Splitsider

Monday, October 21st, 2013

The American Version of 'The IT Crowd' That Never Made It to TV

There’s no formula for good TV. Networks and studios shuffle through hundreds of new projects every year, but when it comes down to it, it’s easier remake, reboot, or sequelize. Throughout the 2000s, NBC struggled to bring highly popular and influential BBC television stateside, giving The Office and Coupling, in particular, some love, American style. While Coupling quickly careened off into TV hell, The Office hit the ground, got back up, and found its voice. The show evolved into itself.

It’s interesting to watch those early episodes of The Office. Near line-for-line retellings of its British counterpart, NBC’s The Office never really clicks in its debut season. Michael Scott, in meaner incarnation, never transcends his worst characteristics to become the World’s Best Boss. The showrunners knew to re-tweak because American and British sitcoms have different sensibilities. They just needed some time to smooth out the edges.

At their best, sitcoms reflect the core values of the culture viewing them. Talking to Time in 2011, Ricky Gervais had this to say on the subject:

“I would say that Americans are more 'down the line.' They don’t hide their hopes and fears. They applaud ambition and openly reward success. Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers. We embrace the underdog until it’s no longer the underdog … We tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to sound insincere but I think it might be for the opposite reason. We don’t want to celebrate anything too soon. Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner.

We had to make Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy, with a rosier outlook to life. He could still be childish, and insecure, and even a bore, but he couldn’t be too mean. The irony is of course that I think David Brent’s dark descension and eventual redemption made him all the more compelling. But I think that’s a lot more palatable in Britain for the reasons already stated. Brits almost expect doom and gloom so to start off that way but then have a happy ending is an unexpected joy. Network America has to give people a reason to like you not just a reason to watch you.”

The reason I bring all of this up is to talk about the mistakes and missed potential of The IT Crowd. Again, we have a beloved British comedy reproduced for Americans under the assumption that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Line-for-line and shot-for-shot the same, but one works and the other doesn’t.

An American version of The IT Crowd was never a bad idea. With American audiences already going “bazinga” over nerd-based and workplace comedies, the combination seemed like a homerun. But it’s all in the execution, and The IT Crowd has a hard time letting go of its British base. Of course, while it uses the same script as the pilot, it also keeps the mix of multi- and single camera footage found in the British version, star Richard Ayoade, and the cluttered sets of the original. The show has a decidedly British look and feel to it with nothing to distinguish itself from its source.

Based on series creator Graham Linehan’s original script, the American pilot follows Jen’s first day as manager of her company’s IT department. When the department’s only two workers, Roy and Moss, find out she doesn’t know anything about computers, they attempt to undermine her position and get her fired. The script made the trip across the Atlantic remarkably well. Despite the new accents, many of the jokes that kill in the original, still work here. Most importantly, we get clear sense of who these characters are and why they’re acting this way. As far as pilots go, the script for “Jen’s First Day” holds up.

Casting is a different story. Few speak snark quite like Joel McHale, who can throw asides quickly and efficiently, as he has done as Jeff Winger and the host of The Soup for years. But Roy isn’t Jeff Winger. Social ineptitude defines the IT department, and Chris O’Dowd, the British Roy, provided the show with desperation. His anger, frustration, and false sense of superiority came from a lifetime of being kicked in the stomach. When embarrassed or laughing, O’Dowd still has the brow of someone on the verge tears, someone that we can sympathize with. Joel McHale, however, imbues the character with a meaner confidence, one that makes Roy harder to believe and side with, like first season Michael Scott. He interprets the character in a far more aggressive and less playful way, one that repels the other performances.

To anchor McHale to the original series, strangely enough, is Richard Ayoade, reprising the role of Moss. Unsurprisingly, Ayoade feels right at home in the role he’d already been playing for a year. Moss remains the oblivious underdog who doesn’t know he’s an underdog, the show’s Kramer or Latka. But he feels out of place, especially next to McHale’s Roy. The two never seem like they are or would be friends.

Going back to what Gervais was saying about Michael Scott, by keeping the show regulated to these characters that were underdogs and would likely stay underdogs, the show never ports over to an American sensibility, which is both admirable and tiresome. Such a direct translation makes its existence seem unnecessary — although, a darker American sitcom would be a welcome change.

But this American version of The IT Crowd needed to be just that, an American version, something that better reflected American culture. The Office did this by ascribing their characters with a sense of familial value, growing into people who care about each other, because at their core, they aim to be good. Unfortunately, The IT Crowd was never given such a chance.

The IT Crowd was very close to being a reality for NBC in 2007. The show was given a full season order, and promotional materials were even made up. However, network chairman Ben Silverman pulled the plug at the last minute. Even in their earliest stages, remakes must create a sense of difference from their source. With a little reformatting, The IT Crowd could have altered the course of TV entirely, deleting the word “Community” from RSS and Twitter feeds the world over. Instead we're left with kilobyte of TV history that was dragged to the trash a little too early.

Here's the pilot, in full:

Matt Schimkowitz is writer from NJ. Check out his futile attempts to find something to watch on TV at tvsfault.wordpress.com and on twitter @borntoslug.