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Work in progress

It's not as warped as the original, but 'The Office' is painfully funny

Recently, NBC, the proud home of ''Fear Factor" and its brain parfaits, has been on a mission to educate the public.

With its series of slowly paced commercials for the American remake of ''The Office," the network has been trying to familiarize viewers with its new sitcom's morose brand of humor. Rather than delivering the typical 30-second zing of knuckleheaded punch lines, the ads have worked to prepare us for a show that boldly resists the hyperactive and obvious tone of prime time. If most commercials are like brash iambic couplets, NBC's quiet commercials for ''The Office" have been pieces of free verse.

NBC's ads have been a sort of orientation class for the challenging sitcom, which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7. Based on Britain's extraordinary white-collar-cubicle comedy that aired on the BBC and BBC America, ''The Office" is less breezy and more warped than almost any sitcom on the American networks. For viewers accustomed to shiny, happy escapism, NBC's ''The Office" speaks a new comic language of glum realism. Like the original, which was co-created by Stephen Merchant and the show's star, Ricky Gervais, it is a queasy portrait of corporate depression, characters who rarely smile, and bleak irony. It is funny, but slowly and painfully so.

For staying true to the downbeat spirit of the British classic, NBC deserves a heaping helping of credit. The network has preserved the wan documentary style of the original, with its dull workplace lighting, awkward silences, shaky camera work, ordinary-looking actors, and unpolished language. As the cameras prowl the offices of Dunder Mifflin paper company, they chronicle the daily tedium of a handful of wage slaves. Jim (John Krasinski) is the clever but gloomy joker; Dwight (Rainn Wilson) is an ambitious toady; and Pam (Jenna Fischer) is the inhibited receptionist having a tentative flirtation with Jim despite her engagement. As in the original, they don't make a very glamorous ensemble, and they don't live in a very glamorous city -- Scranton, Pa. No ''Friends," they.

At the center of the office and ''The Office" is Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the obnoxious boss, the egomaniac who can't open his mouth without spewing insults. Scott thinks of himself as a leader who gets down with his people: ''I'm a friend first," he tells the camera tonight, ''and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third." But he's a buffoon and a sadist. In one scene, he jokingly reduces Pam to tears by telling her she's been fired. As usual, he yaps long after he should have locked his lips. He's also a racist who doesn't understand he's a racist. In the second episode, which airs in the show's regular time slot Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., he holds a ''Diversity Day" meeting that is a wonder of offensiveness topped by his impression of Chris Rock.

American TV comedy is ripe for reinvention, and an ambitious effort like ''The Office" represents a step in that direction. Like ''Arrested Development" and ''Scrubs," it tries for -- and sometimes achieves -- something offbeat, distinct, and intelligent. Presented without a manipulative laugh track, the show asks you to find the humor in the characters' faces and their veiled reactions to one another. It invites us to watch closely and marvel at banality, rather than vamping madly with one-liners to distract us from it.

But is NBC's ''The Office" as good as the original? No, it isn't. Of course it isn't. And anyone who has worshipped the British version will know exactly why: There is no Ricky Gervais as boss David Brent, the slimy, slippery, and pathetic spectacle whose last name rhymes with ''bent." It's the equivalent of making ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show" without Mary Tyler Moore.

The cool contexts of both versions of ''The Office" are pleasingly similar. And the actors playing the alienated workers are promising, particularly Krasinski as the bittersweet humorist forever submerging office props in Jell-O. But Gervais's Brent is one of the great TV characters of all time, a fascinating mess of a man who digs himself into the most awkward conversations. Watching him talk his way into a corner is spellbinding and funny and disturbing all at once. And Gervais portrays his monster with such ease, his performance seems unscripted. The British ''Office," too, would have been a far lesser thing without him.

Carell doesn't offer the NBC show anything close to Gervais's beautiful, terrible characterization. Gervais made shallowness into a deep art form; Carell is merely shallow. His Michael Scott is slick and irritating, as he should be, but generically so. You can imagine Carell playing the same character on another sitcom, which he actually did last year as the boss on a little-seen NBC sitcom called ''Come to Papa." Known for his work on ''The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and Julia Louis-Dreyfus's failed ''Watching Ellie," he's just not layered enough to make us love to hate him on a weekly basis.

And when it comes to ''The Office," that overwhelming blend of magnetism and revulsion is essential.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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