The brilliant British mock-documentary workplace tragicomedy “The Office” begins its much anticipated six-episode second season Sunday night at 9 on BBC America. As did the six previous episodes, the new installments generate a tension so awful, from circumstances so awfully lifelike, that you have to watch at times from behind laced fingers, with teeth clenched and the remote control close at hand.
Its nearest American equivalent, and an evident inspiration, is HBO’s late “The Larry Sanders Show,” while “Spinal Tap” and subsequent Christopher Guest mockumentaries are also clear precursors; but what it resembles most of all perhaps are the actual institutional documentaries of the great Frederick Wiseman (“The Store,” “Hospital”) -- clearly a comedy first.
Workplace comedy -- and this is possibly the first in which the characters actually call the place they work a “workplace” -- is a television staple, but most TV offices resemble only marginally the places real people work. They miss the hermetic airlessness of the modern office, and if they are not set glamorously at, oh, I don’t know, a newspaper or a magazine or a television or radio station, they are at least set somewhere colorful -- in a taxi garage, a bar, a hotel.
As created here, the industrial-park offices of paper merchant Wernham Hogg are permeated by the constant low thrum of electronic machinery and an atmosphere not of hilarity but of slowly ticking hours spent under unforgiving fluorescent light. This is perhaps the first television show about boredom and the pitiful or heroic ways in which it is relieved. “We just wanted it to be about missed opportunity,” star Ricky Gervais told one interviewer about the series he created and writes with Stephen Merchant. “It’s quite sad and existential when you think about it.”
Gervais plays David Brent, self-promoting office manager and self-styled comedian. If David is in one sense just another in a long line of comic characters who’s funny because he doesn’t know he’s sad, there is in his desperate need to be liked, and in his inability to make anyone like him, a struggle nearly tragic. David is doomed: He has ascended to his level of mediocrity with nowhere to go but down. He has no life outside of the office, knows no one outside his company; his primary relationship is with the camera that for some reason has come to record him and the people under him and the people above him. His eyes keep shifting helplessly toward the lens. It’s a desperate, hysterical performance.
Like all workplace comedies, “The Office” is less about work -- Wernham Hogg is a merchant, but it could be selling a thousand other goods or services -- than about the social space of the workplace, the accidental arrangements of co-workers that for many of us pass for a second, or even first, family.
The new season picks up the story a scant two weeks after the first series concludes. There are fresh challenges for David, who when last seen had lost a promotion; now he’s working under the man he would have been working over -- the younger, better-looking, funnier and more popular Neil (Patrick Baladi) -- and trying with scant success to win the hearts of half a dozen new transfers. The likable Tim (Martin Freeman), the series’ closest thing to a romantic lead, has put off a return to college for a slightly better position and appears to have gone over to the corporate dark side; but he is still wordlessly attracted to receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis), who is still wordlessly attracted to him. That dynamic will be upset by new employee Rachel (Stacey Roca). The sublimely self-delusional, fecklessly crude Gareth (Mackenzie Crook) -- who is not concerned with being liked because he has no sense that he isn’t -- continues to clutch tightly to his meaningless title of “team leader.”
The three-camera sitcom, with its sweetened live audience and shallow theatrical space, has produced much that is great, but it is a hidebound form that runs almost completely on conversation and broad reaction. “The Office,” for all its exaggerations, depends on subtlety, on small tics and fleeting moments and the things that happen when no one is supposed to be looking. The camera functions as an extra character, adding layers of visual meaning to the usual verbal. Characters communicate with the camera and shift their attitudes to the degree they’re aware of being watched.
The story plays out in accumulated fragments rather than lengthy scenes and is built up from moments outside the interest of most shows: surreptitious reaction shots, embarrassed silences, asides, spied-upon private exchanges. And never has so much depended on the eyes: We watch the people of Wernham Hogg as they watch one another, in attitudes of yearning, disgust, embarrassment, hopelessness, amusement, amazement, occasionally something like hope or happiness. It is all unspeakably beautiful.
Where: BBC America
When: Second season premieres 9 p.m. Sunday.
Rating: The network has rated the series TV-14 (may not be suitable for children younger than 14).
Ricky Gervais...David Brent
Mackenzie Crook...Gareth Keenan
Martin Freeman...Tim Canterbury
Lucy Davis...Dawn Tinsley
Patrick Baladi...Neil Godwin
Ewan Macintosh...Keith Bishop
Executive producers, Anil Gupta and Jon Plowman. Creators, writers, directors, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.