Extras follows the exploits of Andy Millner (Ricky Gervais), who spends his days doing “background artistry” on film and TV productions in the desperate hope of getting discovered. Along on every job is his friend Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen), sweet as honey but just as thick, who moonlights as an extra, aiming to meet a marriageable man on the set. (Last of the show’s three leads is Andy’s agent—played by Stephen Merchant—poster boy for feckless ineptitude.) Each episode focuses on one or both of them as they interact with the show’s celebrity guest stars, all of whom play twisted versions of themselves. Here, co-writers Gervais and Merchant demonstrate their talent for subtle storytelling: the narrative in each episode parallels the film or TV project in which Andy and Maggie appear. In the first episode, Kate Winslet stars in a film as a nun hiding Jews from the Nazis while Andy finds himself in a bizarre off-set circumstance in which he must portray a Catholic with a secret.
Television is essentially a writers’ medium and, as in The Office, Extras provides Gervais and Merchant a forum to showcase their considerable writing chops. Apart from the clever stories and wild situations, the two craft hilarious dialogue that nevertheless comes across as naturally as if it were recorded from life. In episode four, for instance, Maggie becomes convinced that the black actor she’s interested in believes she’s a racist. Andy decides to wind her up and offers to give the poor girl the “official racism test,” which includes the question “Who would you rather have waiting for you when you come home, Johnny Depp or O.J. Simpson?” Gervais has said that an inspiration for his comedy is Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and that’s evident throughout. Truth is, though, that Extras is even better—well-written dialogue simply trumps actors’ ad-libs.
While Extras doesn’t follow the documentary format of The Office, Merchant and Gervais do rip themselves off a bit, especially when it comes to characterization. Andy may not be much like The Office’s David Brent, but most of the celebrity guest stars, in one way or another, are. Ben Stiller is aggressively overbearing with regard to his self-styled comedic genius, and Les Dennis still harps unceasingly on the old jokes and impressions he was doing 10 years ago. No character, however, is more directly lifted from The Office than the perverse Ross Kemp, who plays an insecure, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately, pathetic caricature of himself. That episode (number three) is perhaps the show’s best, featuring Kemp’s subtle characterizations set against the hilarity of his abortive feud with Vinnie Jones—a feud that parallels Andy’s own fracas with Greg (Shaun Pye), a rival extra.
Maybe the only complaint to be raised about Extras is that American audiences are likely to find that it ends too quickly. But such is the brief, single-arc nature of television overseas. It’s certainly preferable to the torrent of shabbily derivative Friends and Sex and the City knockoffs gushing from the soundstages of domestic producers. Not quite The Office II, not quite a wholly different breed, Extras should nevertheless please Gervais aficionados and newcomers alike.