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T.V. on TV: The Office, Veronica Mars, The Year Without a Santa Claus, & One Punk Under God

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T.V. on TV: <em>The Office</em>, <em>Veronica Mars</em>, <em>The Year Without a Santa Claus</em>, & <em>One Punk Under God</em>

When it debuted in 2005, the U.S. version of The Office (Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. EST) was held up as an example of how to get a remake almost right. It wasn’t the instant failure of Coupling—an NBC remake of a BBC series—but it wasn’t a huge leap forward on par with All in the Family (based on the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part). Part of the problem was that NBC’s The Office—based on a British classic that put its pitch-perfect cast, headed up by Ricky Gervais, on the map—was essentially a one-joke concept that brilliantly executed every possible variation on that joke; it ended after 12 episodes and two specials, and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. Thanks partly to the limitations imposed by the U.S. business model—which requires 100 episodes for a viable syndication sale—the NBC version seemed more fluid and less focused.

That has mostly changed. If the U.S. Office hasn’t yet bested its UK ancestor, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with it; different from but equal to its inspiration, it takes elements from the British version that could be Americanized, discards the rest, and turns the format drawbacks of the U.S. model to its advantage.

For instance, in the UK Office, the background characters were just that. They got little character development, popping in to offer a funny line or crucial bit of exposition. The U.S. Office, however, has treated the insatiable demands of its production schedule (22 half-hour episodes per season) as an excuse to develop every character, no matter how seemingly marginal, into a finely honed little archetype. Some bit players have even moved beyond that, particularly Jim (John Krasinski), who epitomizes the American working stiff who holds onto a job he’s ambivalent about because he does it well, and because a major career shakeup is too big a risk. Even the U.S. show’s most minor character, Creed (Creed Bratton), sports a degree of shading that the more compressed UK Office could not permit. Plus, while the British series was more realistic (the more severe antics of Rainn Wilson’sDwight wouldn’t have flown in Gervais’ version), the U.S. Office depicts a broader sweep of humanity.

The other way in which the U.S. Office has outstripped its forebear is in its portrayal of the show’s romantic heart—the subdued flirtation between Jim and Pam (the alluringly dorky Jenna Fischer). The original offered us roughly the same storyline between Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis, now slumming in a terribly underwritten role on Studio 60), but the end point of that storyline was never in doubt—Tim and Dawn were going to get together by series’s end, overcoming romantic foils in Dawn’s fiancee, Lee (Joel Beckett), and Tim’s briefly-courted girlfriend, Rachel (Stacy Roca).

The U.S. Office retained the basic setup until this season. Pam, who was engaged to a lout named Roy (David Denman), rebuffed Jim, who turned around met a new girl named Karen (Rashida Jones). But in contrast to the Tim-Dawn dynamic, these developments aren’t minor bumps on the road to togetherness, much less pro forma gimmicks meant to prolong the standard will-they/won’t-they dynamic. When Dawn left Lee, we were given little reason to care about his feelings; Lee was simply a jerkish fiance who deserved his comeuppance and then got it. In contrast, while Roy was played as a jerk for the first two seasons of the U.S. Office, he’s gained depth this year; he’s still the high school jock gone to seed, but he also seems genuinely committed to winning back Pam through random acts of kindness (like getting her out of insufferable meetings and bringing her lunch). The show also showed, in small details, how the cancellation of a wedding affected both characters, something most TV sitcoms with aborted nuptials can’t be bothered to do. (For instance, they’re working their way through the meals they’d ordered for the reception, eating them one at a time.)

More interesting, though, is the burgeoning relationship between Jim and Karen, which has mostly been hinted at (the only physical contact we’ve seen has been Jim’s hand on Karen’s back) and played offscreen (in keeping with the show’s conceit of being a workplace documentary, even if the U.S. version’s longevity makes that conceit less credible by the week). In the UK series, Tim couldn’t get serious about Rachel because his true passion was for Dawn (the U.S. version played out this arc in season two, with Amy Adams as a spectacularly bad match for Jim). Karen, in contrast, is a carefully constructed character who’s meant to win viewers over rather than earning their hate. She plays video games with the guys, she’s a bit nonplussed by Jim’s mugging for the camera, and when she wants him, she makes her feelings known with a directness Pam could never muster. She’s an incredibly reasonable alternative to the almost-too-sitcommy drama of the Jim/Pam pairing. Of course thwarted flirtations like the one between Jim and Pam exist in the real world; but how often do they lead to meaningful relationships beyond high school or college, especially when it’s impossible to directly express one’s feelings (as Jim finally did to Pam in the season two finale, leaving her speechless and driving him away)? The Jim/Karen relationship feels surprisingly adult—a mutual understanding based on two people saying, “Here’s what I want.” If you doubt the the Jim/Karen matchup is richer and more durable, just imagine them groggily sharing coffee over the morning newspaper 10 years from now, then do the same with Jim and Pam. The former makes more sense every time.

