You'll be hard pressed to get Chief Justice Michael Stailey to talk about his days as an Extra, although he too worked with Clive Owen. Thankfully his experience didn't parallel Maggie's. That would have been weird.
The story of a man with small parts
British television comedy can be an acquired taste for many Americans, mainly because it's not easy to classify or sometimes understand. There are the highbrow series such as As Time Goes By and Waiting for God which focus on the humor found in the wisdom of life. The sketch series like Benny Hill, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and French and Saunders which are televised theatrical troupes exploiting the strengths of their individual and collective talents. The contemporary sexy series like AbFab and Coupling that explore the bizarre thoughts and behaviors we all share about relationships. The ensemble series like Are You Being Served?, Vicar of Dibley, and The Office which revolve around a cast of screwball characters. And then there comes a show like Extras which defies labels. It's wickedly funny, astutely observational, intriguingly poignant, and sometimes downright depressing.
Facts of the Case
Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais, The Office) is an actor…well, aspiring actor really. He doesn't have any formal training. Hasn't done theatre. But is working quite steadily as an extra on various films shooting in and around London. His best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen, Ugly Betty) is in much the same boat. But where Maggie is, for the most part, content with her place in the industry food chain, Andy is always looking to make his ascension to stardom. This is their story: Their triumphs, their failures, the star-studded array of celebrities they encounter, and the messes they make for themselves. What a ride it is.
There's no denying Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have now captured lightning in a bottle twice. But anyone going into Extras expecting The Office is going to be sorely disappointed. Whereas David Brent was the funny guy, Andy Millman is not. He's a misguided, grumpy, depressed little man who can't figure out what it is he wants out of life, let alone how to achieve it. Maggie, on the other hand, is the funny one. Her childlike innocence and limited optimistic view of the world make her the perfect Gracie Allen to Andy's George Burns. Together they stumble through the open field of life hitting every single landmine along the way. You've never seen two people unintentionally destroy each other like they do. It's truly a new art form and it'll make you smile.
Notice, I say smile, not necessarily laugh. True, there are chuckles to be had between Andy and Maggie, especially during their observational conversations, but the real laugh out loud moments come from the supporting cast and guest stars, all of whom are playing warped incarnations of themselves as you might imagine them to be in real life. Kate Winslet talking in great detail about dirty sex. Orlando Bloom and his rampaging narcissism cutting down Johnny Depp to impress the ladies. A very horny Daniel Radcliffe doing everything in his power to get laid. Clive Owen rejecting female background actors unworthy of playing his character's whore. Patrick Stewart acting out his own screenplay in which all the women's clothes fall off. David Bowie improvising a rude song about Andy. Ben Stiller's out of control ego. And the list goes on.
The supporting cast also deserves special mention. For as much as Stephen prefers to be behind the camera, his portrayal of incompetent agent Darren Lamb is genius. He has this character down from the first episode and it only gets more bizarre from there. The zenith is reached during his ill-fated date with Maggie which has to be seen to be believed. The scenes are brief, but priceless. And let's not forget his symbiotic relationship with Shaun Williamson, who Darren continually refers to as his character "Barry from EastEnders." These two could sustain a series all by themselves.
But I digress…While Extras (like The Office) is a mere blip on the map with a total of 13 episodes—two 6-episode series plus a holiday special—its lasting impact is far more profound than most American sitcoms, many of whom overstayed their welcome. Extras doesn't make that mistake. It has a story to tell and does so efficiently and effectively.
Season One explores the world of background artists, still commonly referred to as Extras. They are not actors, they are not artists, they are in fact warm-blooded human props used to paint the frame and give visual depth and authenticity to the scene. They have their own holding pen where they wait until they're needed. They aren't allowed to talk. They aren't allowed to fraternize with the talent. They must wait to eat until after the entire cast and crew have been fed. And they're often treated worse than animals on set. If you think Gervais and Merchant are exaggerating for effect, think again. I've worked background. These portrayals are spot on and illuminate just how far some people are willing to go to be part of the entertainment industry. It's sad really, but there's humor to be found in even the most dire circumstances and that's certainly true here.
