It's awfully hard to make dullness funny, but Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, writer-directors of the BBC's "The Office," pull it off. Their sitcom, shot in documentary style, explores the workplace in all its screaming banality but without ever screaming itself.

BBC America, the upscale and winningly eclectic cable channel (seen on satellite services like DirecTV), has wisely imported the short-run series but unwisely slotted it at the awkward time of 10:20 p.m. Thursdays. Regardless, the second episode, airing tonight, proves a masterly job of sneaky-sly satire about quietly desperate people trapped in a beige bureaucratic purgatory.

The setting happens to be a paper supply company in a London suburb, but similarities to offices everywhere are discomfortingly obvious. That includes the boss, a would-be Everybuddy named David Brent, who is played by Gervais himself. Brent is perpetually trying to ingratiate himself with his workers by making the lamest possible humorous remarks and then laughing at them himself until his hapless victims give up and join in.

There's a delicate subtlety to it, but Gervais has found the pathos at the center of this blundering buffoon, and so the indignities he suffers, often when his poorly laid plans go justly awry, are funny, but painfully so. In tonight's episode, for instance, he's giving a soulful young beauty named Donna (Sally Bretton) a demonstration of office e-mail when what pops up at the push of a button but an obscene cartoon showing Brent with the body of a woman and doing something naughty (we don't see the cartoon, sorry).

Immediately -- or sometime thereafter -- an investigation is launched, headed up by the skinny office toady, power-mad Gareth, wittily played by string bean Mackenzie Crook. For the investigation only, he graduates from a cubicle to an actual room, meaning, yes, "I can say to people, 'Come to my office,' " he exults.

When he asks the first suspect whether he drew the offending cartoon, the man replies, "Yes. I mean, no." The inquiry is conducted with consummate clumsiness while co-workers chuckle and then, voila{grv}, the wrong man is naturally identified as the culprit. That would be Gareth's hectoring cubicle neighbor, Tim (Martin Freeman), whose favorite pastime is ringing up the cell phone that Gareth carries ceremonially in a holster strapped around one shoulder.

Brent's embarrassment over the cartoon is masked as social outrage. "It degrades women, which I hate," he pontificates. Vowing to catch the "man" responsible, he feels compelled to add, "It could be a woman. Women are as filthy as men." That's his idea of equal opportunity.

As Brent's usual bad luck would have it, an efficiency expert from the home office has arrived to look over the straggling operation. She sees through Brent's phony bonhomie: Essentially, the man spends his life bluffing. What we know without being told is that the unseen higher-management types above him are probably just as incompetent as he is -- but also heartless and devoid of his pathological yet endearing need to be liked.

The office is faced with downsizing, just as many American offices are, and as viewers learned in Episode 1, a good deal of American slang has crossed the Atlantic, including "walk the walk, talk the talk" and "absolutely mental." Although some references still seem arcane, much of what happens is hideously familiar.

Many an American sitcom has been set at least partially in an office, but always one filled with outlandishly wacky characters. In "The Office," no one delivers a punch line as if it were a punch line and no one goes over the top. The approach is dry and understated, with occasional asides to the camera, since everyone is supposedly being filmed for a documentary -- surely the dreariest of all time.

Mike Judge, creator of "Beavis and Butt-head," made a darn good try at a seriously funny workplace comedy with his 1999 film "Office Space," but Gervais and Merchant have even greater success. "The Office" is hilarious in a very hip and flippant way.

The working stiffs at BBC America's "The Office" include, from left, Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis.