Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 14, 2008)
As the world waits for a new Ricky Gervais television project – if he decides to make one, I suppose – we can revisit the hilarity of Extras via this “Complete Series” package. Across its five DVDs, we get all 12 “regular” episodes from Seasons One and Two along with a December 2007 extra-long “Finale”. The plot synopses come straight from the show’s official website – except for the “Finale”, which came from the DVD’s case.
Episode One: Kate Winslet: “On the set of a Holocaust film set in a nunnery, Andy Millman (Gervais) and the film's star, Kate Winslet, become privy to Maggie's (Ashley Jensen) latest secret - that her new boyfriend (John Kirk) has a phone-sex fetish. In her proper nun's habit, Kate offers some X-rated counsel, and comes clean about her true motives for doing the film (Holocaust = Oscar). Meanwhile, to get a date with an extra named Suzanne (Charlotte Palmer), Andy resorts to lying about his religious beliefs after being questioned by Suzanne's sister Francesca (Francesca Martinez), who has cerebral palsy. He gets his hot date - to a church prayer meeting, where his tales come undone when he is questioned by a priest (Kevin Moore)."
“Winslet” sets the tone for Extras right off the bat – and does so in a splendid manner. We learn the essence of the main characters in a tight manner that eschews tedious exposition. For instance, Andy doesn’t tell us that he’s a struggling actor, but we get the gist of his personality and life in simple ways.
I love the way the stars who appear are willing to lampoon themselves as well. Not only do we get to hear Winslet talk dirty, but also we hear her happily admit that she’s doing a Holocaust movie to win an Oscar. This is tight, non-PC fun that launches the series in a most satisfying manner.
Episode Two: Ben Stiller: “Andy is close to getting his first speaking part after he befriends a Bosnian widower (Boris Boskovic) whose story is being made into a film. Maggie is giddy about a crying role, and even giddier when she meets an attractive production manager (Steve Jackson). At a set party, Andy tries to ingratiate himself with the film's producer (Jay Villiers) while Maggie discovers her new romantic interest has a 'Herman Munster' shoe, a boost for a shortened leg. The two get kicked off the set after sticking their own large feet into their non-speaking-part mouths."
While it works well, Episode Two can’t keep up with the pace of the first show. Part of the decline comes from the use of Stiller. He’s perfectly entertaining, of course, but it’s not as delightful to see him poke fun at himself; Stiller often spoofs himself, so it doesn’t seem so wicked to watch him act like a jerk. Anyway, even though E2 isn’t one of the best, it’s still amusing.
Episode Three: Ross Kemp: “On the set of an epic war drama, Maggie pursues a dashing fellow extra (Raymond Coulthard) in line for the port-a-potty. Andy is frustrated that he's not getting any lines — or even a body part on screen. He pays a visit to his agent (Stephen Merchant), who tells him his phone was unplugged for a few days, then blames Andy for not pulling in any work. 'I'm not sure there's a demand for little 45-year-old blokes,' he tells him. 'You might want to consider throwing in the towel.'
"Defeated, Andy returns to the set, where he befriends British soap star Ross Kemp, who promises to get him a line. This lifts his spirits, until he unwittingly starts a fight between Kemp and soccer star Vinnie Jones, and discovers the actor is completely full of it.
“At least Maggie finally sees some action — bedding the handsome fellow extra, though she disappoints him when she appears to be playing a 'background artist' in the sack."
I think Extras works well for us Yanks, but some programs lose a little in translation. The issue here stems from E3’s guest star, as I have no even vague idea who Ross Kemp is. I had to do an IMDB search to figure out if I’d seen him anywhere in the past, and the answer was “no”. He’s done virtually nothing to make him known to a US audience.
Even with the absence of a recognizable guest, E3 rebounds from the less stellar E2. It helps that we find a return from Andy’s incompetent agent Darren. The dim Maggie also gets better than usual moments as she pretends to be smart to bag her fellow extra; her attempt to sound like she knows about the stock market really delights. This is another fine episode.
