Tuesday, December 27, 2005

TV REVIEW: Extras

A few years back, one of my wife's friends at work let us borrow the first season DVD box set of the BBC Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant "britcom," The Office. My life hasn't been the same since. Today, I'm the proud owner of both season boxes (as well as the Christmas specials...) and I love to trot these episodes out every few weeks, truth be told, to experience it all over again. These episodes are not only funny, but there's a really touching love story in there too.

Told in the form of the mockumentary (or what Christopher Guest calls "documentary style" comedies), The Office follows the misadventures of an office manager named David Brent. A nightmare boss, he's clueless, racist, sexist, obnoxious...but ultimately kinda sweet; TV's greatest anti-hero, I'd say, since Archie Bunker...or at least George Costanza. David does despicable, horrible things from time to time (like leaving a wheelchair-bound employee on a stairwell during a fire drill...), and yet you can't help but feel empathy for the guy. He's lonely, fumbling, in search of friends, and desperate to be loved. He imagines himself a witty comedian, but of course, his humor is pitiful. It reminds me of a line from Woody Allen's Interiors (1978), in which a shallow Manhattanite comments on how she burns to express herself artistically...only she doesn't know what she has to say...

My wife can't watch The Office anymore because it makes her feel so bad. David Brent's need to please practically brings her to tears. I'm trying to help her work through it. My favorite episode of The Office (a series now remade on NBC...) is the one in which David Brent hijacks a training seminar at work to indulge his ego by playing the guitar. He sings a ridiculous composition called "Freelove freeway." As someone who spent the years 1994 - 1996 in a corporate environment, this training seminar and its bizarre "group" exercises ring all too true.

But anyway, with The Office done and finished, Merchant and Gervais have returned to television for the HBO/BBC comedy series Extras. This time around, the mockumentary format is gone (probably a good thing given its high visibility of late...) but the show's feel is still improvisational and spontaneous. Gervais plays Andy Millman, a disgruntled "background artist" (or movie extra, if you prefer...) who is desperate to get a "real" line in a movie. So far, I've seen episodes where he squabbles with director Ben Stiller, offends Samuel L. Jackson, and even causes lovely Kate Winslet a bit of humiliation. Six episodes were produced, and I've seen five.

Writing and directing partner Merchant plays Gervais's energy-drained agent on the series, in a wonderful character bit, but the greatest thing about Extras is that Gervais has been joined by a character equally offensive as his Millman. Ashley Jensen plays Maggie, a fellow extra, and one with a terrible knack for saying offensive things. In one episode, she refuses to date a fellow who has one leg longer than the other, and makes a comment about his Herman Munster-sized shoe. In the Samuel L. Jackson episode, she tries to pretend she isn't racist and tells Jackson she loved him in The Matrix. Of course, that was Larry Fishburne...

Curb Your Enthusiasm and now Extras have really perfected a brand of cringe-inducing, humiliation-style humor, wherein characters say absolutely terrible, horrid things to one another and then try to worm their way out of the conversation with skin intact. I collapsed into nervous laughter during the first episode of Extras, when Andy invented a whole Catholic upbringing so he could "shag" a Catholic extra on the set of a movie. He made up a priest named O'Flatley - and a lot more - and then was called on his lies by his intended and another priest. "Did Father Flatley exist?," asks the priest. "O Flatley," corrects Andy. "Did he ever exist?" "No...," Andy admits. Jeez! I practically crawled out of skin during that exchange.

But my favorite moment in Extras thus far also comes from the first episode. Kate Winslet is the guest star (playing a nun in a movie about the holocaust...so she can win an Oscar...) and she kindly provides Maggie some advice about how to spice up her phone sex skills. Later in the show, Maggie's boyfriend is on the set, and Kate Winslet starts making all of these obscene gestures and comments concerning phone sex behind his back, knowing that he is the fella Maggie told her about. In the middle of her outrageous and vulgar pantomime - with her tongue hanging out one side of her mouth, and one hand tweaking her bosom - Winslet gets caught by the boyfriend as he turns around. This was flat-out hilarious, and I had no idea that Winslet could be so much fun. She should do comedy more often.

I understand that the buzz on Extras is mixed. The criticism is that it's either too much like The Office or not enough like The Office. If you ask me, it's pure comic gold. The films of Christopher Guest often concern an aspirant, someone with the dream to succeed in show business, but not the talent (of self-awareness) to bring that dream to reality. David Brent was surely a variation on this character, but now we get that quality in Andy Millman, and much more. We see the entire world of "industrial" movie-making skewered week in and week out on Extras, and Gervais is the perfect man to headline the satire. I don't know if the entertainment industry has ever been so delightfully skewered before, so I'm hooked...

2 comments:

  1. Lee Hansen2:02 PM

    If you love uncomfortable humor, you need to check out Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge. It satrs Steve Coogan as the cheesiest talk show host imaginable. BBC did one series and a Christmas show which is available on DVD here in the US. The show spun off another series called I'm Alan Partridge. Hopefully that one will be available here.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Lee!

    I have never heard of "Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge," but it sounds like it's right up my alley. Kathryn and I are going back and watching the first season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" right now to catch some of more of this humiliation/type humor. I hope there will be a second season of "Extras" too...

    ReplyDelete