March 28, 2005 12:00 PM

COMEDY

NBC (Thurs., March 24, 9:30 p.m. ET)

Talk about two countries separated by a common language. When NBC tried to Americanize the British hits Men Behaving Badly and Coupling, the resulting shows might as well have been called Lost in Translation. Now the network is having a go at The Office, a priceless workplace comedy with an enthusiastic following in the U.S. thanks to its airings on BBC America (which reruns the first season March 26 from noon to 4 p.m.). Devotees are probably poised to dismiss the adaptation out of hand, but I found enough funny business here to overcome my sales resistance.

If anything, the new show’s debut script tracks the Britcom too closely. The names and a few terms have been changed—”redundancies” is now “downsizing”—but enter the Dunder-Mifflin company’s Scranton, Pa., office and you’ll instantly note the similarity between regional manager Michael (Daily Show alum Steve Carell) and Ricky Gervais’s idiot-boss character from the original. Though at first you may think Carell labors to approximate Gervais’s frantically phony bonhomie, I couldn’t help laughing at Michael’s unshakable delusion that his tired act is going over big with the troops. The series quickly establishes a faux-documentary style as the boss introduces an unseen film crew to Pam (Jenna Fischer), the receptionist who cringes at his compulsive joking; Jim (John Krasinski), an affable but bored-stiff sales rep with a sweet crush on Pam; and status-obsessed Dwight (Rainn Wilson), who huffily portrays himself as Michael’s second in command while falling victim to Jim’s pitiless pranks. Human beings can be petty and cruel when they have nothing better to do.

The second episode, airing March 29 at 9:30 in the show’s regular slot, finds humor both broad and edgy in a diversity seminar that reveals Michael as Mr. Insensitivity. For The Office to work long-term, it must avoid softening the boss but keep him from being so obnoxious that viewers quit without two weeks’ notice.

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