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The Office business 

British and now American sitcom phenomenon The Office is at the top of Lindsay McCarney’s TV and DVD chart.

“At Dunder-Mifflin Scranton, we’re not just in the paper business—we’re in the people business.”

So begins The Faces of Scranton, a short video made by Dunder-Mifflin manager Michael Scott. The film enjoyed its debut during Scott’s first meeting with the company’s new chief financial officer. Scott edited the film on his Mac. He was thinking about entering it in some festivals, but probably won’t. “Not what this is about,” he says.

Fans of NBC’s The Office may have caught The Faces of Scranton when it first aired during the sitcom’s Valentine’s Day episode last year, or while making their way through the season-two box-set that was released this fall. After all, Michael Scott isn’t just any deluded office manager—he’s a deluded office manager played by Steve Carell.

Back before becoming an NBC sitcom, The Office was an acclaimed BBC mockumentary set in small-town England.

The original Office ran less than eight hours, consisting of 12 half-hour episodes and two Christmas specials. It seems more like a miniseries, or a particularly long movie, than the kind of sitcom that North American audiences expect. The brain trust behind the series, frequent collaborators Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, made a deliberate decision to keep the series short and sweet. And, since the entire series was created, written and directed by the same two men, its tone remains consistent throughout.

Even in North America, the British Office was a favourite of viewers and critics. It won two Golden Globes and received two Emmy nominations. The show didn’t really appear to need remaking since it was already pretty well made to begin with.

How, then, has The Office’s transition from self-contained eight-hour series to major-network American sitcom gone?

Remarkably well. The secret to the American Office’s success lies in the dynamic hinted at by Faces of Scranton—this Office is a “people business.” With the help of his team of writers, series head Greg Daniels (who wrote for The Simpsons from 1993 until ’96, and co-created King of the Hill) has taken pains to flesh out The Office’s extensive cast of supporting characters. More than a dozen workers fill the cubicles, desks and warehouse of the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin and each is given quirks and a backstory.

True, the American Office fluctuates in quality more than its British forebear. Season three’s episodes have been all over the map: One episode in particular, “The Coup,” featured Michael’s underling Dwight (Rainn Wilson) making a futile bid for his boss’s job, and the shift in tone was more weird than funny. The British Office had less space in which to screw up—the American Office will air episode 38 this Thursday and the show is still going strong.

And while the American Office is more inconsistent, the extra time it has been given to nurture its secondary players has allowed it to surpass the British Office in character development. The British series chose to focus tightly on its four main players, David (Gervais), Tim (Martin Freeman), Dawn (Lucy Davis) and Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), leaving the many co-workers that surrounded them to function primarily as space-fillers.

NBC’s commercials for The Office usually promote the show’s likeable, star-crossed protagonists, best friends Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer), and while their chemistry is undeniably one of the show’s big draws, it’s ultimately not them who keep me coming back to The Office for more. It’s the elaborate cast of supporting characters that surrounds them—from uptight accountant Angela (Angela Kinsey) and sales person Stanley (Leslie David Baker) to Phyllis (Phyllis Smith), who is happily engaged to refrigerator magnate Bob Vance.

At the end of The Faces of Scranton, Michael Scott says he hopes his video gave those watching a taste of “what it’s like…to try on Phyllis’s pants.”

Which, really, is what The Office lets its viewers do each week.

The Office Christmas special, directed by Harold Ramis, Thursday, December 14 at 9pm on NBC and 10pm on Global.

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