Episode Four: Samuel L. Jackson: “A fellow extra (Steve Speirs) helps Andy get a big line on the set of a cop movie, but the man expects friendship in return, torturing Andy with his wretched tales and badgering him to take him out. Maggie becomes smitten with the film's handsome African-American co-star (Michael Wildman), and tries to cozy up to him on the 'Actor Bus' — only to be sent away to the 'Background Bus.'
"While trying to dodge his new extra friend, Andy ends up in a cemetery visiting the gravesite of his departed Jewish mother, who apparently died giving birth to him when she was nearing 70. Maggie gets a date with the handsome actor, but things go awry back at her place."
E4 balances different story threads and portrays them all well. I especially like the “racism test” Andy uses to torment Maggie. Speirs offers a great guest performance as the annoying extra, and the sight of Maggie as she tries not to appear racist to Dan really delights. This is a very solid episode.
Episode Five: Les Dennis: “Andy's incompetent agent finally gets his client a speaking role — playing a gay genie in a stage adaptation of Aladdin. Despite Andy's best thespian efforts, the play crashes after its star, TV game show host Les Dennis, learns from Andy that his young fiancée (Nicky Ladanowski) has been fooling around with a stagehand — and takes it out on the audience. Meanwhile, Maggie sets off a family feud between the play's flamboyant director (Gerard Kelly) and his long-suffering actress daughter (Rebecca Gethings)."
It’s nice to get away from the movie sets, as E5 takes us to the stage. Gervais’s turn as the Genie is awfully funny and adds spark to the show. The Brit factor again diminishes the impact of the guest star, unfortunately, since neither I nor pretty much anyone else in the US will have the slightest clue who Les Dennis is. Even with that minor weakness, E5 provides a solid program.
Episode Six: Patrick Stewart: “On the set of an Elizabethan drama, Andy pitches a sitcom pilot script to Patrick Stewart, who shares his own screenwriting story ideas (he plays a man with special powers who makes women's clothes disappear, after saving them in Iraq). Though Andy admits he's never seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stewart gets his script into the right hands—as Andy's agent attempts to take credit. While working on the pilot, Andy nearly sabotages his big break after calling his script editor (Martin Savage) 'too gay.’"
My first experience with Extras came from this episode. My friend Kevin embraced the series before I’d heard of it, and he insisted on showing me the part of the show where Stewart discusses his script. Why? Because Kevin believes – correctly, in fact – that Stewart’s story is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see.
That scene remains arguably the funniest part of Season One, but E6 has plenty of other good moments. Darren’s incompetence as an agent continues to be hilarious, and the show really excels at all points. Season One ends with probably its best episode.
Episode One: Orlando Bloom: “Maggie gets a background part as a juror in a ridiculous courtroom drama, which stars Orlando Bloom as a handsome barrister. Watching the actor get accosted by female fans, Maggie sympathizes. ‘Must be exhausting...especially 'cause they're just doing it ‘cause you're famous’. Orlando insists his good looks are the draw, then carries on about how much more popular he is than Johnny Depp. Maggie doesn't buy it.
“A jittery Andy calls Maggie from the set of his sitcom, which was picked up and dumbed down by the network. His agent tries to assure him that ‘crass, lowest common denominator’ comedy gets the biggest ratings. When a lead actor drops out, claiming the show is ‘too broad’, the network replaces him with a daft TV presenter (Keith Chegwin), sending Andy over the edge.”
Season Two picks up where Season One left off – almost literally. That means mostly more of the same, though of course, Andy’s in a different place, as he manages his own show instead of acting as an extra in the work of others.
That doesn’t mean a change in tone, though. Andy still must deal with the indignities that come with his new lot in life, and none of this seems to make him any happier. We also continue to see the world of the movie extra through Maggie’s situation.
A couple of jokes lose something in the translation from across the pond, but not too many. The gag about funny black Brits falls flat due to a reference to a performer I don’t recognize, and the use of TV host Chegwin doesn’t impact me because I have no idea who he is. That said, we can figure out his position in the show biz spectrum pretty well, and his moments become very funny.
