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Successful adaptation of U.K. comedy series finally gets pink slip

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Ed Helms as Andy Bernard

COLLEEN HAYES/NBC Enlarge Image

Ed Helms as Andy Bernard

At first glance, it seemed like a pretty bad idea.

Making a U.S.-network adaptation of the beloved BBC comedy The Office -- a short-run series (only 15 episodes were produced) whose squirm-inducing brilliance was the product of the unique comic vision of creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant -- was an endeavour with very limited chance of succeeding.

Hollywood, after all, has had a rather checkered history when it comes to creating American versions of British TV shows. And the better the Brit original, it seems, the worse the U.S.-produced spinoff usually turns out to be.

Sure, there have been successes, like the adaptations of Till Death Us Do Part into All in the Family, Steptoe and Son into Sanford and Son and Man About the House into Three's Company, but for every winning across-the-pond spinoff, there has been a handful of New World losers along the lines of Coupling, Men Behaving Badly, Prime Suspect and, heaven forbid, Payne and Amanda's (both of which were short-lived attempts to re-create Fawlty Towers).

The track record is so laughably bad, in fact, that there's actually a series (the clever Showtime-cable comedy Episodes, starring Friends alumnus Matt LeBlanc) that lampoons Hollywood's ham-handed approach to importing and adapting Britcoms. It's funny because it is, on many levels, true.

The original Brit version of The Office ran for only two seasons, and then Gervais and Merchant shuttered the Wernham Hogg plant and moved on to other projects. If NBC's spinoff turned out to be successful beyond its initial six-episode run, its writers would be expected to churn out more scripts per season (22) than Gervais and Merchant did for their entire series.

The smart money was on a disastrous outcome. But then something happened. The U.S. version's producer, Greg Daniels, whose previous TV success was in animated comedies (The Simpsons, King of the Hill), did a remarkable job of casting the new NBC project.

Steve Carell, fresh off a five-year stint as a fake-news correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, was hired to play Michael Scott, the office manager at the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company's branch in Scranton, Pa.

And he did what nobody thought was possible: he immediately made the role originated by Gervais (as Wernham Hogg's creepy Slough-branch boss, David Brent) his own, and gained the respect of even the Brit version's most staunch defenders.

Carell, as Scott, offered a more comfortably direct form of stupidity than the skin-crawly type exhibited by Brent, and because of that, he created a character more palatable to viewers for the long run.

Daniels and company surrounded Carell with a great supporting cast, led by Rainn Wilson as hyper-efficiently inept second-in-command Dwight Schrute, and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer as headed-for-romance officemates Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly. Over time, many others in the ensemble cast would be elevated to equal-player status.

But it was Carell who drove NBC's version of The Office, and by the time he departed the series after Season 7, most of its momentum -- both creative and commercial -- had been lost. The diminished importance of the series as a ratings/revenue driver is evident in the fact it's been a couple of seasons since a Canadian network saw fit to simulcast it in this country.

Most observers believe it would have been wise to end the series a couple of years ago with Michael Scott's departure, but ratings-starved NBC -- which has very little success launching new comedies in recent years -- simply could not afford to shut down a series that was still producing a positive bottom line.

And now, as The Office bids farewell with a super-sized 75-minute finale (Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC), it's a goodbye that not all that many people will even notice. The episode, in which it has been widely reported that Carell will make at least a cameo appearance, will involve the Dunder Mifflin gang gathering at a local tavern to watch the PBS broadcast of the documentary whose filming they've been part of for the past nine years.

It's a smart way to bring closure to the series, and those who tune in the finale will likely be well rewarded for the effort. It won't be remembered as one of TV's greatest-ever sitcoms, but the U.S. version of The Office accomplished something pretty spectacular just by being pretty darned good.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 G4

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