They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
This week marks the premiere of Space Force, a comedy series inspired by the recent creation of a sixth branch of the US military, also called Space Force, which is focused on off-world missions. And it’s a show that reunites the talents of producer Greg Daniels and actor Steve Carell.
Daniels and Carell of course worked together for several years on the hit NBC sitcom The Office. Daniels adapted the show from the UK series of the same name and it debuted on March 23, 2005. The American version would run for nine seasons, becoming a cultural phenomenon and making household names out of Carell, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Craig Robinson, and Rainn Wilson.
Despite concluding seven years ago, The Office has maintained its massive popularity. The show rules the internet as an endless source for memes. Any comment that can even vaguely be interpreted as sexual is met with an enthusiastic exclamation of “That’s what she said!” For a while, it was the most-watched show on Netflix. And when the streaming giant announced The Office would be leaving their service at the end of 2020, they were bombarded by hordes of devastated fans, many of whom voiced their displeasure using gifs and quotes from the beloved show.
The Office consistently pops up on lists placing it among the greatest television shows of all time. Rolling Stone had the series at number 46 in its top 100 list, calling it “a groundbreaking and original comedy.” In The Guardian’s list of the 100 best TV shows of the 21st century, The Office came in at number 32. The show even made it to the final four of the One Perfect Binge here at FSR.
With the Daniels and Carell team officially back in action, we’ve decided now is a pretty fitting time to take a look back at the original critical response to the American version of The Office. For the purposes of this column, we’re going to limit ourselves to reviews regarding the show’s first season, most of which focus on the pilot.
Dana Stevens of Slate struggled to separate the remake from its UK origins, comparing the show to “waking up to find your beloved has been abducted, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style, and replaced by a random stranger.” Stevens praised Carell, who at the time was still being referred to as “a former correspondent on The Daily Show,” but found very little joy with the rest of the cast, which she described as a “gross miscalculation.” Stevens was particularly harsh towards Wilson, saying his Dwight “lacks a comic hook of his own.”
Like Stevens, Tom Shales believed the American version suffered from the quality and success of the original series. In his review for The Washington Post, Shales wrote that the show “fails to score a direct hit, settling instead for an amusing approximation.” With regards to casting, Shales took the exact opposite stance of Stevens, calling Carell “the central problem” and saying he “is simply not as good as was Ricky Gervais as the boss in the British prototype.” Of the supporting cast, Shales wrote that they are “nearly as good as their British equivalents.”
Belinda Acosta was impressed by Wilson’s performance but the praise in her Austin Chronicle review stopped there. Acosta felt carrying over the “original’s understated performance style” was a bad move that could ultimately harm its lasting power stateside. Wondering whether or not the show would be successful, Acosta wrote, “I’m not betting money on it.”
Writing for the Daily Mirror, Jane Simon was relieved that the American take wasn’t bad. Simon still wasn’t necessarily impressed, and like Stevens, she too compared it to a bodysnatchers moment. Ultimately Simon concluded, “There’s only one David Brent — and this isn’t him.
In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Tim Goodman wrote that the American take “is not only funny, it creatively pays homage to the original” and is “unique and audaciously clever in its own right.” Goodman praised Carell for a “wonderful performance,” crediting him with creating “a different kind of obnoxious oaf than Gervais’ David Brent.” Quality aside, Goodman did wonder whether or not the show would catch on with American audiences.
James Poniewozik placed The Office on his list of best TV shows of 2005 in a piece for Time. “Producer Greg Daniels created not a copy,” Poniewozik wrote, “but an interpretation that sends up distinctly American work conventions (the staff party at Chili’s, the mandated diversity seminar), with a tone that’s more satiric and less mordant.”
Matthew Gilbert praised NBC “for staying true to the downbeat spirit” of the original series in his review for the Boston Globe. Gilbert favorably compared The Office to Arrested Development and Scrubs, calling it “ambitious” and describing it as just the sort of facelift American television needs. Of the new cast of characters, Gilbert found the majority to be “promising” with Carell serving as the lone exception. “He’s just not layered enough to make us love to hate him on a weekly basis,” Gilbert wrote of the show’s star.
Knowing what we know now, it’s a bit odd to look back and see so many middling reviews regarding Carell and the show, but it’s hardly a surprise. The odds were heavily stacked against The Office, and by all accounts, it should have failed in America. It’s a dry, awkward show that lacks the one-liners and laugh-tracks Americans so desperately love. Whether or not Daniels and Carell can have repeat success with their latest series remains to be seen, but I can’t wait to tune in and find out.