It would have been easy for Extras - The Complete Second Season to sit tight and roll with the formula set up in The Complete First Season. Series creators and stars Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant had proven that The Office was no fluke, and that they could take a very different career choice than the drudgery of selling paper and make a completely different but excruciatingly funny comedy show out of it.
In the series, Gervais plays aging wannabe-actor Andy Millman. The bulk of the original season showed him going on various film and television sets as a "background artist," one of the guys who fills out a scene as a member of a crowd, an extra police officer, or whatever the day requires. He would usually get jobs with his friend Maggie (Ugly Betty's Ashley Jensen), a lovably dim, well-meaning girl who fell into this kind of life as an alternative to ever really growing up. As Andy scrambles to try to get a bigger part, the two usually run afoul of some romantic entanglement, stick their feet in their own mouths and each other's, and encounter real actors, who for the purpose of the show play themselves and have a glorious time making fun of their perceived images. This is still the basis for about half of the episodes of the second season, but the finale of the previous set saw Andy getting his own sitcom on the BBC, a show that sounded remarkably similar to The Office, and so now Gervais and Merchant have a much broader spectrum to work with as Andy struggles with the creative process in a corporate environment, fame, and basically all the idiots he has surrounded himself with.
While season one was about a man struggling to get his slice of the pie, Extras - The Complete Second Season is moreso about the things Andy will do to keep that slice and the price he pays for hubris and compromise. His show, "When the Whistle Blows", is the broadest of broad comedies. Filmed with a laugh track, it sees Andy donning a fake wig and glasses and mincing about as he tosses off an inane catchphrase. "Are you havin' a laugh? Is he havin' a laugh?" He wanted to do something real, but instead he batted for the easiest demographics.
Naturally, this brings success, but not in the way he wanted. People bother him on the street and in pubs to do his signature line, the critics savage him, and every move he makes is a potential political disaster. Giving a homeless man change could become that guy's new anecdote, so Andy can't be cheap, causing him to agonize over whether or not to give a couple of coins or the solitary paper bill he has, which is large. Asking that a noisy child in a restaurant be quiet morphs into a media frenzy when it turns out the boy has Down's Syndrome. Andy watches the story escalate from being reported as what it was into a violent, drunken night, and suddenly the laughing stock of UK television is now its greatest villain.
Gervais has impeccable comic timing. He's a genius with the slow burn. He and Merchant are also careful not to let Andy be too much of a hero or a victim. He's just kind of a prat in every direction. Many of his troubles are akin to Larry David's in Curb Your Enthusiasm, where if he'd just shut up before he digs the hole too deep, he'd probably get away with it. The rest of the time, though, you are on Andy's side because it's not really his fault, it's his friends and colleagues that are causing the mess. Maggie has no concept of what not to say, but she's so adorable and sweet, you can only be frustrated with her when she tells a little person's fiancée that Andy said if she had originally had a choice between him and the 3' 6" actor Warwick Davis (the choral teacher in the Harry Potter films), she'd of course have chosen the taller man. Maggie just thought she was making conversation, she wasn't trying to incite a riot.
The other mainstay is Merchant himself as Andy's ridiculously inept agent Darren Lamb. Darren spends more time trying to get Andy's jobs given to his only other client, Shaun Williamson, who was once on a British soap opera. As this is Extras, Williamson is actually playing himself, and Darren only refers to him as his old character name, Barry. That's the kind of agent Lamb is. When he tries to get in and fix things, like going on a morning talk show to defend Andy, he just makes it worse before pulling out Barry's home recorded CD.
Extras could easily have strayed into territory that alienated regular audiences who might not be up on their show business ephemera, but they keep the comedy original enough that the overall point is that the celebrity machine is ludicrous and worth laughing at rather than worshipping. American viewers won't know who a good portion of the cameos are unless they watch a fair amount of BBC America, but it doesn't really matter. There's no need for us to ever have seen Keith Chegwin on TV, we just need to know that he is a presenter on variety-style shows, and we automatically know the type. Beyond that, once we stop laughing at showbiz, Extras gets most of its laughs through the squirm factor--just how uncomfortable can Gervais and Merchant get it, how far can they test our concern for these characters. The answer seems to go farther with each episode, and it just gets funnier each time.
There are six half-hour episodes in Extras - The Complete Second Season, and HBO has split them over two discs. They are as follows.
Episode 1: Orlando Bloom - As Andy's first episode prepares for taping, things just seem to get worse and worse. He knows it's bad, but he can't get out of it, and when the network forces him to use has-been TV-show host Keith Chegwin, little does he know the madness he is in for. Elsewhere, Maggie actually steals the episode, working on an awful romantic comedy set in a courtroom that stars Orlando Bloom. The actor shish kabobs his heartthrob image, portraying himself as a vain, insecure twit with a fixated rivalry with Johnny Depp. When Maggie claims to be uninterested in him, he vows to make her interested.
Also, wait for the hilarious bit of comedy business with Barry stealing food from the set. It's priceless.
Episode 2: David Bowie - Taking place almost completely away from any studio or film set, it's the day after "When the Whistle Blows" premiered, and Andy is already on the fame yo-yo. This is the episode that got excerpted the most when it first aired, with the show's climax showing up all over YouTube. Andy and Maggie run into David Bowie at a nightclub, and when Andy tries to connect with the rocker as an artist, it inspires the Thin White Duke to compose a vicious, impromptu song about the clown with a "pug-nose face." Perhaps the series' finest moment.
