News

Whether 'The Office' or 'Extras,' Gervais knows when to bow out

Diane Werts
Newsday (MCT)

And so it comes down to this. "Celebrity Big Brother."

Of course. When you think about it - or even if you don't much - this was the inevitable end for actor Andy Millman on HBO's dry comedy odyssey "Extras." On his trajectory from dead-end movie extra work alongside the cameo-guest likes of Ben Stiller, to his big TV break parroting a horrible catchphrase on the kind of awful sitcom only the Brits can make, to the final episode of this second stellar humili-com from star Ricky Gervais and writing partner Stephen Merchant ("The Office"), Andy could only have ended up at the epicenter of celebreality today.

That's a bit of a spoiler for the 90-minute "Extras" finale airing Sunday night at 9 EST on HBO, but it's such an irresistible hook that I couldn't help myself. Obviously, Gervais and Merchant couldn't help themselves, either. Do they ever take on - and take down - the kind of shamelessly pandering star-gawk that's filling more of our TV screens. And to think they're attacking just before the flood of "reality" junk flowing toward 2008 thanks to the ongoing Hollywood writers strike.

Before he can reach the depths, though, Andy has to swing through the highs, which he's riding thanks to his dopey sitcom hit. There are paparazzi, swank eateries and holiday displays of Ray Stokes dolls spouting the character's inane catchphrase ("Are you havin' a laugh?"). But the sweatshop products aren't selling, confides a store manager, because the public "are more discerning than I thought."

This is Andy's cue to "ankle" his golden gig to "be associated with credible stuff - something classy." But good intentions do not a career make. After he's dissed in more ways than you can imagine - watch Andy join pop singer/police magnet George Michael sending himself up on a public park's "queer bench" - Andy's big head deflates enough to consider playing a guest monster on "Doctor Who."

And then comes the inevitable get-back-on-camera gambit. Andy's "Celebrity Big Brother" housemates won't be famous names to most Americans - `90s popster Lisa Scott-Lee (of Steps), game-show mainstay Lionel Blair - which actually gives their playing a touch more (dare I use the word?) reality, as they're asked to rank themselves in order of level of fame.

But Andy's visit to the house isn't just for havin' a laugh. This more self-aware character (compared to "The Office's" David Brent) has a sort of meltdown, or epiphany, about celebrity culture that not only hits home for us but for his own desperate fame-seeking self. Like "The Office," Gervais' "Extras" concludes with a moment of truth, clarity and poignance that only reminds us how these emotional elements have been downplayed in the Americanization of Gervais and Merchant's work.

The beanpole Merchant, too, gets a proper spotlight in the finale of "Extras," as Andy's useless agent, whose fortunes also take an affecting-while-amusing turn. And as Andy's loyal movie-extra compatriot, Ashley Jensen ("Ugly Betty's" closet manager) shines in the finale's most touching moments, where she's shoved ever further down the dignity ladder by her erstwhile pal's attempts to maintain his fame.

The best thing about the "Extras" finale, though, is that it exists. After just 12 episodes - same as "The Office" (and further back, John Cleese and Connie Booth's "Fawlty Towers") - Gervais and Merchant are calling it quits because they've said what they had to say. No beating a dead horse, repeating themselves or betraying their show's core values, Hollywood-style, to keep the cash cow going.

Now there's something that could actually make the writers' strike a worthwhile effort: devising a new financial model to reward creative artists for not overstaying their welcome. Gervais never does. Which is why he's welcome back - in some other guise - anytime.

___

EXTRAS

Ricky Gervais (Britain's original "The Office") smartly ends his second exceptional series of humor-through-humiliation. His character of a film extra turned sitcom sensation turns yet again, into a pathetic yet proud victim of today's celebrity culture.

Series finale premieres Sunday, 9-10:30 p.m. EST, on HBO.

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