According to legend, in Denmark during World War II, border guards would screen homecoming Danes by making them say aloud the name of the Danish dessert rødgrød med fløde—berry pudding with cream. (To approximate the sound of these words, say them while gargling and whistling.) Apparently, even the craftiest Danish-seeming German infiltrator could not pass this simple test. The Danish ear recognized its own.
I was reminded of this shibboleth recently while watching two foreign sitcoms patterned on the exultantly depressing hit BBC comedy The Office—a mockumentary chronicle of the drudgery, rivalries, and wan romances in an office headed by a blowhard slacker boss. The show, which was created in 2001 by Ricky Gervais (who plays the boss, David Brent) and Stephen Merchant, has been exported to 80 countries (as-is or dubbed) and has proved popular in most of them, including this one, where it ran on BBC America.
In France, however, the dubbed version sank like a lead ballon when it aired two years ago. But when a BBC-licensed French remake, Le Bureau, debuted on French television last month—starring the sly, puffy-faced French comedian François Berléand as the useless Gilles Triquet—critics hailed it as a succès fou. Meanwhile, a German imitator, Stromberg, in which the boss is a high-strung, homophobic alcoholic, won the German Comedy Prize's best actor award last winter for its director and star, Christoph Maria Herbst.
Why, I wondered, had the French and the Germans bothered to overhaul Gervais' comedy? For that matter, why had we? In 2004, Gervais helped midwife the Emmy-winning American take on The Office, which has made a countrywide anti-hero of Steve Carell, who plays bumbling boss Michael Scott. Why couldn't the original stand as a symbolic global office?
In all frankness, I thought I knew the answer. The American Office sends up the drab pageantry of the American cubicle ghetto—faithfully rendering what Conrad would have called "the peculiar blackness of that experience." Presumably, the British version does the same. The French and Germans, I suspected, wanted the "peculiar blackness" of their own working day similarly assaulted. Knowing what's unbearable about your owncountry's workplace is like knowing how to say rødgrød med fløde: a nontransferable birthright.
To the outrage of many of my British friends, I find the American version superior to its British relative. It's not that I don't likethe U.K. Office, I just don't like it as much. It doesn't reflect the reality of any U.S. workplace I know. The sexism is too blatant and the inside jokes are often too, well, inside. (The DVD of the British series decodes many of these allusions: "Charlie Dimmock," in case you didn't know, is the hostess of a BBC garden show; the chant "Oggie, Oggie, Oggie, Oi, Oi, Oi!" has to do with Cornish tin miners or West Country rugby teams, depending on whom you ask.)
But, more subtly, the base-line mood of David Brent's workplace—resignation mingled with self-loathing—is unrecognizably alien to our (well, my) sensibility. In the American office, passivity mingles with rueful hopefulness: An American always believes there's something to look forward to. A Brit does not, and finds humor in that hopelessness. What truths, I wondered, might Le Bureau and Stromberg reveal about the French and German professional milieus?
The Russians like to say that a fish rots from the head, and the head of each of these offices fails in his own way. Each of them has a brown-noser sidekick—Gareth in the United Kingdom, Dwight in the United States, Joël in France, and Bert (who is derisively nicknamed "Ernie") in Germany; but each Boy Friday understands that the boss rewards applause, not industry. David Brent, Gilles Triquet, and Bernd Stromberg care only about amusing their troops. Not only do they exhibit no interest in the work that their offices are supposed to be doing, they get fed up when their employees focus on the job instead of on their antics. In Le Bureau, the only person ever visibly working is an African cleaner, who wears a vivid dashiki and saunters about the office wiping windows, shaking her head in cartoonish consternation.
But to an American viewer, a boss who fails to project at least an outward appearance of seriousness would not be credible. And, perhaps because every American thinks he or she can be the boss one day, given the right circumstances, we tend to identify with our employers. By American subconscious logic, even a stooge must have the possibility of professional growth, because who knows—one day we may be that stooge. Which may explain why Michael Scott at least tries to seem productive—as when he uses a company cruise as an occasion to give a misguided motivational lecture. His female supervisor, Jan, not only humors him (skeptically), she has been known to fool around with him when her guard is down.
Here we touch on another litmus test of international taste: romance. The bosses in all four variants have unstellar love lives. Brent and Triquet are unmarried with no visible admirers, though Triquet projects the air of a devilish former ladies' man (a cactus in the form of a cock and balls perches on his desk). Stromberg is unhappily married to a shrew who brings her Alzheimer's-afflicted father to the office. "Family and the workplace, they go together like nitro and glycerin," Stromberg says glumly; "like Baader and Meinhof. Bring them together … and kapow!" Later he feeds his addled in-law a banana. Apparently, the Germans like their rødgrød med fløde with a bitter sprinkling of schadenfreude on top.
But Americans have more of a sweet tooth. Michael Scott's single status is presented with sympathy. His childhood goal, we learned in a recent episode, was to "get married and have 100 kids, so I can have 100 friends, and no one can say 'no' to being my friend." And the writers have also granted Michael a bit of ego-sparing female attention. In last season's closer, Michael accidentally ended up on a double date—that is, on a date with two women—who seemed open (if warily) to his blundering charms.
But the heart of all but the German Office s is not the head man's love life, but the submerged passion between the engaged receptionist (Dawn/Pam/Laeti) and an appealing young drone (Tim/Jim/Paul) who doesn't have the guts to unseat her fiance. If you are fond of the British Office, you will feel warmly about Dawn and Tim, the doughy-faced, out-of-shape pair who pine for one another. In the American show, Pam and Jim are the equivalents, but, having been raised on a healthier diet than Ribena and crisps, they are far more appetizing and their love affair progresses with more conviction. In the French version, Laeti and Paul are played by gorgeous, dark-haired, full-lipped young actors who could be the incestuous brother and sister in Bertolucci's The Dreamers. But in Stromberg, erotic tension has been thrown out the door: Blond Tanja and goofy Ulf are actually dating and often duck under their desks for groping sessions. In one scene, Ulf lays his head in Tanja's lap and pulls grapes with his mouth from a cluster above his head.
Watching all four versions back-to-back is not only a strangely unmooring experience—like seeing the film Groundhog Day over and over—it's a crash course in national identity. And if any conjecture could be made about the cultural differences that these subtly contrasting programs reveal, it might be this one: These days, Germans and Americans are doing much of their living in and around their offices, while the Brits and French continue to live outside of them. Here, in broad strokes, are the chief differences. In the British version, nobody is working, nobody has a happy relationship, everyone looks terrible, and everybody is depressed. In the French version, nobody is working but even the idiots look good, and everybody seems possessed of an intriguing private life. In the German version, actual work is visibly being done, most of the staff is coupled up, and the workers never stop eating and drinking—treating the office like a kitchen with desks. Stromberg continually calls his staff "Kinder," or "children," further blurring the line between Kinder, Computer, and Küche.
While Michael Scott also sometimes calls his American office a "family," his staff knows he's the kid brother, not the father, and that if there's to be any Kinder in their lives, they're going to have to get busy with one of their fellow prairie dogs, because really—who else are they likely to meet, given the stretching parameters of the U.S. working day? We may still talk of "working like a dog," but the Russians lately have coined the expression, "to work like an American," reflecting our 24/7 on-call mentality. These days, for Americans, "home office" is not just a place, it's a state of mind. And it's perfectly reflected by our version of this global sitcom—in which work is ostensibly cared about (though skimped on), romantic tension simmers on numerous fronts, and the whole enterprise is gently inflated by a mood of eventual, possible progress in work and love—like a bowl of dough that could have used a little more yeast but is doing its best to rise. Vive la différence.