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T.V. on TV: Extras and The Knights of Prosperity

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T.V. on TV: <em>Extras</em> and <em>The Knights of Prosperity</em>

With Extras, co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant may have cracked the second novel problem. In following up an acclaimed first series (the British original version of The Office, which featured Gervais as the estimable David Brent), they deliberately set expectations low (Gervais remarked before the first season debuted that it would be referred to as “the disappointing follow-up to The Office”). In many ways, their series Extras, now in its second season on HBO, was set up to be a lively little vanity project to cleanse the creative palate of The Office. But Extras is, in its own way, a very successful comedy, a meditation on the lust for fame and its attendant perils, as well as a canny meta-commentary on the form itself (in the form of big guest star cameos).

Where The Office was an instantly relatable tale of workplace drudgery, Extras takes place in the world of show business. Now, to be fair, there’s nothing less relatable to the mass audience than the world of show biz, which tends to be rather insular (and, as such, series about the world of show biz tend to wrap themselves in that insularity, as though they were aiming to appeal only to those living in the Hollywood Hills), but Gervais and Merchant have found a way to tunnel in to that world through the story of Andy Millman (played by Gervais), a professional extra who longs to create a realistic sitcom about a workplace (that sounds a lot like The Office). He and his friend, Maggie (the wonderfully naïve Ashley Jensen), work on various film sets, encountering the likes of Kate Winslet and Patrick Stewart, angling to get speaking parts or something lasting out of the whole experience.

That template for the series changed at the end of season one, when Andy successfully sold his workplace sitcom to the BBC. In his desire to be heard and to achieve fame, though, he sold out his creative vision to create an awful show that buries his realism under several layers of self-conscious wackiness. Andy’s character, Ray, wears a silly wig and big glasses and has an irritatingly long-lasting catchphrase (just try listening to Gervais say “Is he having a laugh?” once and see if you can stop yourself from saying it in everyday conversation at any time in the days after you see it). The sitcom Andy created gets horrible reviews but a huge audience, and he finds his fame to be worse than obscurity, precisely because he got famous for all of the wrong reasons.

Now, this isn’t a terribly original narrative (it’s basically Faust with a cheesy theme song), but Gervais and Merchant make the most of their story. Most rags-to-riches narratives luxuriate in the newfound fame of their central character (Entourage, for all its successes, is basically a long advertisement for how great it would be to be young, single and rich); Extras suggests something very different—that creative control and being in charge of your own destiny are much more important than having it all. Again, this isn’t a terribly original theme, but it does stand in marked contrast to every other inside show business show on television (even the otherwise excellent 30 Rock, which imagines its TV set as the zaniest workplace ever).

This central theme has made the second season of Extras a marked improvement over the first, boosting it to come close to being as good as The Office (which also had a strong, unifying theme and narrative at its center). Where the first season was essentially a collection of comic sketches, the second season is a coherent story about people who swore they’d never sell out and then wake up one morning to find they have. It helps that Merchant and Gervais have no illusions about the basic decency of Andy. He’s a nice enough guy, but he was completely culpable in letting his show be torn away from him by an overzealous network, so scared was he of having it all ripped away from him. What’s more, he’s more than happy to use his newfound fame to get perks or bash his viewers as “thick,” then luxuriate in their adoration after David Bowie makes fun of him.

It’s interesting how Extras has become almost a mirror image of NBC’s beleaguered series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Both are vanity projects, created by people coming off of prior hits who had their pick of actors and budgets and subject matter. But where Studio 60 creator Aaron Sorkin (late of The West Wing) has turned the story of his life in show biz into a self-serving mishmash that seems designed simply to lecture at everyone who disagrees with him, Extras is smarter in how it tells the story of its creators’ lives. Gervais and Merchant are certainly doing something self-serving by showing how The Office could have gone horribly, horribly wrong with the show-within-Extras, “When the Whistle Blows.” Obviously, they’re patting themselves on the back, but they’re also trying to say something about how easy it is to put our own concerns in front of the good work we would like to do. Studio 60 embraces roughly the same idea, but there, the protagonists put themselves before their work before overcoming this tendency every week to crank out sketch comedy we’re informed is genius. By making the show at its center completely awful, Extras has managed to say the same things about artistic integrity much more succinctly.