Episode 3: Daniel Radcliffe - Finally able to parlay his TV stint into something more substantial, Andy gets a small role on a Harry Potter knock-off starring Radcliffe. The young actor is awesome, playing himself as an awkward teen who tries to show off to Maggie to prove what a bad boy he is and seduce her. Naturally, he's completely clueless. The show also features Dame Diana Rigg (Emma Peel from The Avengers) and Warwick Davis (Willow), who gets into a row with both Andy and Radcliffe when they hit on his soon-to-be wife. This is also the episode where Andy accidentally offends the Down's Syndrome boy, guaranteeing him much grief.
Episode 4: Chris Martin - Big respect to the Coldplay singer for showing off his sense of humor, making fun of his over-serious persona as a political huckster by playing it like he's just doing it to sell records. The episode also features a host of British celebrities (including a wonderfully dismissive Stephen Fry), as Andy gets nominated for the UK equivalent of the Emmys. In what turns out to be the most humiliating night for him yet, he is banned from the ceremonies forever and has his sexual inadequacies exposed on live TV. If there is ever an episode where you might feel bad for laughing at the poor guy and not with him, this is it. But I love it despite myself.
Episode 5: Ian McKellen - Once again trying to salvage his rapidly sinking reputation, Andy seeks serious work. He signs on for an overly earnest play directed by Sir Ian McKellen, not realizing it has a gay-themed story. He might have gotten away with it, but a homophobic school chum (Jonathan Cake) turns up at the wrong moment to bring all of Andy's insecurities out. This episode probably has the most traditional situation comedy tropes and slapstick of any in both seasons, as the predicament Andy gets in (along with a side plot of Maggie and Darren going on a date) provides so many good opportunities for big laughs. Up there with Barry's food pilfering in episode 1 is Andy's attempts to stop the geyser from an exploding soda bottle as a particularly inspired bit of physical comedy.
Episode 6: ?????? - I'm not being cheeky. That's the title of the episode. The big cameo in this one is kept under wraps, the culmination of a plot where Andy starts letting his fame go to his head and loses sight of what's important. After becoming friends with a talk show host, Jonathan Ross, Andy has little time for Maggie, except to take her with him on the awkward errand he doesn't want to do--visiting a sick young fan in the hospital. On his way to a meeting with the very big star who shall not be named, it becomes a question of what he will choose. Can the ultimate sell-out finally decide what matters?
Naturally, being Gervais and Merchant, whatever lesson Andy learns will not stink of treacle. Nothing ever quite goes right for him, of course, and it's probably because they've withheld the niceties for so long that it comes more as a sigh of relief than a forehead-slapping groaner. Plus, when Darren gets caught with the naughty picture pen, it's so funny, you can hardly believe it.
* * *
So, Extras - The Complete Second Season is another successful run of episodes for the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant team. With the series following the same model as they used on The Office, giving us just two seasons and the forthcoming wrap-up special, they keep their perfect score going. This second go-around has a little less heart than the first season (which is what really sets this show apart from The Office), but at the same time, it ups the awkwardness by rummaging through the rubbish bin of classical tragedy in order to find its painful guffaws. This is the one where Andy Millman flies too close to the sun, and we get to listen to the funny whistle he makes as he falls back to Earth.
Extras - The Complete Second Season was shot in widescreen and the DVD maintains the 16:9 aspect ratio. Everything here looks great. I didn't see any issues with the hobgoblins of lesser DVDs. The best of the best.
The main program has a 2.0 audio mix and there are no complaints here, either. There are also subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
The longest bonus feature is the "Extras Backstage" program, running six episodes, three per disc, one documentary segment per show. You can pick and choose what to watch, or play them all at once. The three on the first disc run 28 minutes and 35 seconds, the second disc is 29:55. They feature interviews with Gervais and Merchant, as well as some of the other cast members and guest stars. In addition to clips from the show, we also see quite a few outtakes. Thankfully, knowing what the audience wants, David Bowie talks about writing the "fat man" song.
Both DVDs also have a selection of outtakes from the episodes, 4 minutes on DVD 1 and 4:50 on 2. Some of these are pretty good, and unlike the first season set, provide us a lot more than just Gervais laughing. Though, his inability to get through hardly any scenes without breaking is celebrated on DVD 2 in the featurette "Art of Corpsing" (13:39). Apparently "corpsing" is the term for when someone can't stop laughing long enough to get through a take, drawing out that scene for ridiculous lengths of time. This is an encouraged problem on the Extras set, and it's amazing they get anything done. Actors are interviewed, specific scenes dissected for their particular gut-busting effects, and even McKellen, Martin, Radcliffe, and Chegwin own up to how Gervais has ruined them.
The strangest extra, however, is "Taping Nigel: The Gimpening," a 29:55 exploration of Gervais' fascination with doing ridiculous things to editor Nigel Williams. It's insane what Gervais perpetrates on this man, ranging from food eating contests to trussing him up to using tape to construct bizarre and painful masks for the man to wear. Williams submits to an interview about this, though the larger question of why he submits to his boss' torture remains a mystery. Like everything in Extras, you'll be torn between laughter and pity.
Highly Recommended. Extras - The Complete Second Season is yet another killer set from the comedic minds of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Going further into the comedy of errors that is show business, this second go-around charts the fumbling rise of their hapless hero, Andy Millman, as he makes a sitcom that not even he can respect and runs headlong into the ego and hubris of celebrity. Fantastic cameos by the likes of David Bowie, Ian McKellen, and Daniel Radcliffe will get everyone talking, but it's in the relationships and the screw-ups of the core characters that the true brilliance of the series comes to the fore. You will squirm as much as you will laugh, and you will do a lot of both.
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 project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.