by Emily Lever
The first thing you notice when watching Le bureau, the French version of The Office, is that compared with its Anglophone predecessors, everyone is good-looking. Everyone but the boss, that is; it wouldn’t work for him to be hot, since it might give him a soupçon of charm. Another thing gained in translation: the very British “Wernham Hogg” isn’t changed to another pair of surnames like Dunder Mifflin—richly evocative, with its echoes of “blunder” and “piffle”—but to a bland acronym, Cogirep. As a testament to how faithful this name is to French corporate culture, there exists a company in France named . . . Logirep. The fictional company is a notch worse than its real-life mirror, however; Logirep is in Levallois, a chic suburb right next to Paris, while Cogirep is in Villepinte, a more far-flung suburb by Charles de Gaulle airport.
The French boss’s name, Gilles Triquet, sounds like nails on a chalkboard with its grating “i” sounds. Played by the great François Berléand with note-perfect cringiness (and a pencil-thin chinstrap), he has none of the redeeming qualities that were written into Michael Scott’s character; Triquet’s just a gormless, self-aggrandizing blaireau—literally a badger, figuratively an obtuse and unsympathetic person, the blaireau is less mean than an asshole but less oblivious than a dumbass. I could have just said he’s a tool, but blaireau is the exact concept he embodies. That’s part of the beautiful kaleidoscope of international The Office adaptations, after all: exploring culturally specific versions of white male managerial toolishness.
For example, when Triquet hits on Laetitia Kadiri, the receptionist, it’s gross and racist: “The heat of the Orient, the silk road, the snake charmer,” he susurrates to the young French-North African woman (as she rolls her eyes so intensely she risks dislocating an optic nerve). He plays the same prank on her as his Anglophone counterparts do—pretending she’s fired—but there’s an additional racist dimension to it: when he accuses her of stealing post-it notes, he says she’s probably going to re-sell them in flea markets or use them to roll joints, a trifecta of anti-Arab stereotypes.
Joël Liotard, the assistant to the regional manager, casually uses homophobic slurs in the first scene in which he appears. And as in the US version, Triquet does an offensive impression of a non-white comedian, Jamel Debbouze, who is French-North African. But while corporate responds to Michael Scott’s Chris Rock impression—in “Diversity Day”—with a seminar on racial sensitivity, this does not happen in the French version. “We’re not Americans,” as some French people will say, drawing a line against excessive sensitivity about racism or sexism.
Oddly, there’s something refreshing about seeing bigoted behavior depicted in this way: not as the actions of the well-intentioned but clumsy Michael Scott; these are just realistic, three-dimensional shitty people.
Watching it, I was struck by how structured Le bureau is around masculine doubles: Gilles and Joël are much more similar to each other in this version, down to the consonance of their names, the same obnoxious man at different points in his slimy, social-climbing life. Then there’s Joël and Paul, the Tim/Jim character: A kind of evil twin-good twin pair of handsome, nerdy men, a sweet beta nerd and an alpha male who’s a nerd about guns and counterinsurgency tactics. Gilles is also mirrored by Didier Leguelec (the Chris Finch/Todd Packer character), who is straight-up nasty compared to Gilles’ more cowardly malice. But while Didier is dominant and Gilles feeds off of his aggression, the two are more like friends and accomplices than in the Anglophone versions. In episode three, Gilles and Didier face off against a younger, mild-mannered pair of their coworkers in a trivia contest, and they are an echo chamber of male rage: Gilles initially apologizes for Didier’s offensiveness, then says he’s just joking, and then, finally, becomes complicit in it.
While Gilles is terrible, there’s something that feels quaint about him, today. Maybe, despite his unimpeachable blaireau status, I connect to him, this man who literally asks “how do you do, fellow kids?” (“ça va, les djeuns ?”) His pathetic desire to be liked, well, has pathos.
I think the bar for malevolent leadership has been adjusted since the one-season series first aired on Canal+ in 2006. This was before the zero-tolerance, crassly capitalist years of Sarkozy or the shifty, disappointing François Hollande; it was long before France came under the heel of the bad boss of all bad bosses, Emmanuel Macron. The boss is no longer a blundering fool who wants to be liked, to the detriment of actual work: that was the old France, the France where armchair business consultants would lament that it’s simply impossible to fire people, there’s no business innovation, no productivity.