This is not an attempt to declare a “side” in the series’s relationship wars (though, apparently, you can buy shirts), nor is it an attempt to make the whole show about its central relationship (the comedy the show turns out is consistently hilarious). Rather, it’s an attempt to get at what The Office really seems to be getting at. The original version was, really, a romance wrapped in a big faux-verite bow. Yes, your job sucks, and yes, your boss is an idiot, but at the end of the day, you’ll find love and realize one or two of your dreams and even that hated boss will find some measure of redemption. The new clash at the heart of the U.S. Office isn’t just between the Jim/Pam and Jim/Karen pairings—it’s about gradually discarding gooey notions of romanticism that TV often sells us and replacing them with a more realistic ideal. Naturally, no one expects the series to end with Jim and Karen or Pam and Roy together, but for this season, at least, The Office’s realism goes beyond its shaky camerawork.

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In its third season, the CW’s Veronica Mars (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST) has managed to reinvent itself as a show that’s easy for new viewers to jump into, yet it’s still struggling to find viewers, even with the dream lead-in of Gilmore Girls. While I liked the convoluted gymnastics that fueled season two’s big mystery, I can see how the sheer volume of information might have driven away the uninitiated, and the show suffered as a result (it plays better on DVD). In response, creator Rob Thomas and his writers amped up the smaller mysteries that drive the individual episodes and created mini-mysteries to drive smaller arcs, the first of which ends tonight.

Unfortunately, the episodic mysteries have always been one of Mars’ most uneven elements, and this season is no exception. While the episode with the sorority growing medical marijuana ranked with the series’s best hours, the one where Veronica (the still prickly, still great Kristen Bell) fretted about her boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) and his mysterious ways was a yawn. The absence of key supporting players (who are used sparingly, as the show doesn’t have a big enough budget to feature them all in every episode) has led to a curiously disjointed feel; it’s Veronica vs. the world. And the first mini-mystery—Veronica trying to uncover the identity of a serial rapist—has been a mixed bag. It’s well-plotted, and original in its insistence that people who seem like college types, from dumb frat boys to militant feminists, are more complex than they seem. But there have been inexplicable lapses in logic, and the portrayal of the feminist group is troubling (why, exactly, did they fake some of the rapes?).

What Veronica Mars does better than almost any current series is give you a sense that it’s building to something big. Tonight’s episode, hopefully, will satisfy that craving by revealing the rapist’s identity and shattering the Logan and Veronica relationship (which sounds fine—Dohring and Bell are better at sparring than appearing to be in love). Despite its lapses, Thomas’ series is a snarky triumph—film noir filtered through 80s teen comedies, then pureed—and you forgive a lot when it shows Veronica bonding with her father (Enrico Colantoni) or letting her guard down long enough to reveal the girl who wishes she could return to the time when her best friend was still alive.

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Ron Underwood, director of such films as Tremors and City Slickers, isn’t known for his strong visuals, but his B-movie credentials make NBC’s The Year Without a Santa Claus (Monday, Dec. 11, 9 p.m. EST) all the more inexplicable. Underwood and the network have inflated a story that was already too slim for a one-hour Rankin-Bass special into a two-hour movie that meanders through some of the cheapest production values you’re likely to see this year.

Somehow, this project attracted something approaching an all-star cast. John Goodman would seem to be a natural for Santa, but his St. Nicholas is uncomfortably reminiscent of the manic Santa from You Better Watch Out (a.k.a. Christmas Evil). His costars—Delta Burke as Mrs. Claus, Eddie Griffin and Ethan Suplee as elves are underwritten, and the actors give pretty much the performances you’d expect based on their past work (though Griffin’s character has an odd affection for Dr. Laura, mostly so the producers could get Dr. Laura to cameo, I guess). Harvey Fierstein, Michael McKean and Carol Kane turn up as Heatmiser, Coldmiser and Mother Nature, respectively, and are even less intergral to the remake than they were to the original (they’re probably in the movie so they can sing the song, which is the only thing most people remember about the first one). NBC missed the mark completely here; they would have been better off reviving the cartoon.

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Here’s an early heads-up on Sundance’s intriguing new documentary series, One Punk Under God, which debuts Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 9 p.m. EST. While this isn’t quite the revolution in televised documentary that Sundance’s The Staircase was, it’s a largely fascinating examination of religion in America through the eyes of Revolution Church minister Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the embattled PTL Club. The younger Bakker is trying to heal his still-fractured relationship with his mother and father while trying to fund his church (a task complicated by his mix of liberal and conservative politics, which alienates pretty much every source of money). Bakker’s attempts to turn his church, which congregates weekly in a bar, into an instrument to spread his faith are largely fascinating; so are are his conflicts with established religious officials who bridle at his views and tattoos, and his relationship with his wife, who doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the whole Jesus thing. In the first episode, when Bakker tromps around what remains of Heritage USA, the theme park/resort that was the focus of the scandal that destroyed his father, the sequence becomes a metaphor for a Christianity that dreamed big in the early 80s and found most of its leaders in shambles by the end of that decade. Surprisingly, though, One Punk Under God avoids the expected cheap shots at religious hypocrites. It’s about the children of big Christianity trying to reconcile their views with a world their parents inoculated them against; while some have abandoned their faith, others, like Jay Bakker, have tried to incorporate that world into their faith, opening their hearts to the unconventional and odd, much like the man they say they follow.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.