I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, “Oh, the script’s not funny, it’s crass, it’s lowest common denominator”…and you’re right. But don’t worry about it, because people will watch anything.
— Darren Lamb (Stephen Merchant)
In the first season of Extras, pudgy, middle-aged Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) quit his job to pursue an acting career. While working as “background artists” and desperate to prove themselves as “real” actors, he and his friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) faced the reality of the industrial-entertainment complex. They struggled with tyrannical directors, conniving actors — Kate Winslet made an especially hilarious cameo playing herself as a foul-mouthed Oscar-grubbing harpy in a nun’s habit — in an environment of delusional self-importance. Despite the petty ugliness suffusing their chosen profession, Andy and Maggie kept searching for fulfillment within it. While Maggie pursued her contentment in a series of failed romances, Andy looked for the Big Part, the project that would challenge him creatively.
In the show’s second season, Andy finally gets that project — or so he thinks. The BBC offers to produce his sitcom, and he jumps at the chance. Of course, the producers dumb down his ideas, flattening his work to a series of catchphrases and funny wigs. At the end of Episode One, having resigned himself to a crass, lowest common-denominator version of his ideal, he looks out at his audience from behind the comically large prop glasses he’s forced to wear. As the crowd guffaws in Pavlovian response, Andy walks backstage. In a scene played with subtle pathos, he deflates, seeming to exhale an essential part of himself.
Some critics have dismissed Extras as yet another satire of Hollywood self-absorption, in the vein of Entourage or Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show’s second season, however, makes clear that Gervais and writing partner Stephen Merchant (who also plays his gangly, clueless agent, Darren Lamb) have richer themes to mine. Through the character of Andy Millman, who’s aware of the temptations of celebrity but not free of them, they explore our culture’s similarly ambivalent relationship with celebrity. The most impressive sleight-of-hand performed by shows such as American Idol for example, is that their faux-populism creates an illusion of a celebrity meritocracy masking the creative compromises made by virtually every popular artist.
Andy learns to compromise. He sees himself not as someone chasing fame, but as a creative, productive individual. Yet he sacrifices his creative vision in order to see even a watered-down version of his ideal reach the audience. There’s no art without an audience, his internal logic goes. To his dismay, the show becomes a massive popular hit while being panned by the critics. Andy’s audience, the people who define him as an artist, repulse him, but he can’t deny their adulation. He now has an audience, but it’s not the audience he wants; he’s still insecure, afraid that he’s “sold out.”
Gervais has described Extras as his “There but for the grace of God go I” take on fame. Because he never had to compromise his vision of The Office, Gervais never suffered quite the same creative doubt that does his alter ego. In Episode Two of this season, Andy is spotted by his fans, a greasy-haired, unkempt “rabble,” who force him to repeat his signature catchphrase. He flees to the safety of a VIP lounge, where he confides his doubt to David Bowie. The Thin White Duke listens attentively, then publicly improvs a song about the “little fat man who sold his soul.”
The motif in Extras of having a celebrity portray an insensitive version of himself further underscores our ambivalence toward celebrity. We laugh knowingly at David Bowie mocking himself — surely he isn’t like that in “real” life! At the same time, we suspect celebrities are never quite as we expect them to be in “real life,” Tom Cruise’s recent meltdowns being one example of a celebrity betraying his contract with the rest of us. On yet another level, we cringe because Andy Millman, a character much closer to ourselves than anyone around him, is being insulted by David Bowie. Part of the humor lies in reinforcing the power dynamic between A-lister David Bowie and Andy Millman, nonentity.
His ego shaken, Andy retreats. He returns not just to the safety of his “rabble,” but to the safety of his persona, repeating his “Is he havin’ a laugh?” catchphrase to the amusement of his pseudo-friends. He returns to the people for whom he has no respect, but who admire him unconditionally — just because he’s on TV. There’s sadness in his smile as he hoists a pint with the madding crowd.
The conflict between Andy the person and Andy the persona drives the second season of Extras. A mother expects him to say a few words at her terminally ill son’s funeral, simply because Andy’s almost famous. A restaurant confrontation becomes tabloid fodder, threatening to derail his movie career; he’s forced to give a homeless man twenty pounds because he doesn’t want “people to say Andy Millman hates the poor.” His aim in life quickly becomes persona management: he appears in a play because he believes that’s the path to artistic credibility, but then can’t go through with a gay kiss because his high school rivals are in the audience. His initial creative compromise has opened a door for him, but that opening comes with a price: for the modern celebrity, there is no offstage