The new France is a country run like a business by a slick, optimizing corporate overlord who says all the right buzzwords as he surveils you and suppresses you. Seen from this vantage, your dumb, annoying boss at your job you hate—but will never get fired from so you just sink into it as you would into a fetid swamp—well, that doesn’t seem so bad.
by Lee Skallerup Bessette
The Québécois adaptation of The Office is called La Job. Airing in 2006 for just 12 episodes on the French version of our national broadcaster, the CBC, Radio-Canada, it makes a particular sense to feature a paper company with an English name (Jennings): Quebec has long been in the pulp-and-paper business. We have lots of trees and lots of cheap hydroelectric power. My grandfather worked for a pulp-and-paper company his entire career. But though most industry in Quebec has historically been owned and operated by the English—with Anglophone bosses—the role of David Brent, first played by Ricky Gervais, becomes “David Gervais,” and the show really misses the mark by not making “Sam Bisaillon,” the Dwight character, a bumbling, sniveling, petty, ugly Anglophone.
Though it painstakingly recreates the original British mini-series—”I wanted to make it in Quebec, but I also wanted to stay as faithful as possible to the original,” as La Job’s producer Anne-Marie Losique, put it—the look of show screams the mid-Aughts, from David’s bluetooth earpiece to the “joke” he makes about the “Dawn” character’s last name, Viens, a very common Québécois last name that translates to “come,” with the same double-entendre in French as in English. David air-humps the secretary’s desk while making sex noises and saying her last name, and she sits there as uncomfortably as when Dawn does when David Brent jokes about men waking up “at the crack of Dawn” in the original.
The Jennings office is in St. Laurent, off Cote-de-Liesse, an industrial no-man’s land that starts at the airport and goes until you hit Decarie and the edge of downtown. And like the British miniseries, there is the threat of the offices being closed in favor of offices in Terrebonne, an exurb of Montreal, northeast of the island. St. Laurent may not be beautiful, but at least you are still on the island, still in a urban area. Like the original, the pilot introduces a new intern and centers on a normal dude trying to survive his deskmate (while carrying a torch for the shy receptionist, engaged to the warehouse worker Luc).
It’s fine, for what it is: The Office with Québécois accents and Montreal-centric references. But so many of the jokes are just sexual harassment, and “look at how inappropriate these guys are” remains a joke, and never produces real repercussions. The staff and cast are all-white, even in the warehouse, but as inaccurately as that reflects Montreal’s diversity, I can only imagine the kinds of tasteless jokes and commentary David would have come up with otherwise; in my mind, there was a person of color who did work there and was horrified and quit. To be honest, I could only stomach a few episodes. The last episode takes place at the producer’s house—after the ”documentary” ended, and the office does indeed close. But I really couldn’t care one way or the other. As they all treat Anne as a sexual object one last time—and sexually harass the producer the entire night, that’s… it. A show about how shitty men are to women on the job: I didn’t need La Job to tell me that.
by Lili Loofbourow
Chile’s version of The Office is a maximalist hybrid of the British and American shows. There are, for example, not one but two Creeds—Juan Quezada plays the elderly Don Hugo, who guffaws at the pretty-boy “temp’s” requests and mocks him for his wealth, while Cristián Quezada plays “Dante,” a selectively formal ne’er-do-well who sells off company equipment the second the branch closure is announced. It invests so much in these originally marginal characters, in fact, that they drain the show’s energy away from the principals. The Tim(Jim)/Dawn(Pam) dynamic is pretty flaccid: they flirt way too much from the beginning, there aren’t enough talking heads to build up their interiority, and Roy/Lee is simply a lunkhead. That the lovebirds don’t end up together (which should blow our minds!) barely registers.
I’m not sure why the suspense doesn’t work. Maybe Diego doesn’t hog the camera’s funny bone the way Tim and Jim did. Maybe we never learn enough about Rocío to care about her the way we come to care about Pam and Dawn; the closest we come to seeing her as real and petty and flawed is when she comes into the office one day having styled herself like Diego’s new, slightly upscale girlfriend. In any case, the show’s social satire is sharpest when it claws at real fault-lines in Chilean culture, which turn out to mostly exclude the central couple and even the boss.
