The Golden Globe-winning, Peabody-winning British import "The Office" was as near perfect a television show as has ever been shot out of a cathode-ray tube. The creation of two men (star Ricky Gervais and his co-creator, co-writer and co-director Stephen Merchant) who had never made TV before -- Gervais had never even acted -- it was one of those rare works in which all the parts conspired to create an absolutely believable reality. And it was funny, too, in the awful way that life is.
"The Office Special" (getting its stateside premiere tonight on BBC America) picks up a couple of years after we last visited the town of Slough, where the cars go 'round the industrial-park roundabout to the heartbreaking strains of "Handbags and Gladrags." Gervais returns as David Brent, who when last seen had lost the middle management job that was the linchpin of his ego. Now he sells cleaning supplies, working out of his car and getting faxes at the Ramada Inn. But he seems to spend most of his time hanging around his old office at Wernham Hogg, where gawky Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) has replaced him and nice-guy Tim (Martin Freeman) plods along with doggedly lowered expectations, without even the presence of former co-conspirator Dawn (Lucy Davis) to brighten his life.
In this world, "The Office" refers to the BBC2 documentary that the first two seasons purported to be, and the subject here is less the particulars of the workplace than how that documentary affected the lives of its subjects. More than in most mockumentaries, the camera is a player in "The Office," because David, who fancies himself star material, is beguiled by it; it is as important to him, if not more important, than any of the people around him.
And though he begins "The Office Special" complaining that he was the victim of skewed editing, he's eager for the chance to humiliate himself again. He has also been attempting to parlay his 15 minutes of fame into 16, with disastrous personal appearances at small-town discos, and he has spent all his money to record a single, "If You Don't Know Me By Now." We get to see the video, and in fact, he's not bad -- he's just not good enough to matter.
As in the 12 episodes that preceded it, there is not much here by way of plot, and yet the 90 minutes of "The Office Special" (it will be two hours when plumped with commercials) go by very quickly.
Without giving too much away, I will say that it was made as a Christmas show -- it was originally broadcast last December in England, a year and a half after the end of the series proper -- with real Christmas spirit. As antithetical as that may sound to the original, which was steeped in boredom, self-delusion, dashed hopes and the struggle for increments of essentially meaningless power, "The Office Special" manages that perceptual shift without betraying its world view, or the reality of its characters: It integrates the boredom, self-delusion, dashed hopes and struggle for power into something bigger, and potentially better, and functions not only as a continuation of the story but a convincing conclusion. (Even as Tim disavows the very idea of endings.)
It also manages to give dignity to characters whose very lack of dignity it has exploited for comedy. And it does this with the subtlest perceptual shifts, much as one might suddenly take new stock of one's own annoying co-workers and see them fresh as fellow humans, trying to get along.
'The Office Special'
Where: BBC America
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).
Ricky Gervais...David Brent
Executive producers: Jon Plowman, Anil Gupta. Written and directed by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant.