"...She's scrabbling around to get them back on again, but even before she can get her knickers on, I've seen everything. Yeah. I've seen it all."
-- Patrick Stewart
-- Patrick Stewart
It's no secret that I care very little about Ricky Gervais's earlier creation The Office, as I found Gervais's performance as David Brent completely unwatchable. I know and understand many people found it hilarious and a spooky parody of "the office boss", but I found it as tolerable and puking inducing as watching a snail being crushed by a shoe in slow motion. Backwards. While Aria on G String plays. Mixed with the Cheeky Song. Backwards.
I know it was Gervais who made the show so utterly intolerable for me, because Steve Carrell on the US version of The Office doesn't elicit the same bodily response from me. Instead of wanting to pull out a hammer and cave in my own skull while watching I actually have an enjoyable experience with laughing and genuine empathy for Michael Scott (Carrell).
So there was a genuine level of wariness when I first heard about about Extras from friends and family, as it was mostly coming from people who admitted they loved The Office (UK) - most of them still haven't seen the superior US version, philistines! As such I missed out on watching the first season when it aired on the BBC. Not even the mention that HBO was involved in the production made me come out of my shell and take a peek.
But then I saw the first series available for purchase at a ridiculously low price - I can't recall exactly how much, but my mind is telling me it was around three quid. So I decided to give it a go, I'd sat through the experience of H2O in the cinema and that cost more. I'd also seen Gervais's stand up live and that was very good. So how bad could Extras be? Crappy lightning doesn't strike twice, it's too runny.
The short answer is not bad at all, not even in the slightest. Gervais's character Andy Milman is a far more likable and sympathetic individual who manages to be flawed without being an inhuman caricature of a cardboard goblin. He feels quite genuine in his struggle to 'make it' and be recognised as an actor. But more importantly here Gervais is supported by some fantastic actors who are willing to throw themselves into the project. Ashley Jensen plays Maggie Jacobs, a fellow extra like Andy who's also searching to 'make it' or make it with mister right, and she's a lovely character indeed. It's almost heartbreaking to follow her struggle throughout the series, but she remains sweet and funny throughout.
Then there's Stephen Merchant as Andy's rather incompetent agent Darren and Shaun Williamson as Barry "off Eastenders" aka himself. Shaun in particular is a great sport in this, more than willing to send up his career as he shuffles around like a man who's been beaten into submission. And Shaun Pye as Greg, Andy's nemesis, a fellow extra who's talents are recognised and enjoys a meteoric rise while Andy wallows in mediocrity.
But the real star turns are the ones performed by the guest stars each week. Many famous Hollywood and British actors take part in this show, playing often hideously inaccurate and offensive caricatures or stereotypes of themselves with a passion and sense of irony which shows that they're more than willing to send up themselves and famous actors in general. In the first series we have the likes of Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp (who's brilliant as a pretend hard man), Samuel L. Jackson and the brilliant Patrick Stewart (Who's write a script about a man with the ability to change the world with his mind. But just uses it to make women's clothes fall off like a dirty old man. The second series brings us; Orlando Bloom, Keith Chegwin, David Bowie, a fantastic Daniel Radcliffe (as a pervy teenage version of himself), Sir Ian McKellen and Jonathan Ross. While the finale/special brings a host of actors including Clive Owen, George Michael, Gordon Ramsay, David Tennant, Hale & Pace and more besides. While it's no surprise that so many actors are willing to get involved with one of Merchant and Gervais's projects, it's refreshing how willing they are to lampoon themselves on screen.
Extras is a great piece, not just because of the outlandish performances from all the celebrities involved (big or small), but also because of the humanity in the show. Extras are an essential piece of television, they plod along in the background fleshing a scene out, bringing realism to shows, all the time hoping that they might get recognised or even just get a line. And Gervais knows about this business, his experiences in it bring a weight and emotional edge to the show which just isn't present in The Office. This really is a show which tries to celebrate the struggle to become famous and then demonstrates how meaningless it is when you succeed.
Andy's course across the series, culminating in the ultimate humiliation/last ditch remember me experience - the celebrity reality show - is a chilling example of what happens to most people involved in the industry; the machine ignores them until they show ability for making money, then it sucks them in, chews them up and spits them back out. Left with a taste of what was like for a brief moment to be noticed. Andy's speech on Celebrity Big Brother is a powerful one and a great way to close out the entire series.
Extras is a genuine piece of telly culture; a sit-com which manages to be both funny and thought provoking simultaneously. It's something which holds up to repeated viewings and also has something meaningful to say to those watching and the industry itself. Of course; if anyone is listening is another matter entirely, and if Extras is right...
No-one is listening and no-one cares.