Chile shares enough culturally with buttoned-up British repressiveness, and with its compensatory rebellion, so some characters fit a little too well into its social schema. The boss, here called Manuel Cerda, and played by Luis Gnecco, is a less buffoonish figure than David Brent mainly because Chilean corporate culture has so enthusiastically normalized contentless business-speak that it can’t always scan as ridiculous. Cerda merrily ventriloquizes his culture’s racism and sexism and packages it as comedy; he ogles and harasses women, blithely regales a Peruvian employee named Jesús (Marcelo Valdivieso) with tortured stereotypes about how much he’s suffered and how poor he must be (even confusing Peru and Bolivia), and exasperates his female boss with constant, genial insubordination. But he doesn’t often achieve the over-the-top insanity we expect of the character; he’s too typical to stand out in a society where David Brents abound. Not so for the Gareth/Dwight character: Mauricio Dell borrows so heavily from Mackenzie Crook in playing the humorless, oddly-coiffed assistant, Cristián Müller, that he ends up portraying a form of blind loyalty that’s more distinctively British than Chilean. Only Dell’s reenactment of several of Pinochet’s more famous sayings—and his singing—brings a character who otherwise doesn’t quite cohere into spectacular parodic focus.
As the show starts straying from the original a few episodes in, it locates one its more surprising accidental centers in Felipe, the temp character (played by César Sepúlveda). He’s a known stereotype: his last name is Tomic (aka “fancy family”), he lives in the grimly luxurious suburb of La Dehesa, and he is Chile’s version of handsome: light skin, light eyes. He’s a very specific kind of wealthy kid, a cuico, and for that, he becomes the target, not just of a Kelly Kapoor-like vamp named Trini (Karla Matta), but of some of the show’s more specifically Chilean satires. For instance: the janitor, Maria, gets so insulted when Felipe asks her if she’s seen a blue folder with some papers—assuming he’s implying she stole it—that she vindictively buys him 25 blue folders on her break. (And watches from behind a plant as he finds the unwanted plenitude of files on his desk.)
Don Hugo, who either ignores or cackles at almost every request, savagely chews Felipe out for mistreating Maria, and when the chastened Felipe mildly tries to apologize and placate Maria by reimbursing her for the folders—telling her to keep the 800 pesos in change from his 5000 peso note (he has no smaller bill)—she explodes in righteous indignation. Exhorting him to pray for his soul, she assures him the she doesn’t need to get rich with his money, and storms off, angrily assuring him she’ll be back immediately… with his 300 pesos. It’s a gem, a perfect little sketch about how the worlds of cuicos (fancy boys) and nanas (maids) intersect. (“You have a nana?” Don Hugo asks Felipe, wondering if she makes her bed and cleans up after him. He does: her name is Inés. “My wife is a nana!” Don Hugo roars. She’s not; he laughs his head off about this in a subsequent talking head.)
That said, the show’s more direct adaptations of its source material work better than they should: when the Jim character pranks the Dwight character, he doesn’t put his stapler in jello; he puts his (volunteer) fireman’s radio in a hot dog bun with avocado, mayonnaise, and ketchup, a particular Chilean obsession called an italiano (and eats a hot dog of his own while denying he’s done any such thing). The horrible Todd Packer/Chris Finch character is kinder and gentler here—he actually gets fired and saves the day—and Vittorio Yaconi plays Benito, the Chilean Toby, with a cringing, nervous range of tics that makes the character extremely familiar and also just weird enough to stand out on his own.
The strangest hybrid of borrowing and adaptation in the series is a storyline where the warehouse workers unionize. Though the story beats will be roughly familiar to viewers of the American Office, the episode borrows clearly (and negatively!) from Chile’s own labor history in ways that both satirize unions and work to make the very idea of organizing seem faintly ridiculous.
As it turns out, La Ofis didn’t do well in Chile. No one is sure why. Maybe its humor was too dry, or insufficiently broad—this is the country that launched Sabado Gigante, after all (and Gnecco borrows some mannerisms from that show’s host, Don Francisco, aka Mario Kreutzberger). Maybe the network’s decision to change the show’s time slot constantly kept it from developing a following. Or maybe the David Brents are still just a little too common to scan as the laughable exceptions the show needs them to be. Comedy is tragedy plus time, so maybe all La Ofis needs is for a little more time to pass before it can come into its own.
by Yonatan Raz Portugali
The guy who speaks at the first scene is Yariv (the Israeli version of Gareth): he is complaining someone didn’t give him the role of an old man in some performance or party show. He then says he is an amazing actor; he does an impression of an old man, and there’s a hint that he was sexually abused as a child (his old man offers some kid a candy if he will come with him somewhere). Not very funny.
