When the BBC’s The Office drew to a close after only two series (12 episodes) and a special, many thought Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had done a monumentally smart (and rare) thing in television. They quit while they were ahead. John Cleese did much the same thing with Fawlty Towers two decades ago, and he never again wrote television comedy. But Gervais and Merchant have returned, with Extras, a joint production from the BBC and HBO which begins its Stateside run 25 September, after airing in the UK this summer.
While The Office mined the world of dead-end middle-management, Extras finds a similarly rich vein of comic agony in the world of film and television background players. Gervais stars as Andy Millman, an aspiring actor who spends his time moping around film sets trying to wriggle his way in to better things. He’s joined by Maggie (Ashley Jensen), a kooky, ambitionless Scot who frets incessantly about her love life. Maggie’s utter indifference to her career and Millman’s single-minded obsession with his make them tidily complementary, which they handle with gentle, slightly off-kilter warmth. The only other regular character is the Agent (Merchant), a supremely indifferent dilettante whose commitment to his clients’ careers does not extend to getting them work, or, for that matter, doing any himself.
As might be expected by Office aficionados, butt-clenchingly awkward social situations and politically incorrect faux pas come up repeatedly here. Gervais regularly makes comic virtue of bullish ignorance, and his ascent to the mainstream hasn’t kept him from aiming to send viewers curling up behind in the couch in empathetic embarrassment. The new show offers more chance for that. Where The Office‘s David Brent was frequently a victim of his manifold flaws, Millman is passive, a mild and bemused bystander at the mercy of outrageous fellows. (In one episode, he describes a flamboyantly camp co-writer he is forced to work with as being just “too gay, like a cliché of a gay person”.) In short, Millman is closer to Gervais than Brent ever was, and Extras teases out compelling tension from his desperate efforts to enter the world of the glitterati.
Which brings us to the show’s most widely touted coup, an impressive lineup of A-list guest stars playing themselves on fictional film sets. Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet, Patrick Stewart, and Samuel L. Jackson join a clutch of C-list Brit celebs, all sending themselves up in cameos. Of course, this isn’t exactly unusual in U.S. television, where shows ranging from The Simpsons to Curb Your Enthusiasm deploy the tactic regularly. But for a BBC television production (notoriously frugal), it’s a testament to new power of Gervais in the wake of his Golden Globe success.
The premiere episode sees Ben Stiller playing Ben Stiller, directing an Oscar-fodder movie about the Balkans conflict. No surprise, Stiller plays himself as a total jerk, pulling rank on his underlings.
Stiller: Do you know who I am?
Millman: Starsky or Hutch, I don’t remember which.
Stiller: Was that meant to be funny?
Millman: It’s your movie. You tell me.
Such exchanges emphasize the low-key nature of Gervais’ humor generally, and sometimes fall flat here, in particular. In the promotional material on the BBC website, Gervais describes Extras as “the show some critics are already calling the disappointing follow-up to The Office, a nice bit of preemption indicating he’s aware of the comparisons that have been and will be leveled. The critical verdict on the show was mixed in Britain, with some warming to another opportunity to savor Gervais’ knack for observational comedy, and others complaining that the show amounted to little more than a dilution of The Office‘s pungent effects.
In the U.S. though, comparisons to The Office may not prove such an obstacle, since it is known primarily through its Yankified remake starring Steve Carell (penned not by Gervais and Merchant, but by King of the Hill writer Greg Daniels). In mid-August, the BBC announced it was commissioning a second series of Extras, even before the first completed its initial UK run, indicating that, at least for the moment, while Extras is unlikely to make the kind of splash its predecessor did, nobody should be writing off Gervais and Merchant as a spent force just yet.