Sunday, January 14, 2007

Is he having a laugh?

Ricky Gervais is currently on top of the world: his podcasts have broken records for worldwide downloads, his recent UK tour sold out in nine minutes, and he's making increasing inroads into the States thanks to the success of NBC's remake of The Office and his own follow-up Extras, which begins its second season on HBO tonight at 10. Extras is no Office, but it's still a good time, mixing broad English comedy with a Larry David-esque comedy of manners and celebrity.

The first season followed a rather basic formula: struggling actor Andy Millman (Gervais) and his ditzy friend Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen, now making a name for herself on Ugly Betty) work as extras on a film set and encounter exaggerated, ridiculous versions of various celebrities (Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller et al). It was cute but extremely inconsequential, and even those who knew Gervais would never even try to try and top The Office were a little let down. Season 2 acknowledges these faults and adds a little depth. Andy is now somewhat of a success, as the BBC have greenlit his sitcom idea 'When the Whistle Blows'. But it's twisted out of his hands and turned into a cheap catchphrase-based workplace comedy, the likes of which are seen on UK TV every day (hell, The Office could have been such a thing). Gervais uses this to explore that certain, rather lame kind of fame English TV personalities have, with one episode set at the BAFTA TV awards, and another dealing with Andy's entanglements with the British media, and it's rather effective, but might well go over the heads of many an American viewer.

Thankfully, the celebrities are still here, including a sex-crazed Daniel Radcliffe, a pompous Orlando Bloom and (best of all) a rather deranged Ian McKellen. Although it's fun to see such big names merrily stamp on their reputations, it does tend to overshadow the plot and obscure any real pathos the show could derive from Andy's situation. Better is co-writer/director Stephen Merchant's role as Andy's bungling agent, which has been expanded from the first season. He's an obnoxious boor who seems to have little regard for Andy's actual talent or any social convention whatsoever. His scenes with Andy (or with his hapless, depressed assistant Sean "Barry" Williamson, a real has-been soap star playing himself) are definitely the funniest in the show. It's nice to see Merchant making a bit of a name for himself, as he's always lurked in the background before despite being just as involved in writing and directing The Office.

The six episodes run smoothly and meet an agreeable end with a real A-list guest star (whose identity HBO seems to be hiding, but wikipedia will tell you) and some sweet moments between Andy and the eternally clueless Maggie. I've heard rumblings of a third season and I personally hope Gervais decides to move on: Extras has been a fun diversion but I'd like to see if the current king of British comedy can produce something more challenging (other rumors suggest he's looking into producing an hour-long drama, or even a film project). Nonetheless, Extras is definitely recommended viewing if only for a good few laughs.

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