Bloom’s guest turn seems a bit predictable, as he plays the egotistical movie star. Those bits still amuse, though, even when they lead to a somewhat dopey conclusion. E1 suffers from a couple parts that seem a little too “sit-com” for my liking, but it mostly works well and starts off S2 on a good note.
Episode Two: David Bowie: “The reviews are in for Andy's new sitcom, and they're unanimous: ‘Worst sitcom of all time’, exclaims one. ‘Miserable wretches dying slowly’, surmises another. ‘Makes you want to gouge out your own eyes rather than watch one more minute’, weighs in a third.
“To make matters worse, he's starting to get recognized by the rabble -- drunken blokes straight out of The Hills Have Eyes, hostile self-declared critics, and even a homeless guy who seems likely to tell the world about Andy's begrudging charity. Just when he finally gets a little respect - entrance into the VIP section of a hip lounge - Andy's ushered back out the second David Bowie arrives…”
Since Bowie is my favorite musical artist, I looked forward to E2. Happily, the show delivers, even though it’s more offbeat than usual. Unlike every prior episode of Extras, this one doesn’t spend a minute on a set of any sort. Instead, it follows reactions to Andy’s series and his attempts to deal with his new fame. This doesn’t go well and result in Bowie’s composition of a tune about Andy. That part’s hilarious, and the rest of the show amuses as well. Throw in an inspired confrontation with a homeless guy and this turns into a terrific show.
Episode Three: Daniel Radcliffe: “In spite of his feckless agent, Andy is offered a speaking part in a Daniel Radcliffe film. He also lands Maggie some extra work - and an eager young suitor, Harry Potter himself. Dressed in a Scout's uniform for his latest role, the actor comes on strong, telling Maggie he's ‘done it with a girl, intercourse-wise’ before his mother interrupts and drags him off. Returning later to close the deal, Daniel shows Andy the super-sized condom he's unrolled for the occasion, then accidentally flings it onto the head of Dame Diana Rigg.
“To celebrate his new status as a film star, Andy takes Maggie to a high-end restaurant, where he complains about the loud noises coming from a kid behind them - unaware that the boy has Down's syndrome. The media has a field day, and soon Andy is being accused of attacking the boy and punching his mother.”
Possibly the series’ most notorious episode, this one boasts a hilarious attempt by Radcliffe to poke holes in his wholesome image. He whoops it up as Horny Potter and creates this show’s best moments. The politically incorrect gags about “little people” also work well. Unfortunately, the story line about Andy’s “assault” on the Down Syndrome kid becomes less positive. It follows predictable lines in terms of the foibles of fame. This is still a nice program, though; how often do you get to see Diana Rigg with a condom on her head?
By the way, stick around through the completion of the end credits. You’ll find a funny coda to this episode there.
Episode Four: Chris Martin: “Andy tapes his first celebrity public service announcement - for clean drinking water in Africa - and meets an actual celebrity: Chris Martin. Spotting Andy, Martin asks about the size of his sitcom audience, then suggests he should make an appearance.
“As it turns out, the rock star is ‘popping by’ the factory to promote his latest album, and the workers on When the Whistle Blows beg him to perform a song - which he does as the factory suddenly converts into a fully-lit concert venue. Andy cringes from the sidelines.
“As he predicted, the TV critics aren't kind, claiming his show has sunk even lower. His agent does have some good news, however: Andy's been nominated for a comedy BAFTA, and the entries ‘are all crap this year’, so he might even have a chance.”
I recognize that the series’ use of guest stars has become predictable, as they always come on and do something that makes them look bad. However, that doesn’t mean the formula fails to remain amusing, and Martin’s turn works awfully well, largely because of the idiotic way Martin gets worked into When the Whistle Blows. We also get a funny subversion of a famous Pretty Woman scene. The BAFTA stuff suffers some from the “across the Atlantic” translation factor, but this still is a solid episode.
Oh, and look for another post-credits clip here.
Episode Five: Ian McKellen: “With the critics still dumping on his sitcom, Andy begs Darren to find him something that will earn him some respect, like theater. Thanks to another client, Barry, Darren hears about a play Ian McKellen is directing, and lands Andy an audition.