Never was this more apparent than in this week’s episodes of both series. Studio 60 featured a performance by Natalie Cole. While Cole is a very good singer and the setting for her performance wasn’t completely unbelievable (she sang at an awards dinner), the whole scene and her introduction (“Ladies and gentlemen, Natalie Cole!”) stank of TV contrivance. In this weekend’s Extras, Andy’s character on “When the Whistle Blows” introduced Chris Martin of Coldplay, who showed up at the factory setting of “Whistle” apropos of nothing (prompting Andy to say, “I don’t believe it! It’s only Chris Martin from Coldplay!”). Sitting down at a piano, he crooned one of his easy rock hits, and it became something more than just a silly takedown of overused famous guest stars (and, lest we forget, Extras employs a big guest star in nearly every episode). The whole scene was a takedown of TV hackery (even down to the way it was edited, using a soft dissolve into a shot of a disco ball), of a medium that could manage a whole lot more than it has simply by bearing down and aiming for something slightly higher than mediocre. The episode concluded with a scene after the credits (set to Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”) featuring Martin and Gervais in character crooning a very silly duet, followed by the two bursting into laughter (and apparently breaking character). Gervais and Merchant may think they’re having a laugh on all of us by doing something as low-key as Extras, but, even though the series isn’t perfect, it stands as a refreshing antidote to a lot of contrived TV—American and British.

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ABC’s The Knights of Prosperity feels like a show that should be a lot better than it is or a show that’s still finding its legs. That’s deadly for a show with ratings as bad as Knights routinely draws and frustrating for anyone who watches it consistently, hoping for a turnaround.

Knights is a serialized comedy, one of the last series from last fall’s serial glut to hit the air. Each installment tells the story of a group of bumbling losers (led by Donal Logue as janitor Eugene Gurkin) attempting to rob Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger (who appeared as himself in the pilot and offered many of the funniest bits of that episode). The show, from Ed producers Jon Beckerman and Rob Burnett, has got one thing that many of last fall’s serialized shows didn’t—a solid sense of structure. Each episode encompasses a small step in the plan to rob Jagger. This stands in marked contrast to shows like Vanished or Kidnapped or Big Day, that were often stylishly filmed but were continually ending on cliffhangers and offering no forward momentum. Knights avoids this. Every episode has a concrete goal that is accomplished or unaccomplished by episode’s end. If you watch an episode, you feel as though the Knights have gotten closer to their overarching goal of robbing Jagger, and that makes few of the episodes feel like a waste of narrative time.

But there’s a problem with Knights—it’s just not funny enough. There are solid laughs in every episode (indeed, in every act), but they’re often of the “let’s make a random pop culture reference!” variety. While a lot of these references are random enough to be quite funny, they’re standing in the way of the true, character-based humor that Burnett and Beckerman have written in the past (and write occasionally on this show). The characters, such as they are, are maddeningly non-specific. Eugene is, at least, a sort of Robin Hood archetype, unwilling to screw another working stiff in a recent episode, even though such would get them closer to Jagger, but most of the others are copies of characters from other, better series that haven’t differentiated themselves enough to be considered original. Sofía Vergara plays a hot Latina from a country where her life was Very, Very Hard (some of her speeches seem almost word-for-word copies of Nadine Velazquez’s speeches in My Name Is Earl). Maz Jobrani plays the wacky immigrant who drives a taxi and doesn’t understand American ways (I’d say he’s a Latka ripoff, but I don’t think anyone knows who Latka is anymore). And so on. It also hurts that the show is set in a very generic version of New York City. One of the things that made My Name Is Earl (Knights’ most obvious antecedent) so interesting from the first was its very specific sense of setting. Earl’s Camden County is sort of a Coen Bros. ripoff, but it’s unlike any other zany small town on TV, and that buys the series a lot of goodwill. Not so with Knights’ New York City, which feels like a paler version of the neurotics’ playground of Seinfeld or the grimy lower-class world of Taxi.

Fortunately, the series has a secret weapon in Kevin Michael Richardson’s Rockefeller Butts. The character is a pretty stereotypical Big Black Guy, but Richardson has some ace comic timing, and you can sense the writers already starting to attune themselves to his rhythms. A speech he delivered to Eugene in a recent episode about how Eugene’s date with a gay man (to gain an inside man on Jagger’s security team) would turn into a romantic tumble between the sheets could have been barely concealed homophobia from most other actors, but Richardson turned it into a weirdly passionate ode to the power of good sex to overcome all. The character shrugged it off with a “just kidding,” but Richardson’s delivery and impish smile suggested that he meant every word of it. Knights may not be perfect, but if the writers can figure out how to write for every other actor as well as they write for Richardson, it just might be a worthwhile series yet.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.