Watching "The Office," you feel the power of TV's hyperactively happy laugh tracks. You understand the rat-a-tat cheeriness of nonstop punch lines. Finally, once and for all, you see the real point of those cartoonlike stage sets, with doors that are always unlocked so quirky neighbors can make fabulous entrances.
And that is, of course, because "The Office" contains none of these popular sitcom contrivances. The British mockumentary series, which brings its story to a close tonight on "The Office Special," is a model rejection of everything American TV viewers supposedly find funny. Instead of deploying upbeat, escapist jokiness, it finds humor in the ugly banality of the 9-to-5 workplace and its bored employees. It has no canned cackling, no hand-on-hip one-liners, no Pottery Barn backdrops, just the drab beige and gray of the Wernham Hogg office near London, where numbed-out workers linger in their pods and listen to their stunningly glib boss, David Brent, played by the unforgettable Ricky Gervais. It's about how dreariness is funny -- but not ha-ha funny.
"The Office," and now "The Office Special," at 9 on BBC America, is a great sitcom like "The Blair Witch Project" is a great horror flick. Faux documentaries with rough cinematic edges, they're the antitheses of what we've come to expect from their genres. Rather than moving further into slickness and prettified casting, they strip down to video realism to pack a bigger wallop.
Tonight's two-hour installment shows the series continuing in a highly un-sitcomlike manner, simply by being excellent. It's hard to imagine any other comedy series putting such a fitting cap on its run. Usually when casts regather to make an epilogue -- the recent "Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited" is a prime example -- the result succeeds only in casting a pall over our fond memories. But "The Office Special," which aired in two parts in England last year, is as sharp as the first 12 episodes. It's cringingly funny, clever, and unexpectedly moving, proving that it deserved both Golden Globes it won this year, for best comedy and best comic actor (Gervais).
Set three years after the second, final season, when Gervais's Brent was laid off, "The Office Special" takes a meta approach. "The Office" has already aired on British TV, and Brent is now supplementing his income as a door-to-door cleaning-product salesman by making appearances at clubs as the boss from "The Office." In one hideously hysterical sequence, he goes on a dating game as "The Boss From Hell" wearing Austin Powers garb, and he ends up in a catfight with the bachelorette. The 16th minute of fame for any reality cast member is never pretty; for Brent, it's grotesque.
It hardly seems possible, but "The Office Special" explores the pathos of David Brent's life even further than the series did. We learn that after he was fired, Brent sued Wernham Hogg over his "redundancy" and won a chunk of cash. But he blew all the money producing a single of himself singing "If You Don't Know Me by Now," which sold only 150 copies. We see a portion of the glossy video, which is a painfully vain spectacle of Brent as a tormented lover. Brent's life is nowhere, no matter how hard he tries to convince everyone it's going according to plan. We see him driving alone from appointment to appointment, schlepping his products, and we see him going on awkward blind dates with women he's met through a dating service. His laugh is slightly higher-pitched than before as he tries ever harder to put a happy face on his failures.
His loneliness brings him back to Wernham Hogg for regular visits, despite the indifference of his former employees. The ferretlike Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) is the boss, and the ironic Tim (Martin Freeman) is still rolling his eyes at an insufferable desk mate, this time a pregnant woman who bores him with details of her favorite sexual positions. True to the tone of the series, very little has changed in three years. Perhaps something will shift, though, now that former receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis) is visiting from Florida, where she is living with her fiance, Lee (Joel Beckett). How will Tim, once so smitten with her, feel when he sees her?
The performances remain seamless. Gervais's Brent is a monster of vacuousness, tripping over himself with lies and insulting every person with whom he has contact. He's annoying and ridiculous, and yet Gervais makes him fascinating to watch as he spirals into rabid self-contradiction. Davis gets to show more range tonight, as Dawn takes an honest look at her life in America, and Crook is always fun as the clueless man-child who treats his job like a game of toy soldiers. All of the actors do a remarkable job of making their characters transparent so that you can see what they're really feeling even when they're telling you otherwise. As with children, the nakedness of their self-deceptions can be endearing. "The Office" and "The Office Special" can certainly be mean, but there's always a tiny bit of heart hoping to break through its bleak surface.