Friday, January 04, 2008

DVD REVIEW: Extras: The Complete Series

After a triumphant first season, Extras returned to HBO for an even funnier and more self-assured second sortie of six episodes last winter. The entire series (twelve episodes) - as well as a devastating Christmas special - is now available on DVD.

Masterminded by funny men Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the creative duo behind The Office, this brilliantly-crafted follow-up series eschews the now overly-familiar mockumentary format as it follows film extra Andy Millman (Gervais) and his thick-headed best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) through their day-to-day adventures on the periphery of motion picture production. Merchant portrays Darren Lamb, Millman’s inept agent and Shaun Williamson takes on the regular role of Lamb’s out-of-work, simple-minded client, Barry.

As the second year of Extras commences, Andy Millman’s perpetual bad luck appears to have changed for the better. To wit, he’s starring in a brand new BBC sitcom, “When the Whistle Blows,” that he created. To Andy’s dismay, however, the sitcom has been badly dumbed-down by the network and he is now relegated to playing an obnoxious character with funny glasses and a curly wig; a character whose catchphrase (“Are you having a laugh? Is he having a laugh?”) suddenly becomes a national sensation and a sticking point for Andy.

Pirates of the Caribbean star Orlando Bloom appears in one episode of Extras as himself. The young heartthrob is horrified to learn while on the set of a legal court room drama/romance film that an extra – Maggie - doesn’t find him attractive and actually prefers Johnny Depp! In response, he endlessly attempts to woo her.

Rock star David Bowie appears in another installment, singing a derisive song about Andy in an exclusive restaurant/club. Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe shows up for some fun too, satirizing his wholesome image to portray himself as a horny, self-obsessed louse. Radcliffe spends most of the episode hitting on Maggie and in one incredibly funny moment, flings a condom into the face of Dame Diana Rigg. This is also the notorious episode in which Andy knocks out a dwarf, Willow (1987) star Warwick Davis.

Later in the season, Andy is involved in a celebrity scandal when he inadvertently behaves rudely to a child with Downs Syndrome. Andy also clashes with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who appears on “When the Whistle Blows” to hawk his newly-released album.

Before the season ends, Andy is publicly humiliated at the BAFTA awards when during an acceptance speech by another performer his When The Whistle Blows action figure won’t stop chattering his popular but inane catchphrase. Andy’s most humiliating moment, however, likely occurs on stage when his rampant homophobia causes him to ruin the play he is appearing in, one directed by Sir Ian McKellen.

Extras proves simultaneously more uncomfortable and more confident here than in its first season, and also offers a number of fun stylistic flourishes. One episode begins with Millman’s disingenuous public service announcement (penance for the Down Syndrome debacle…), and another episode features the opening credits of his dreadful sitcom. The last episode culminates with a guest appearance by Robert De Niro.

The Christmas special is a blistering ninety-minute critique of the entertainment industry and what passes for celebrity culture these days. In the spirit of a Christopher Guest film, this special gazes at a person (Millman) who dreams big and wants to be famous, but doesn’t really understand why it is so important to him. After all, Andy has his own sitcom, and he even appears on the BBC’s Doctor Who as a guest villain (in a ridiculous costume) with David Tennant on hand for a wicked cameo. Yet Andy disdains all of his success because he wants to do “quality work” like an acting competitor who recently finished a bio-pic about Byron and Shelley.

As his new agent tells Andy, some people are never meant for “quality” work. He gives him a choice: be famous for doing something silly or have no fame at all. This is a wake-up call for Andy because he puts down the fans of his sitcom to their faces, proving increasingly ungrateful. The message: be grateful for the fans you have, because you might have none at all. (David Caruso and David Duchovny could have learned this message some years back...).

Andy’s spiral from being a popular TV star to fifth-rung, D-list celebrity on a reality series is contrasted with two additional downward spirals. Stephen Merchant’s character, Darren Lamb loses his agenting business in the Special when Andy fires him and ends up working at a cell-phone retail store.

And poor Maggie – after an on-set altercation with guest star Clive Owen (who wants to throw shit in her face after having on-screen sex with her…) – leaves the “film extras” business. She loses her apartment, finds herself out of work, and slips quietly and without fanfare into genuine poverty.

There’s an uplifting ending (of sorts) to the Extras Christmas special, one that serves as a giant upturned middle-finger to the entertainment industry, but the balance of comedy and pathos so deftly managed by the series is missing here. It’s a depressing (if truthful…) and cynical show that drags the series’ character through desperate, unhappy times, but basically ends their journey in the exact same place that the second season ended (where Andy chose friendship with Maggie over an opportunity to work with Robert De Niro).

Season One and Two of Extras are terrific fun and totally worth your time, but unless you’re in the mood for a massive downer, don’t view the Christmas special around the holidays.

2 comments:

  1. Mike De Luca8:31 AM

    "Chubby little loser...." Ah yes, Bowie took Andy down quite a peg. My favorite is Patrick Stewart. "And I see everything..."

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  2. Sir Ian..Sir Ian..Sir Ian..*action* WIZARD! YOU SHALL NOT PASS! *cut*..Sir Ian..Sir Ian..Sir Ian

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43sbtkQM6zc

    Brilliant. Gervais and Merchant are masters.

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