Dismay. Dubious sighs. A derisive snort. That's been the general reaction from fans upon hearing that NBC was launching a U.S. version of the BBC comedy The Office (premiering Thursday, March 24, at 9:30 p.m., before settling into its regular time slot). Why tinker with that new-millennium classic a painfully genuine mockumentary series about a dismal suburban paper-product company and the employees who toil there under David Brent (the perfect Ricky Gervais), a needy, tactless manager? But clearly in thrall to its previous successful transplants Coupling (oh. . .right. . .that stunk) and Men Behaving Badly (oh. . . right. . .that stunk too), NBC moved forward with The Office.
The good news for fans and neophytes is that the new sitcom is clever and insular, capturing all the drudgery, awkwardness, and rivalry of cubicle living. Sure, the curious pilot is so faithful to the BBC version, it's almost Van Santian. (For aficionados, it won't work: You can't help but see Gervais' roly-poly ghost in every scene.) But further episodes which keep the basic framework but use mostly new dialogue prove the series has crossed the pond handily. Seems workplace misery is universal.
In this new Office, The Daily Show's Steve Carell takes on the Gervais role (renamed Michael Scott). Carell has had practice playing a corporate tool: His news-room lapdog was the only funny thing in Bruce Almighty (sorry, Jim Carrey). With his gelled hair, wiry body, and tan-glow face, Scott is stridently on the make (make money, make friends, make women laugh so they'll sleep with me, please, please). He describes himself in a recycled BBC line as ''a friend first, and a boss second. . .entertainer third.''
Scott quickly learns that his branch is in danger of downsizing, the irony being that many of the underwhelmed employees would welcome a layoff. Chief among these are the receptionist, Pam (Jenna Fischer), who dreams of being an illustrator, and twenty-something salesman Jim (John Krasinski), who is too bored to finish explaining what he does for a living. The two alleviate their tedium with a mutual crush, despite Pam's jackass of a fiancé (David Denman, who, with a few words, vividly creates a painfully sullen, gone-to-seed jock).
NBC could have ruined the delicate dynamic of The Office by over-Americanizing it. Some exec, at some point, must have floated the idea of morphing Pam into an Andersonian chesty blond babe. Instead, played by the sweet-faced Fischer with an air of humor and neglect, Pam's the kind of woman who doesn't bother to finish brushing her hair because, really, who notices? Fischer and Krasinski have a gentle chemistry that should be fun to watch as Jim and Pam's attraction develops. Meanwhile, Rainn Wilson, in the easy-to-overdo role of sycophant Dwight, reins in his nerd vibe just short of Urkel territory.
When the series does Americanize, it captures Scott's lower-middle-class life down to the knockoff Drakkar Noir bottles that litter his car. And when it goes broad, it gives us the future Diversity Day episode. Think of the toss-off racism of the original, plopped into a PC-gone-wrong showcase that might be entitled The Accidental Bigot. As when the African-American diversity trainer introduces himself as Mr. Brown, and Scott assures him, ''I will not call you that.''
This smart series may revive TV's interest in workplace sitcoms of the NewsRadio stripe comedies that functioned almost as reality shows: See how smart people betray, bond, and go mad when trapped in petty bureaucracies. Ultimately, though, The Office lacks the aching subtlety of the BBC version. In the Brit sitcom, Jim (there named Tim) was a melancholy fellow who deserved better, but he lacked the imagination and stomach to get it and knew it. Krasinski's Jim knows the job sucks, but he's deeply ironic about it. More damaging is Carell's Scott, who is without the sad eagerness of Gervais' manager. It was this under-tow that gave the original Office such heart (and heartbreak). Seeing Brent try to connect, impress, or sympathize, yet always get it wrong, was like watching a guy play Wiffle ball in a stiff wind. Hilarious yet poignant. So far Carell's manager is such a doofus, such a plastic man, that this entertaining American version may never reach that deeper layer of humor. But as every office drone knows, a copy is never quite as perfect as the original.