Andy is bound and determined to make it as an actor, even if he has to climb over his agent to do so. He's working every background job he can get. Talking up production assistants, casting directors, and talent to try and score a line or two. And shopping a script he wrote for a new television series. Imagine his surprise when Patrick Stewart comes through with a favor and the BBC actually calls to talk with Andy. Could his luck finally be changing?
Season Two picks up shortly thereafter, but leave it to Andy to find success just as miserable as abject failure. Insensitivity, obliviousness, and self-focus are the themes for this season as Andy's series When the Whistle Blows goes into production. Molded into a form reminiscent of Are You Being Served? but set in a British manufacturing plant recently purchased by the Japanese, this cast of wacky characters soon find themselves the darlings of the prime time tele with sexual innuendo and catch-phrases galore. All the while, Andy continues to stew in his own self-created misery. His former Extra rival, Greg (venomously played by Shaun Pye), finds success in the film world garnering increasingly larger roles. To counter, he turns to theatre by starring in Sir Ian McKellan's new play. Of course, the script's sexuality has him extremely uncomfortable and he exits the show in mid-performance to somehow keep his perceived manhood in tact, while further enhancing his reputation as a difficult to work with. This is true both on stage/screen and off, as evidenced by run-ins with a homeless man and a child with Down Syndrome.
Whatever Merchant and Gervais are doing is working, as they've magically zeroed in on their audience's discomfort button and have used it to great effect. There are times you literally want to turn off the TV or walk away just to avoid the scorn and embarrassment that's headed Andy's way like a runaway freight train. Never is this more evident than in the series finale. This single albeit extended holiday special, "Bloody Merry," finds all of our heroes at the end of their respective ropes. Andy dumps Darren for a high profile agent who may finally get him the credibility and prestigious work he so desperately wants (but can never pull off). Darren and Shaun (Barry from EastEnders) close the agency and go to work at the Car Phone Warehouse. And Maggie…poor Maggie…demoralized at the hands of guest star Clive Owen, leaves the business, but can only find work as a janitor and dishwasher, spiraling down into a pit of despair. At the same time, Andy's self-importance causes him to pull the plug on the most successful thing he's ever done, and in true David Caruso/NYPD Blue style self-destructs, alienating everyone who ever meant anything in his life. And yet, at his lowest point, true honesty wins out, perversely re-initiating the entire vicious cycle to begin anew. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Extras shares a look and feel similar to The Office. The somewhat muted image exhibits a fair amount of film stock grain but with a warmth many britcoms seem to lack. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is exceptionally strong and rarely wavers. If you already own the first two seasons, the bonus materials included here are no different. Season One features deleted scenes; outtakes; "Finding Leo" a hilarious behind the scenes quest to snag DiCaprio as a guest star; and "Difficult Second Album" a mini-documentary on the creation of the series and the pressures associated with following up the success of The Office. Season Two also features deleted scenes and outtakes, as well as "The Art of Corpsing" showing how difficult it is to shoot when the cast loses its compsore; "Taping Nigel: The Gimpering" detailing the twisted backstage torture of editor Nigel Williams, in much the same way as Stephen and Ricky torment their friend and colleague Karl Pilkington; and "Extras Backstage," a series of mini-docs capturing interviews with cast, crew, and various behind the camera goings on. The Series Finale sadly contains no bonus material whatsoever, nor does it appear that its Feb 26 single disc release from HBO will contain any either. But if you own the first two seasons, you'll want to pick it up anyway.
Extras as a whole—and it must be appreciated as such—is a brilliant social satire and dead on running through of the entertainment business. While uniquely British in many ways, it deals with much of the same pitfalls actors experience on this side of the pond and parallels the human condition. While fans and studio executives may claim Gervais and Merchant are fools for cutting their series short, they fail to see the real point being made. Get in, say what you have to say, and get out. The message, if effective, will eventually sink in and the series be cherished for the way in which it is conveyed. Cheers mates. Well done.
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are once again absolved of any wrong doing and hereby commissioned to go forth and create even more brilliantly concise pieces of comedy. We know you have it in you.
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• "The Difficult Second Album"
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