They said it couldn’t be done: no remake of The Office could possibly live up to the ridiculously high standards set by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in their highly influential British sitcom. By “ridiculously high standards”, I am of course referring to the quality of the show itself, not the quality of the products or employees of the Wernham Hogg paper company: a collection of nitwits led, in the Slough branch, by the awful and incorrigible David Brent – unforgettably and rather perfectly imbued by Gervais with an unrelenting stink of insufferability.
But then the US version of The Office came along, introducing the employees of the Scranton branch of another paper company, Dunder Mifflin, led by a new love-to-hate nincompoop: Steve Carell’s hilariously impetuous Michael Scott. I remember being less than wowed by its opening episodes. But then something crazy happened: the show found its groove, one season rolled into another, and – at the risk of inciting my British colleagues at the Guardian to demand my immediate removal from this masthead – I came to like it much more than the original.
It’s in a spirit of informed hopefulness, then, that I await the regime of Hannah Howard and her presumably awful (we wouldn’t want it any other way) managerial style. Played by the comedian Felicity Ward, Howard is the protagonist of The Office Australia, a new iteration of the well-flogged format announced on Wednesday by Prime Video. The show has been remade many times but never with a female lead. And of course never – stone the crows! – in ’Straya, mate.
It’ll be interesting to see how the series, set to launch in 2024 in more than 240 countries and territories, reflects a side of the country little-seen internationally: the contemporary Australian workplace. The cast (who include Edith Poor, Steen Raskopoulos, Shari Sebbens, Josh Thomson, Jonny Brugh, Pallavi Sharda, Susan Ling Young, Raj Labade and Lucy Schmidt) suggest that packaging company Flinley Craddick takes diversity seriously. It will also be interesting to see, on account of the protagonist being female, the Aussie series shifting away from an idea, drawn from real-life, that lingers in the subtext of the UK and US versions: that incompetent men like Brent and Scott are rewarded by the system.
The story will involve Howard receiving word from head office that her branch will be shut down, resulting in her (according to the official synopsis) “making promises she can’t keep in order to keep her ‘work family’ together”. By the sound of things, this will push the characters into crisis mode, laughs presumably drawn from Howard trying to save the day but flapping around like a fish drowning in oxygen. Comedy is often forged from chaos and crisis, broadly speaking, and in Australian workplace shows in particular: The Games and Utopia explore the horrors of bureaucracy, Rostered On focuses on retail, Fat Pizza on fast food delivery and Fisk on legal firms.
From a production point of view, The Office’s mockumentary structure is appealing in that it is cost efficient and easily replicable. The format has been done to death, with famous imitators including Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. This speaks to the core challenge for the creators of The Office Australia. Hew closely to the established style and they risk creating a show that looks and feels passé, reheating a format launched way back in 2001, when reality TV was still considered a novelty. Stray too far and they risk losing the very elements that made the shows great.
The new series must also feel genuine and effortless. If the tone comes across as laboured, or the workplace inauthentic, it won’t work. All eyes will be on Howard, who, borrowing from the wisdom of Brent, should be three things to her employees: boss, friend and entertainer.