“On the set of When the Whistle Blows, Andy gets a surprise visit from an old classmate, Steve Sherwood (Jonathan Cake), the ‘coolest kid in school’. Now a ruggedly handsome grownup, Sherwood tells Maggie and Darren they always thought Andy was gay in school, and the two do nothing to dispel the theory.
“Andy is excited for his audition with Ian McKellen - until he learns that the character who plays his lover, Fran, is actually a guy. ‘Gay is all the rage’, Darren assures him, convincing him it will show his range and anoint him a serious actor.”
Rather than present the Egotistical Guest Star, here McKellen goes for the Stupid Guest Star. That’s the less-used variation but it’s just as amusing, especially when McKellen presents his acting instructions. Unfortunately, E5 telegraphs some of its bits; when we see issues related to homosexuality, a few inevitable gags result. It’s still funny, of course, but a little less inventive than usual.
Episode Six: ??????: “On the talk show circuit, Jonathan Ross asks Andy if there's anyone he'd die to work with, and Andy picks Robert De Niro. ‘Challenge accepted’, the host says, claiming he can hook Andy up with the legend. In the Green Room, the mother (Regina Freedman) of a sick boy (Corey J. Smith) railroads Andy into visiting her son in the hospital.
“Maggie is excited to go home with her handsome new date (Paul Albertson)… until she discovers he still lives with his parents. When she tries to tell Andy about her horrific date, he has no time to hear it -- he's too busy working and hanging out with his new famous buddy, Jonathan Ross, who's invited him to ride in his convertible, play with his robot toys and loll around his estate. After another frustrating conversation with his agent, Andy tells is fed up: if Darren can't get a meeting with De Niro before Andy does, he's fired.”
Series-ending episodes are difficult to pull off, and parts of E6 falter. Andy becomes a prick awfully abruptly; it doesn’t make sense that he all of a sudden completely blows off Maggie and whatnot. The interjection of the sick kid subplot also doesn’t feel very natural; it pops in without fitting the show terribly well.
Despite those misfires, E6 manages to conclude the second season on a reasonably satisfying note. It doesn’t live up to the show’s best programs, but it comes around in an enjoyable way. Heck, E6 would be worth a look just to see Robert De Niro delight over a nudie pen.
The Extra Special Series Finale: “’Tis the season to be jaded, at least if you’re Andy Millman. Despite the success of his highly-rated (but critically-panned) sitcom When the Whistle Blows, Andy can’t help but wonder if true artistic respectability will ever come his way. Andy decides to take drastic measures: he fires his loyal but useless agent Darren; pulls the plug on his hit show and turns down roles he considers ‘beneath him’. He even lashes out at his best friend Maggie, who admires the small measure of fame that Andy has achieved. It isn’t long before Andy begins to wonder: is success really worth it? Can he have both respect and fame? And is a man truly the sum of his parts, no matter how small they might be?”
Huh – I thought Extras was done when Gervais finished off Season Two. Apparently he decided to trot the show out for one last bow. Now that I’ve seen it, I wish he’d left well enough alone. While not a terrible episode, I think the “Finale” finishes things on a low note.
Though it throws out some laughs, the “Finale” seems much darker and more dramatic than the prior episodes. It makes Andy into a complete jerk and turns Maggie into a borderline suicidal pathetic figure. Neither characterization really feels right, especially in Andy’s case. Sure, he’s always had his moments of condescending pretension – and jerkiness, as was the case with the S2 finale - but I just don’t believe that he’d become quite such a horrible person.
Other parts of the show come across as more mean-spirited than usual. Take the Clive Owen guest spot during which his behavior prompts Maggie to give up acting. I know that the guest stars like to play terrible versions of themselves, but this “Clive” is absurdly cruel to Maggie. It’s a silly moment that stretches credulity and doesn’t work.
The episode’s sole real highlight comes from George Michael’s cameo. He pokes fun at himself on a few different levels and helps create the show’s best moment. A few other laughs emerge, but don’t expect a lot from this episode. Some might like its more dramatic flavor, but I think the show disappoints.