Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have repeated their promise that Extras, like The Office before it, will end after its second season. It seems they’re allergic to shows becoming stale. I would agree with their assessment were it not for the fact that, unlike The Office, which hit its stride very early on, Extras took a few episodes to reveal its true form. What began as a nearly plotless string of witty character vignettes set in the backstage world of film and television has snowballed into a much larger narrative with its own eccentric gallery of characters. It demonstrates once again the Gervais/Merchant penchant for sticking to the truth of a situation, character or story.
This new season of Extras, while still funny, is more concerned with the daily struggles of Andy Millman (Gervais) and Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen) and the humor that rises naturally from their distinctive personalities and particular problems. Nothing is forced in order to “have a laugh” and this very idea is one of the focal themes of Extras itself. Andy’s worst nightmares come true when his precious sitcom, When the Whistle Blows, is slowly transformed into a comedy pitched to the lowest common denominator, with bad wigs and an irritating repetitive catchphrase. As the eccentric bewigged boss on Whistle, Gervais seems to be playing a truly awful, bizarro-world version of David Brent. Clearly an example of what The Office could’ve been without the tight control he and Merchant held over it.
The series’s structure is actually quite fascinating. Initially, the idea of casting celebrities as the “star of the week” on whatever set the extras find themselves corralled seems like a mere gimmick. A second glance, however, reveals more significant goals than the mere shock of seeing them on-screen. Each celebrity portrays the shallowest version of themselves in order to stand as examples for Andy of the high cost of success. In the beginning, season one appeared to be a deadpan and loose string of “behind the scenes” vignettes that were never really about filmmaking at all. The series merely used the setting as a backdrop for its struggling primary characters. Instead of overwhelming the audience with plots, subplots, backstory and a vast array of supporting characters, Gervais and Merchant widen the scope slowly, adding more and more elements in each successive episode. We are gradually introduced to both Andy’s spineless agent Darren Lamb (Merchant) and Lamb’s personal assistant “Barry from Eastenders” (Shaun Williamson), an actor who really did play Barry on that never-ending BBC soap, Eastenders. Barry is a cautionary tale for Andy as he claims to have left that hit series to keep his integrity and is now fixing roofs in his “spare” time.
Extras slowly reveals Andy’s two-pronged goal of getting a line of dialogue to read onscreen and to sell his script for a television sitcom. Maggie, on the other hand, seems to spend most of her time looking about for good candidates for marriage. She is a very sweet, simple and honest person who means no harm, and yet is more apt to cause trouble the more she attempts to help. Neither Andy nor Maggie are very successful in achieving their goals, often done in by their own personalities. By the end of season one, you’ve got the whole concept in your hands. Andy, aided by a sexually lewd Patrick Stewart, is finally able to convince the BBC to produce his show. This removes him from the daily world of Extras and is a perfect setup for the second season’s more complex conflicts.
It’s here that the show clearly reveals itself as basically a 40-something bildungsroman. The second season focuses on Andy’s struggles to keep his show’s integrity (this he seems to sell off like old furniture, piece by piece) and his own ego from its primary weakness: vanity. He crosses the transom from unknown extra in his career and daily life to achieving the celebrity status and power once held by the pompous stars of the week themselves. The question clearly presents itself: Will Andy come of age with his own integrity and his friends intact or will he sacrifice himself to the altar of fame?
In the first episodes, we see that Andy cannot win against his philistine producers and reluctantly accepts the vaudeville wig and funny glasses to play his character on Whistle. This, of course, proves to be an object of ridicule among his colleagues and media critics (not to mention David Bowie) but a smash with the viewing audience. Without their support, he runs for cover, accepting the cheers and adulation from the same obnoxious people he would normally avoid. Andy shuns many people due to failed social interactions or more honestly, lies, that he cannot escape. This is probably the cleverest conceit of the show, that Andy himself is already flawed, and that celebrity doesn’t really change a person so much as fan the flames that were burning from the start.
Gervais, Merchant and Williamson are all excellent but Ashley Jensen’s Maggie is really the most effective performance. Her character keeps the show from falling into a more familiar and cynical satire. She is a real friend to Andy and it’s their friendship that lifts the show out of an ordinary situation comedy into something rather touching. (The use of Cat Stevens’s “Tea for the Tillerman” at the end of each episode is a great choice as it’s melancholy and yet hopeful melody perfectly captures the good with the bad that Extras presents as daily life.) Last season featured memorable cameos from Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet, Ross Kemp, Vinnie Jones, Samuel Jackson, Les Dennis and Patrick Stewart. This season rounds up Orlando Bloom, David Bowie (who plays a great song about Andy called “Little Fat Man Who Sold His Dream”), Daniel Radcliffe, Chris Martin, Ian McKellen, Robert Lindsay, Jonathan Ross, Stephen Fry, and Andy’s idol, Robert De Niro.
I think a third season could actually prove fruitful. The Office utilized a more rambling structure held together loosely by a romantic subplot which was comfortably resolved in just two seasons. Besides certain surface details, comparisons to The Office are really pointless. Structurally, these are completely different creatures altogether. Extras is a far more sprawling story and seems to really need a third act. The writers have shown that letting the characters drive the story can make a form as tired as the sitcom new again. There’s still some mileage left in the concept and a genuine curiosity in the future of Andy and his friends. This is a true testament to the quality of the writing, which never sacrifices character for effect. So, for those who thought they were a one trick pony, Extras is proof positive that Gervais and Merchant have much more to contribute to our popular culture for some time to come.