On the DVD for Extras - The Complete First Season, series creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant refer to the show as their "difficult second album." It's a music term, also called the "sophomore jinx." It refers to how bands often step forward with a stunning debut full of material that was road-tested over years of struggle, whereas their follow-up record is created post-success, under the gun, and with the full expectations of an audience hungry for more. In the case of Gervais and Merchant, they are creating their first television effort since the conclusion of their highly successful UK series, The Office. That show became such a phenomenon, cleaning up at awards shows and spawning an equally successful US version (which Gervais and Merchant produce), it's easy to see how the next project would be rather daunting.
The good news for the pair is that they've managed to pull it off. Extras is a fabulous show. I'm not going to attempt to settle the "which series is better?" debate, as The Office was so fresh and stands so squarely on its own, it seems kind of silly to try to push anything up against it. I will say, however, that Extras makes me laugh just as much as The Office did, and to the creative duo's credit, relies less on the uncomfortable humor the characterized Wernham Hogg and puts a little more faith in their ability to write stimulating characters.
In fact, the best choice they made for Extras was making Ricky Gervais' character, Andy Millman, more sympathetic than David Brent, the hopelessly pathetic office manager of the previous series. Andy is a forty-three-year-old struggling actor who left his secure banking job two years prior to pursue a dream. Since then, success has been eluding him, and his primary employment is extra work in television and motion pitctures. Or, as he calls it, he's a "background artist." Four of the six episodes on Extras - The Complete First Season take place on film sets, with each ludicrous new setting creating fresh opportunities for Andy to pursue his goals and stick his foot in his mouth. Rather than being pitiable the way David Brent was, however, Andy actually has a few things going for him. I'd say Andy is more in line with the modern archetype created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's extremely neurotic, and despite being aware of these neuroses, Andy manages to trip over them time and time again. As an audience, we actually like the guy, and some of the best humor comes when we cringe as Andy once again digs himself into a hole by saying way more than he should. It's not even that he's wrong most of the time--really, he's playing the cliché of saying what we're all thinking--he just doesn't know when enough is enough.
Central to our liking of Andy is our appreciation of his friendship with Maggie (Ashley Jensen, now on "Ugly Betty"). Maggie is also an extra, and they keep each other company on set. While Andy is always in pursuit of the ever-elusive speaking part, Maggie usually has her sights on a new man, and if Andy puts one foot in his mouth, Maggie puts in both. Time and again she approaches the fellow she fancies and manages to make herself sound like a total mental patient. Andy often tries to bail her out, but his reward is that she will end up saying something that will get him into trouble, as well.
I purposely mentioned this relationship first because to me it is the most important element of Extras. Most everything I see or hear about the show tends to focus on the high-profile guest stars that make the show business backdrop more believable, but Extras wouldn't be nearly as good if it were just a program full of inside jokes about the entertainment business. You could take Andy and Maggie out of that environment, and they'd be just as pleasant to watch.
Within the entertainment field, Andy has other friends and associates. Most notable is his agent, as played by Stephen Merchant, stepping out in front of the camera for the first time in an extended role (Office fans may remember him as Gareth's obnoxious friend Oggy). Merchant's character doesn't seem to have much qualification to be an agent, a source of never-ending frustration for Andy. While his client has greater aspirations, the agent is either doing nothing at all or trying to get Barry, a has-been soap opera actor, the part instead. As an added layer of fact vs. fiction, Barry is played by Shaun Williamson, who really played a character named Barry on the British soap "Eastenders." I think they only refer to Shaun by his real name twice in the first season, a pretty gutsy move for an actor. Most people probably think his name really is Barry and that he spends most of his time lamenting his long-gone role on TV.
That kind of self-deprecation is what Gervais and Merchant pull from all of their guest star cameos. The first season features international stars Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller, Samuel L. Jackson, and Patrick Stewart, as well as British celebrities Ross Kemp, Vinnie Jones, and Les Dennis. All of the guests lampoon their own images and make fun of the celebrity machine, be it Winslet and Stiller skewering the self-importance of moviemaking or Les Dennis lamenting the endless pursuit of fame. It's all incredibly funny, and even when you aren't familiar with the particular celebrity, Gervais and Merchant provide enough context for you to understand why it's funny.
There are six half-hour episodes in Extras - The Complete First Season, and HBO has split them over two discs. They are as follows.
