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.
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