Thursday, July 21, 2005 by Lee Madge
In the way things usually go in the fickle business known as “show”, Ricky Gervais would be due a critical savaging right about now. After the phenomenal success of The Office and his impressive foray into stand-up, he has surely now stepped into the “difficult third album” phase of his career, leaving him to dwindle in the realms of comedians who once had it, but now struggle to win back the affection of the fickle, yet vicious public.
The way to counteract this turn of affection, of course, is to emerge with a show just as funny, well-scripted, directed and performed as your last, thus rendering backlash virtually impossible. I would wager many a TV critic was ready to pounce with an almost pre-written attack on Gervais’ new vehicle, Extras, only to discover that as an opening episode, it already looks just as much draped in the sort of quality that deservedly saw The Office bestowed with numerous accolades.
Extras is as far removed from that series, as it could possibly be. Moving away from the “fly-on-the-wall” style, and into the plot-based format of sitcom, (albeit, still minus the laughter track) it is already a brave move, in as much that the writing requires a more rigid discipline, with rules to conform to – or break, whichever the case may be.
However there are some similarities present in the leading character, Andy, played by Gervais. Pop a goatee beard on him, and you could quite easily be watching David Brent, a man now given up on middle management and eking out a career as a film extra. Andy, like Brent, is seemingly clued up but a little surface scratching reveals him to be a shallow chancer, who can still manage to secure a little sympathy from those around him.
There will be those who will condemn Gervais for not moving his creation too much away from his previous incarnation, but he has never proclaimed to be a great character actor. He has realised his potential as a good comic actor at the level he is confident at, and simply placed a similar archetype into an entirely different scenario, much how the Tony Hancock character changed his occupation, or location to suit the plotlines of his Half Hour shows.
The opening episode of any sitcom is often a little difficult, usually being the introduction to the cast, and premise of the show. Extras episode one did this, but not in a fashion that appeared clunking or got in the way of the gags and plot.
Ben Stiller was the series first guest star, and pulled off a successful performance, as the actor-turned-director of a film about the “true” story of a widower’s plight at losing his wife and son in Bosnia. Stiller’s character was pretentious, aggressive and conceited. Assumingly, though playing himself, it was seemingly far removed from his real persona, ensuring real comic potential and the role’s success. Anyone who remembers his pre-box office megastar role in US sitcom Friends, as one of Rachel’s aggressive boyfriends, will have recognised the similarity in the antagonistic character traits, particularly in the segment in which he scolded a child actor for laughing during a scene in which he was fleeing from an armed soldier.
Stiller managed not to overplay his part to the point of saturating his screen time, but seemed to relish in the performance that negated the kind of roles he will be usually offered, as a result of his movie star status. The very funny final sequence of the show demonstrated his willingness to send himself and his profession up. During the scene he had made an outburst at the widower whose story had inspired the movie, culminating in him throwing a “do you know who I am?”-style hissy fit. Turning to Andy – after the extra had attempted to calm things down – he shouted, “Who am I, huh?” in his face. With precise comic timing, the bit-parter replied, “Starsky or Hutch, I can never remember which”. A subtle yet impeccably delivered close to the show.
All sitcom’s are based around the central character feeling stuck in a particular situation. Andy’s particular entrapment is being stuck in the world of film extra work, whilst considering himself to be a talented actor. The variety of roles in which he will be placed will allow the character to develop into one as iconic as David Brent, I’m confident enough to predict.
His co-star, the relatively unknown Ashley Jensen, played Maggie, a Rodney to his Del Boy, or Godber to his Fletcher if you will, being of the dim, but harmless type. Whilst being happy to accept her life as an extra, her individual demon is that of an ongoing quest to find love, trapped by her inept social skills battling with an endearing innocence. Her scheme to get a date with one of the film production staff in the face of some early minor faux pas, was going well, until it lead to, for me, one of the funniest sequences in the show, when her shallow personality meant she couldn’t possibly date a man with a club foot once it had been pointed out to her.
It may seem a little early to predict Extras will become a success, after only one episode, but it certainly demonstrated a lot of potential. If the difficult third album theory has to be applied here, then let’s think of the disappointing US remake of The Office as that dodgy LP, and consider Extras the magnificent comeback record.