In the kitchen, a worker makes coffee for himself while writing something on twitter. In the next scene there’s a conversation between Gareth/Yariv and Tim/Yosi about how everything on twitter and social media is fake and not real life etc. While they are talking, the guy on the background (from the coffee scene) gets a call from a woman “from Twitter”; he walks away to speak to her privately, and from his answers we can understand she asks him horny questions.
Gareth/Yariv and Tim/Yossi are amazed!
Then a scene where the office manager (David, but his name in the Israeli version is “Avi”) and his boss (the head office lady in the Israeli version is an Israeli-Russian, “Yelena”) rebuke Gareth for giving away some secret information. David tells him, “What next? We will find out you told the cleaning lady that we’re gonna fire her?” Gareth says “Never!” and that’s when the cleaning lady opens the door crying, “Why? I did a great job!”
I really loved the British version, saw it a few times, and I also watched a couple seasons from the US version, which was nice (but not as good, of course). I watched three episodes from the Israeli version, for the first time; I hadn’t seen it when it aired (in 2010) because I really don’t like the work of the guy who wrote it; it’s always smug, self-righteous, and contemptuous to his characters.
Anyway, the Israeli version is really, really bad. I haven’t smiled once. You could say it’s because it’s been seven years, but the British one still makes me laugh (and the British and American actors are much better). I think what gets lost in the Israeli version is your identification with David: in the British version, you really feel for him. He is an idiot but he’s also so vulnerable, so lonely, and he tries so hard to be loved. In the Israeli version, he’s just an idiot who only offends everybody.
The other characters in the Israeli version all hate their workplace and each other; they have no comradeship and aren’t given even a moment of enjoyment or compassion. The melancholy of generic office life was more central to the British version (and the opening tune gets you in the mood) and it also had those small moments of beauty and security that a steady workplace gives you (I guess; I never worked in one). This whole level is missing from the Israeli version. No identification, only sarcasm and “anti-capitalist” contempt for office and corporate workers. It’s strange; after all, the writer is a corporate worker himself, in this project, suiting a successful, imported “format” whose rights were bought to bring to the Israeli market.
by Agri Ismaïl
You know things are bad when actors spend their press junket openly wondering what the point of the show is. The cast of Kontoret—the Swedish adaptation of The Office—laugh off their apprehensions by the end of the interview, but when you see the end result, you remember Sissela Benn (playing receptionist Terese, aka Dawn/Pam) confessing that her initial reaction was that a Swedish version would feel stale and dusty, or the babylike Björn Gustafsson (who plays fantasy-fan Viking aka Gareth/Dwight) saying it would be ”like doing a Swedish remake of Transformers, with a Swedish budget.” (Which makes me wonder if he’s ever seen The Office; is he under the illusion that the show had a CGI budget?)
The show’s executive producer said he was convinced of the show’s viability when he saw how successful the other adaptations had been. But actors must suffer the indignity of pretending that commercial decisions are artistic choices, so the many puff pieces leading up to the 2012 premiere focused less on the financial success of the German adaptation Stromberg, and more on the fact that Kontoret is not just a remake, it is also a spinoff of the hit show Solsidan.
It was thus the world’s first spin-make (as one newspaper nauseatingly referred to it).
Solsidan, also produced by Jarowski, is one of the most successful Swedish comedies in recent years, focusing on a middle class couple moving to a posh neighbourhood in the outskirts of Stockholm (where awkward shenanigans ensue for eight seasons and a movie). Since the show’s brand of cringe comedy owed a lot to the original version of The Office, it was fitting that Solsidan’s breakout character, Ove Sundberg—played to stingy, obnoxious perfection by Henrik Dorsin—would be chosen as the office manager in Kontoret.
As is true of most sitcom breakout characters, however, what works in small doses can become grating in larger ones; Ove Sundberg represented the broadest and dumbest part of Solsidan, so centering an entire show around him seemed risky. Still, Solsidan’s proven profitability was enough to get the actors on board, and firms paid up to a million Swedish kroner (~$110,000) to sponsor the show (n.b. to American readers: just pretend that’s a lot of money).
