On one of the DVD extras for the first season of Extras, show creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant discuss what they call the “The Difficult Second Album” or sophomore jinx. After a whopping critical and commercial success of their show, The Office, which spun off multiple international versions of the show and won a shelf-full of industry trophies, Gervais and Merchant were faced with a daunting task in crafting a second act. If the duo was nervous at all, judging from the first season of Extras, the two had nothing to worry about.
Extras features Gervais as Andy Millman, a struggling writer-actor who is paying his dues as a “background artist” while trying to get his sitcom sold to the BBC. His best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen, Ugly Betty) also works as an extra and the two spend time in between filming commiserating on their unsatisfying lives. Maggie’s a bit of a woman-child, while Andy has definite misanthropic impulses and the two characters often get themselves into trouble when their personality flaws prompt them to say or do something incredibly stupid to peril their success. Merchant stars as Andy’s hapless (and hopeless) agent who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his client.
Undoubtedly due to the success of The Office, Gervais was able to get glittery guest stars to portray warped versions of their public personae – Kate Winslet undoes her period-drama primness and plays herself as foul and filthy; Patrick Stewart betrays his Shakespearean hauteur and comes off as a hopelessly deluded hack; Daniel Radcliff is a horny, obnoxious teen; Ben Stiller is an insufferable, egomaniacal diva. Some may accuse Gervais and Merchant of stunt casting when getting A-Listers like Samuel L. Jackson to guest star, but the celebs do great in folding themselves into the sometimes-savage comic tone of the show.
As impressive as the guest star list is, though, the core of the show is Andy and Maggie. Like Gervais’ David Brent from The Office, Andy is a socially stunted individual; he does have more self-awareness than David, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t thrust himself into mordant, awkward situations. Most of these embarrassing moments are a result of his charred view of the world as well as inability to correctly gauge situation: for example, when trying to chat up a fellow extra, he snickers at a young woman making her way across the stage, believing her labored walking is due to too much drink, when in reality the young lady has cerebral palsy. He also has an excruciating moment at a cemetery trying to convince someone he is the 50-something child of a Jewish woman who supposedly died in childbirth at 60, all because he didn’t want to go out with his victim for dinner.
As Andy, Gervais is fantastic. He manages to somehow maintain a kernel of some kind of humanity, especially when he deals with his relationship with Maggie. Jensen is also wonderful – in fact she often is called on to do the “real acting” and Maggie’s backstory is often filled with more pathos than Andy’s. Her litany of gaffes are caused by her wide-eyed naivte, which in a lesser actress would come off as stupidity, but in Jensen’s hands, Maggie is a kind, but terribly confused soul. Her gentleness doesn’t mean she avoids horribly embarrassing and uncomfortable situations, either: watch, for example, a scene in the Jackson episode, where Maggie, on a date with an actor who is black, starts to crumble in a mess of neuroses and fits because she hasn’t gotten beyond the interracial aspect of their relationship; another time, Maggie kindly suggests to an effeminate writer from the BBC that he should “tone down” his flamboyant mannerisms, because Andy found him to be “too gay.”
Like with The Office, some of the moments are so cringe-inducing, they’re difficult to watch – and Gervais and Jensen are brave enough to push it further, when their characters try to remedy their faux pas by trying to explain them (which of course, makes it worse). Often enough, they have the decency to be mortified by their behavior, though, which always redeems them in the end – otherwise they would be monsters. Gervais and Merchant don’t let their audience off easy, and some of Andy’s actions prompt a horror movie-like reaction of covering your eyes, but peeking through your fingers. Still, there is a sweetness, if a co-dependence, in the friendship between Andy and Maggie, that makes viewers root for them, even when they’re being horrible. There aren’t too many “awww” moments, but when they do happen, it just highlights how complex and multi-layered this show can be.
Click here to buy the first season of Extras from amazon.com.