At the end of the first season of Extras, struggling entertainer Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) lands a sitcom with the BBC. It’s the first sign of forward movement in his life. During the first six episodes, he and his flaky actress friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) did little but chatter at the edge of film sets, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the production crew.
The second season opens with the taping of his show, a workplace comedy called When the Whistle Blows, and Millman’s dreadful realization that he has created a lousy piece of work.
If the first season was about the angst of middle aged stasis, the second focuses on the problems that come with a promotion. In an interview included with the DVD release, Gervais says the theme is “Be careful what you wish for.” It could also be “To thine own self be true.” Andy’s misery at sacrificing his vision for fame (“I want to work on a credible sitcom that will stand the test of time”) is all too convincingly evoked. Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant are touching a sensitive nerve, restructuring the series around the angst of the creative act with much funnier results.
Gervais and Merchant freely confess their own egotistical foibles, and note that many jokes are based on their experience after The Office. They’re essentially presenting more pathetic versions of their popular personas (The Office was a critical success, the fictional Whistle is not), such that they may consider their love of comedy. Each episode has Andy dishing out contempt to the fawning fans and moronic friends he cultivates to make himself feel better about himself, while desperately seeking the approval of his superiors. Repeatedly, he’s brought down by mixed results, using humor as aggression and protection.
Merchant acknowledges, “It’s the most sitcom-y thing we’ve ever done.” Extras is filled with celebrity cameos, pratfalls, bawdy jokes, shameless mugging, and larger than life idiots. Millman’s Whistle catchphrase — “Are you ‘avin’ a laff?!” — became a catchphrase in Britain (Merchant sputters, “And people were shouting it, without irony”). Three-camera studio setups are combined with Merchant and Gervais’ faux documentary style, and the storylines borrow from Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, where selfish actions snowball one embarrassing moment into a complex mass of degradation.
Through When the Whistle Blows, Merchant and Gervais show how these techniques can be cheap and embarrassing. In the “real” world outside the show, they display how they might be used artfully, when jokes stem from the characters’ personalities rather than the usual sitcom’s setup-punchline format. The cameos, mostly superfluous to the main plot, also comment on how fame distorts and fractures ego — from Daniel Radcliffe whirling around an unrolled condom to prove he’s not Harry Potter to Chris Martin using charity work to plug Coldplay’s greatest hits. Appearances by British television actors like Keith Chegwin, Ronnie Corbett, and Shaun “Barry from EastEnders” Williamson reveal underappreciated talent. What initially seems like a rather harsh critique of lowbrow entertainment becomes a nuanced analysis of comedy where the central premise is that it should work for you, first, and not for an imagined audience.
Of course, laughter is not always entertainment. In the first episode, Andy’s dim agent Darren Lamb (Merchant) points out the “undercurrent of tragedy” in Barry’s face. “People will laugh at him, they never laugh with him.” Cruelty and despair lie beneath the surface, and the comedy depicts how the myopic selfishness of Andy’s actions only furthers his loneliness.
Against this bleak background, change has to come slowly to be believable. In the second to last episode, when Andy quits a play mid-performance because, “It’s not my audience,” he comes across as homophobic (he’s uncomfortable with the play’s coming out plot), refreshingly lucid (he doesn’t really want the part’s “serious” actor brownie points), and disastrously self-absorbed. His glimmer of self-realization is tinged with delusion, but it’s a start. In the final episode, the series takes a sudden and unconvincing stab at reconciliation, with Andy trying to atone for a season’s worth of sins in five minutes. The rushed ending might be another standby of the bad sitcom, but it’s not a welcome appropriation, and is the season’s major stumble.
Andy’s self-destruction runs parallel to Maggie’s do-nothing complacency. During the second season, she is stuck in the same extra-employed stasis as the first. Many of her storylines are the same: she is repeatedly set upon by boors on the set, becomes annoyed and rejects them. After work, she engages in pointless banter with Andy and he toys with her stupidity like a bored cat. Yet Andy is just as trapped in his behavior.
How to offer hope to such faulty repetitive lives? That may be the existential question behind all sitcoms. Are we essentially incapable of change or doomed to recycle plots? Despite the tacked-on ending, Extras leaves the question unresolved.