There have been numerous first-rate pieces of entertainment about the ways the modern workplace can inspire boredom, soul death, and the kind of amusement one gets from recognizing oneself as the proverbial cog in the corporate wheel. Joseph Heller's novel Something Happened (1974), Bachman-Turner Overdrive's 1974 single ''Takin' Care of Business,'' and the 1999 movie ''Office Space'' all fit the bill. Now we must add ''The Office,'' which confirms its greatness in season 2.
If you've missed it, ''The Office'' is a Brit-com about a frowsy little paper-supply business; even the name of the town where the office is located -- Slough -- conveys a weary despair. The series, a collaboration between creator-writer-directors Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, stars Gervais as David Brent, the epitome of middle-management weaselliness. Brent is the sort of grinning, deluded guy who thinks his employees laugh at his awful jokes because they think he's a stitch rather than just the boob who signs their paychecks. Pudgy and goateed, giving off a whiff of desperation commingled with cheap cologne, Brent delivers garbled motivational-business-book cliches (''Nothing ever changes by staying the same, quite literally''), and as these new episodes begin he tries to ingratiate himself with some transfers to his office by telling a racist joke, and later refers to one of them, a woman in a wheelchair, as a ''little lady.''
Brent's two primary underlings are Martin Freeman's Tim, a smart, sensitive young man who's driven crazy by Brent's oafishness whenever he's not being driven even crazier by the character occupying the desk next to him, Gareth (Mackenzie Crook, the loose-eyeball buccaneer in ''Pirates of the Caribbean''). Where Tim is a cute guy whose appeal is only enhanced by a misconception that he's a loser, Gareth is a gaunt sad sack whose idea of hilarity is a desktop novelty item in the shape of a policeman that squawks, ''Stop! Move away from the cookie jar!'' when its head is opened to remove a cookie.
The pleasure to be taken from ''Office'' isn't merely that of laughter -- it's the pleasure of watching a piece of entertainment so perfectly made and so delicately acted. Shot on video with no laugh track, the series benefits from a stylistic innovation: The characters acknowledge -- by glances and sometimes by direct address -- that cameras are recording their actions, but the show never devolves into a spoof of a reality series. The closest U.S. comparison to its cringe comedy is ''Curb Your Enthusiasm'', but Gervais and Co. have added heart and soulfulness to the heart-and soullessness of everyday life: ''The Office'' makes banality thrilling. A