What happens when you finally get fame and fortune, and you realize that it’s not all it cracked up to be? Ricky Gervais brilliant HBO sitcom Extras shows just how destructive, but addictive notoriety can be. Gervais plays Andy Millman, an actor who dreams of becoming an Oscar-winning Hollywood star, but who must toil away playing bit parts. His partner in crime is Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen), a lovely lass who views live with rose-tinted glasses (even if the lenses are slightly cracked). Throughout the first season, Andy’s story arc was trying to get ahead with his career. He had to contend with an agent, Darren (Extras cowriter Stephen Merchent), whose efforts often fall absurdly short (Andy’s greatest success in the first year was playing a camp genie in a panto version of Aladdin). Andy gets his big break in the second season, starring in and writing a sitcom, When the Whistle Blows. Much of the second season is devoted to Andy’s chafing at terrible, banal monstrosity his work has become as his ideas have been whittled down to him wearing a funny wig and glasses and spouting catchphrases. The second series ended on a hopeful note, though – Andy and Maggie reconciled after a falling out, and viewers were given the glimmer of hope that maybe Andy wins.
A few scenes into the full-length series finale shows that it’s only gotten worse. Andy’s sitcom is a huge hit, and he’s a big star. But inside he feels creatively stifled, as he wants to be regarded as an artist, but feels he’s basically prostituted himself for ratings and money. It’s hard to feel too sorry for Andy because the success of the show has gotten him a nice London pad and pots of money. Maggie, on the other hand, isn’t as lucky. After mouthing off to Clive Owen when asked to be humiliated and degraded in a film scene, Maggie leaves the background artist sector and has to toil away as a janitor.
As the film progresses, Andy’s star rises and his ego predictably inflates. He gives Darren the heave-ho, which leaves the former agent only one option: going back to selling mobile phones. Instead, Andy signs with a shiny, glossy London firm that has little regard for Andy’s creative needs and instead is interested in pushing him as a celebrity. Andy balks at the suggestions of his new agent. To add to his worries, Andy abruptly cancels his sitcom, effectively severing all relations with the folks at the BBC. The fallout is quick and Andy becomes just another has-been celeb, flogging his name on reality TV and embarrassing guest spots.
As with the series, the finale is sprinkled with celebrities, all who have a go at tweaking their public image: Owen is hilariously pompous; pop star George Michael, proving he’s got a great sense of humor about himself, has an amusing cameo as a debauched version of himself, trolling the park looking for anonymous sex on his break from community service; celeb chef also pops up at the ritzy restaurant, the Ivy, to characteristically assault Andy with his caustic wit.
The tone of the finale has slightly shifted from the series – gone are some of the more conventional, sitcommy situations and instead the cringe-inducing comedy is played far more naturally. Jensen’s Maggie is put through a ringer and the actress is more than up to the challenge. While Gervais’ performance is great, it’s Jensen who’s asked to do the heavy lifting and she does so impressively. She is an expert at portraying Maggie’s self-doubt, world-weariness and exhaustion. Maggie goes through a lot – not only does she get marginalized by her friend, but she’s broke and she has to downsize to one of the most depressing flats in London; while Andy’s so busy feeling sorry for himself, he fails to recognize just how far deep his best friend’s been drowning. Gervais and Merchant gift Jensen with a beautiful, but very depressive, montage set to Kate Bush’s “Woman’s Work” – a telling choice, as Maggie is shown in the sequence, scrubbing toilets, dragging a vacuum, and scraping dishes. What could’ve been cheap and sentimental in the hands of Jensen, Merchant and Gervais is wonderfully bruising.
While Gervais generously gives Jensen the bulk of the acting in the film, it doesn’t mean he shortchanges himself. His growing assholery is expertly modulated and believable – Andy’s never been a model of virtue and modesty, but he never was a cruel man, just a bit oblivious. Because of his fame, though, his darker side has been coddled and unchecked; whereas, before he got anywhere, his ego took much-needed thumping whenever he got his head too far up his ass, now as a TV star, few (except for Maggie) would put Andy in check. When he starts turning on the people around him – including Maggie – one realizes that at his point in life, redemption may be impossible.
I don’t want to give the impression that this episode of Extras isn’t funny – despite the more serious tone, there are still lots of laughs. Gervais is still one of the funniest actors around – his reactions to surrounding situations are brilliant – it’s a bit like a volcano or a geyser that builds itself up before exploding. Merchent, using the most of his endearing lankiness, also is great for comic relief – while he does little in terms of actually acting (his character is pretty one-note), he’s still a fantastic foil for Andy.
All the best elements of Extras are on display and this is a wonderful ending to a smart, sharp show. Gervais and company do a fantastic job in showing the ugly side of fame and the negative effect it can have on even the most beautiful of people.