created, written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
I finally caught up with the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant series Extras, which I had wanted to see ever since finishing their sitcom The Office (2001-2003), and I have to say, it’s every bit as brilliant. Uncomfortable, self-deprecating comedy has always made me laugh, and these guys are geniuses at pulling it off without going overboard.
Extras is the story of sad sack actor Andy Millman (Gervais), a man who desperately wants to make it in the limelight but can only get work as a film and TV extra. His blundering interactions with actors, crews, agents, and execs make up the bulk of the show, but it’s in the way Gervais and Merchant weave in big stars playing versions of themselves (and their egos) that this spoof comes truly alive: Clive Owen lamenting the lame choice of actresses playing prostitutes; Orlando Bloom explaining how he’s hotter than Johnny Depp; Daniel Radcliffe chatting up older women on set. All the cameos are simultaneously hilarious and even eerily prescient– Kate Winslet hoping to win an Oscar for a role in a Holocaust-themed movie ended up happening in real life with her performance in The Reader (2008), and a scene where an extra confuses Samuel Jackson for Laurence Fishburne became true in 2014 when a news anchor made the same mistake while interviewing him on live TV.
Extras also has an emotional core, something Gervais and Merchant brought to The Office as well and which seems to be part of the DNA of Brit television. In the series’ second season, Andy finally breaks into the big time with a sitcom produced by the BBC called When the Whistle Blows, and he sees his original idea compromised and cheapened for quick ratings. And lo and behold, it becomes a hit – Andy can’t escape his B-level status, yet it also brings him notoriety and glamour, a shot at being idolized even if he hates himself for it. The show-within-a-show structure ends up giving Extras a level of poignancy that pays off beautifully with Andy’s realization that money and celebrity amount to very little when you can’t even hold on to your friends.
At only two seasons, Extras is the perfect length (as was The Office), never overstaying its welcome or resorting to ridiculous padding. Just watching David Bowie sing a hysterical song about Andy – “He sold his soul for a shot at fame / Catchphrase and wigs and the jokes are lame” – is worth the entire affair. All together now: “Pug! Pug!”
Carlos I. Cuevas
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