about emotions and sexuality is not something I'm seeing on the air right now," she said. As is the case with all imported series concepts, changes are made. Goldstein said the men in the American "Manchild" will be in their 40s instead of their 50s, and it will likely be set in Los Angeles.

ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne said her network is developing an American version of "Cutting It," a prime-time soap about three sisters who own and run a beauty parlor. NBC has an American version of "Coupling" (10 p.m. Sundays on BBC America), about three young male and three young female friends, which London newspapers dubbed a British version of "Friends."

"If you try to emulate 'Friends,' you'll lose," said NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker. "It was just a comedy show we were attracted to. We'll Americanize it just a little bit in terms of words and things like that, but its basic ideas are the same."

NBC is also working on an American version of "The Kumars," about an Indian family that hosts a talk show.

"We've moved it to the United States and made it an Hispanic family called 'The Ortegas,' " Zucker said.

Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow said remaking Britcoms is tricky business. Fox tried with "Holding the Baby" a few seasons back, which was a dud. Grushow pointed to "The Kumars" as a tricky translation.

"The very fact that they're taking a show that is highly original and featured an Indian cast and making the family Latino speaks to the challenge," Grushow said. "Clearly they don't feel like the Indian approach is the right approach here in the United States, and they want to make a change. That having been said, for me as a viewer, that was one of the most interesting aspects of the original show."

Whether any of these British series in development actually air on American TV won't be known until the networks unveil their fall schedules in May. Until then, BBC America offers a sneak peek at several prototypes.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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