It feels both inaccurate and inadequate to describe The Office as a comedy. On a superficial level, it disdains all the conventions of television sitcoms: there are no punch lines, no jokes, no laugh tracks and no cute happy endings. More profoundly, it's not what we're used to thinking of as funny. Most of the fervently devoted fan base that the programme acquired watched with a discomfortingly thrilling combination of identification and mortification. The paradox is that its best moments are almost physically unwatchable.
Set in the offices of a fictional Slough paper merchant, The Office is filmed in the style of a reality television programme. The writing is subtle and deft, the acting wonderful and the characters beautifully drawn: the cadaverous team leader Gareth, a paradigm of Andy McNab's readership; the monstrous sales rep, Chris Finch; and the decent but long-suffering everyman Tim, whose ambition and imagination have been crushed out of him by the banality of the life he dreams uselessly of escaping. The show is stolen, as it was intended to be, by insufferable office manager David Brent, played by cowriter Ricky Gervais. Brent will become a name as emblematic for a particular kind of British grotesque as Alan Partridge or Basil Fawlty, but he is a deeper character than either. Partridge and Fawlty are exaggerations of reality, and therefore safely comic figures. Brent is as appalling as only reality can be.