Episode 1: Kate Winslet - Andy and Maggie have parts on a movie about the Holocaust. While Andy pretends to be a Catholic to get a date with one of the other extras, Maggie is dating one of the prop men. He likes talking dirty on the phone, but it makes her uncomfortable, as does the over zealous advice she receives from Kate Winslet. This may be my favorite of the entire season. Andy and Maggie stumble into several uncomfortable situations, and Winslet goes for the gags with real gusto.
Episode 2: Ben Stiller - In an effort to broaden his image, Stiller is putting aside the funny man role for a while and directing a movie about Bosnian refugees. Andy pursues the man whose personal tragedy inspired the script, while Maggie chases after one of the film's staff. The climactic shouting match between Andy and Ben Stiller will last as one of the most pathetic showdown's in TV history. (I believe this was the first episode aired in the UK.)
Episode 3: Ross Kemp - On the set of a television costume drama, Andy befriends tough-guy actor Kemp in order to, once again, get a small line in the production. Andy's rivalry with a self-important actor, Greg (Shaun Pye), heats up as Shaun insists that the star of the movie he's in, Vinnie Jones (Snatch), is more of a real hard man than Kemp.
Episode 4: Samuel L. Jackson - Jackson is making a movie about an American cop operating in England. Andy and Maggie are playing background police officers. While she starts dating a handsome co-worker, Andy gets stuck in a friendship with an overly gregarious extra. No matter what Maggie does, she chases her man away, and Andy can never get rid of his. Maggie's relationship ends up in the ultimate of uncomfortable territories: race. Her new man is black, a fact she can't avoid bringing up time and time again, until Sam Jackson has to get involved.
Episode 5: Les Dennis - Andy is cast as Aladdin in a regional Christmas play, and he is paired up with Les Dennis, a comedian and former gameshow host who is trying to crawl out of hard times. Meanwhile, Maggie encounters an old friend whose father gives a whole new meaning to the term "stage mother." Extra points for Gervais' ridiculously camp genie. Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly showed more restraint!
Episode 6: Patrick Stewart - Taking a chance, Andy gives the script for a workplace sitcom he wrote to Patrick Stewart. In turn, Stewart is oddly fixated on getting women to shed their clothes, but nevertheless passes the script on to the BBC. Andy is brought in to develop the show with a flamboyant writing partner (Martin Savage), and when Maggie passes on some of Andy's behavioral criticisms to him, it nearly sinks the deal--and their friendship.
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Extras - The Complete First Season is a hilarious new comedy. Fans of The Office will be happy to see Ricky Gervais back in action, while the new show also moves far enough away from the old one to leave any comparisons well behind. The writing/directing team of Gervais and Merchant have another champion on their hands, turning the fodder of the entertainment industry into human comedy of the first order. The big stars will draw you in, but it's the original characters that will cause you to keep watching.
Extras - The Complete First Season was made for widescreen and is on DVD in a 16:9 aspect ratio. The transfer is clean, up to the usual standards of an HBO production.
The main program has a 2.0 audio mix that is handled very well. There are also subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
Both discs have deleted scenes and outtakes. The deleted scenes are whole segments cut from the shows, including one true gem from episode 4 where Andy goes on a rant about crowded restaurants. Each scene is labeled individually according to what episode it was cut from, while the outtakes are put together as one reel. The bloopers run for 10 minute and 30 seconds on DVD 1 and 9 minutes on DVD 2. The first set is a little more substantial, with other actors getting in on the cut-ups, whereas most of DVD 2's reel is devoted to showing how easy it is to cause Gervais to break-up during a take.
In addition to those features, DVD 2 also has two other pieces. "Find Leo" is a 9-minute short film shot by Merchant and Gervais in their hotel room and follows their efforts to unsuccessfully track down Leonardo DiCaprio after Jude Law dropped out at the last minute. (I wonder if the Jude Law script became the Orlando Bloom episode in season 2?) More standard is the 20 minute "The Difficult Second Album - Behind the Scenes of Extras." It's an informative and witty promo piece, with Gervais and Merchant talking at length about the filming of the series and featuring on-set footage.
Each disc has a "play all" function so you can watch the episodes without pausing to select each one.
Simply put, Extras - The Complete First Season is hysterical, and thus, this 2-disc DVD set is Highly Recommended. The creative partnership of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant has struck again, following up The Office with this relationship-based comedy set in the showbiz world. Gervais is highly likable as Andy Millman, the relentless no-hoper, and Ashley Jensen is a great find, playing Andy's hapless sidekick, Maggie. Add in the gutsy self-parodying of actual stars, and Extras never fails to pile on the laughs.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.