Two short seasons later, Kontoret was cancelled, having shed more than half its audience in just four episodes. To be sure, the show’s problems were plentiful, starting with the horrifically miscast Kim Sulocki (known for playing Danny in the Swedish production of Grease and doing the voice of Jar Jar Binks in our dubbed version of The Phantom Menace); he plays the Jim/Tim character like a grown man forced at gunpoint to play the part of an unruly child. But the show’s cardinal sin is that it doesn’t consider the particular dysfunctions of the Swedish workplace; instead, it’s a carbon copy of the UK version (with versions of the bored Stanley and boring Toby characters taken from the US version for good measure). But this means that the characters act in ways that, in Sweden, would lead to an abundance of resignations, HR complaints, and even police reports.
I worked in the UK a few years after The Office aired, and the dynamics that fed the original show’s comedy were apparent to me in real life: co-existing in open-plan offices near strangers, the British class system clashing with contemporary capitalism’s then-trendy Horizontal Management structure, and the crushing, soul-destroying boredom alleviated only by a mask of deep cynicism during work and a pint of room-temperature ale with cheese and onion crisps afterwards.
A Swedish workplace in 2012 is simply not a UK workplace in 2001: to begin with, Swedes at least pretend to be happy with their jobs.
To transplant the plot points from the British original, then, produces an alternate reality, not anchored in people’s lived experiences at work. Not that workplace comedies need to feel real, but if you are going to pay for the rights to The Office, wouldn’t you want to keep the sense of verisimilitude that was so instrumental to the show’s success?
In a morning show interview ahead of the show’s second season, the anchors asked Gustafsson if his character, the fantasy-obsessed wannabe alpha male Viking, was based on a particular workplace archetype. He wasn’t able to conjure up an answer, and simply laughs nervously; another cast member is heard from offscreen explaining that it’s hard to know since they “have had so few regular jobs.” None of the leads look or sound like they’ve done a day’s drudgery in their lives.
What could have been a moment to reflect on Swedish office culture instead becomes a self-satisfied LARP of previously existing material. At times the surface seems realistic: there are people queueing for the microwave, there is a subplot about those who bring a lunchbox versus those who go out to eat, and yes, there is incessant, tiresome singing for no earthly reason other than that we Swedes love to sing. But in the interactions between people, the show has no understanding of a Swedish workplace.
At this very moment, people across Sweden are waging unrelenting passive-aggressive wars against one another for long-forgotten slights, but the characters in Kontoret are simply aggressive. In the pilot, the manager must choose which employee to make redundant, but Sweden has legislation regulating exactly how this is to be decided. And though the Swedish workplace is constructed by the fact that all we do in Sweden is have babies—with people going to endless parent-teacher meetings during work hours, taking days off to care for their sick children (which counts as paid leave, if your kids are under the age of twelve), and working around a family schedule more than an office schedule—none of the characters in Kontoret seem to have children. It’s very clear that the people involved in making the show have, indeed, had few regular jobs.
It’s disappointing, because Swedes are such gloriously awkward people. We require absurdly vast personal space, our men seem incapable of holding conversation for longer than three sentences, and while we pretend we are pro-equality, sexism and racism lurk just under the surface. Alcohol is so expensive that people treat buying a round like putting down a deposit on a house, and calculator apps emerge as soon as a bill is produced. We are incredibly socially conformist and we like to pretend that areas of Stockholm are like Brooklyn (there are, to be clear, no areas of Stockholm that are anything like any areas in Brooklyn). There is so much to make fun of! But what we get instead is a character pretending to have cerebral palsy.
The second season generally fares better than the first; freed from the shackles of the original script, Kontoret tries out original plots, and an episode about personal hygiene and racism at least approaches humor. The show also blows up the original’s love narrative by having the Swedish Tim leave the show, heartbroken, at the end of the first season (this was necessary since the Swedish Tim and Swedish Dawn had zero chemistry). For season two, Terese (Dawn/Pam) is promoted to sales and Joel, a new receptionist played by Kalle Josephson, becomes the new love. It’s easier to root for them since it’s at least possible to imagine them being attracted to each another. And while switching the original’s gender dynamics—by putting Terese in the higher position—might not make Kontoret a good show, it does make it feel Swedish.
Emily Lever, Lee Bessette, Lili Loofbourow, Yonatan Raz Portugali, Agri Ismail