Given what’s been lost in translation pureeing British hits for American consumption, NBC can at least breathe a sigh of relief that “The Office” isn’t another “Coupling.” Maintaining some of the off-kilter humor, this half-hour adopts a broader stance likely to annoy the original’s small core of die-hard fans, but the greater challenge will be winning over unfamiliar viewers with a show whose comedic emphasis primarily hinges on painfully awkward moments. Then again, merely sustaining “Scrubs'” sparse lead-in on Tuesdays, after a post-“The Apprentice” preview, would at this point represent progress.
Steve Carell replaces star-producer Ricky Gervais (also part of this creative team) as the wisecracking manager of paper supply company Dunder Mifflin, whose attempted one-of-the-guys jocularity and complete tin ear is captured in all its wince-inducing glory by a documentary crew. Trying to defuse rumors about corporate layoffs, for example, he tells receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer) that she’s been fired, then tries to make a big gag of it once she collapses into tears.
The camera’s dutiful eye captures plenty of other little intrigues at Dunder Mifflin, from the crush that sales rep Jim (John Krasinski) has on Pam to the idiosyncrasies of Dwight (Rainn Wilson), who Jim delights in tormenting through elaborate practical jokes.
The well-traveled Carell is a very talented guy, from “The Daily Show” to “Anchorman,” but understatement and restraint are hardly his forte. As a consequence, he plays Michael bigger, and therefore harder to endure, than Gervais did — a fine line that’s significant in such a delicately balanced comedy.
On the plus side, the remainder of the cast refreshingly looks like real people, and some moments in the second and third episodes are extremely funny. That includes “diversity day” training — which Michael disastrously tries to take over, suggesting that people tack various racial descriptions to their foreheads as part of the exercise — and the arrival of a “hot girl” (guest star Amy Adams) whose mere presence throws the office into chaos.
Although comedy doesn’t always travel particularly well, “King of the Hill’s” Greg Daniels has pretty deftly adjusted the show’s ingredients to achieve a more American flavor. Moreover, the idea of faceless, unfeeling corporations and lame-brained middle managers certainly isn’t foreign to many a U.S. resident, just as Jim’s longing looks at Pam, who has a dim-witted boyfriend, has the identifiable ache of an unspoken office crush.
For all its plusses, though, the prevailing sensibility here seems to cry out for the less exacting confines of cable, where “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” uncomfortable exchanges can survive and even thrive. And while NBC’s ratings expectations have diminished, they haven’t withered to the kind of niche that would benefit “The Office” — a show with a water cooler whose zaniness, at least so far, doesn’t ascend to the heights of a water-cooler show.