Thursday, 29 March 2007

Extras Season 2 (2006)

Extras Series 2

Most critics seem to be in general agreement that the first series of Extras, the sitcom from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, wasn't in the same league as the pair's previous show, The Office. Given the uniqueness and excellence of that show, how could it be?

Extras is set in the world of show business and the first six shows seemed to rely too much on the fame of the celebrities that featured each week, and having them play 'themselves' (albeit as extreme versions based on tabloid rumour), rather than any jokes per se.

The Office demonstrated that Gervais and Merchant as writers can take a while to settle into their stride, and Extras has prived to be no different. In this second series, comprising six half hour episodes, a more common theme (that of 'selling your soul') comes into play across the episodes. The celebrity guest appearances are still a main part of the show, with the star power this time around being even higher, but this time around they feel more like they serve the story being told than the self-indulgent and rather irrelevant 'treat' they were in the first series.

Writers/actors Steve Merchant and Ricky Gervais don't seem impressed with the endless 'Not as good as The Office' reviews!

Orlando Bloom, David Bowie, Sir Ian McKellen, Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Martin (Coldplay), Dame Diana Rigg, Robert Lindsay, Keith Chegwin, Jonathan Ross, Ronnie Corbett and Robert de Niro all make appearances as exaggerated versions of themselves this time round. They are 'themselves' only as they would be if written by the worst kind of tabloid journalists! It's good fun if you're a fan of the particular celebrity featured each week, but it does seem at times that the same formula is being used in every episode, with little new being added in any given show.

While the series feels better written (not under-written, the way the first series was) there's still too much repetition here, with the familiar themes of political correctness provoking awkwardness around racism, bigotry and homophobia played out time and time again. While there's an underlying intelligence to the structure of each episode - an intelligence that wasn't so evident in the first series - one still comes away wishing there were just a few MORE belly laughs than are evident here. And perhaps a touch more originality too. In truth there's little here that hasn't already been seen on the American show Curb Your Enthusiasm. If I'm honest I have to say that I felt that the American show does the whole thing with rather more panache, if less mainstream appeal, than is evident here.

Extras features a sitcom within a sitcom

What humour there is for the most part relies on putting the show's hero, now promoted to writer and actor in a new TV sitcom, into embarrassing situations and have him dig himself deeper and deeper into a hole. This was a common theme for The Office too, but that series made such situations much bigger and piled on the agony to such an extent that at times it became difficult to watch. With Extras such moments are down-played more, and the show is weaker as a result. One can argue that the humour is meant to be more cerebral than the traditional sit-com show, but there's something not quite right when you're laughing more at the weak jokes and catchphrase's in the 'sit com within a sit com' which the show has intended to be used as a vehicle to show what happens when people 'sell out'.

Not that there isn't much to enjoy in this second series. Highlights include BBC News Reader Moira Stewart being body-searched for drugs and giving Ricky Gervais the finger when she thinks Gervais' character and Ronnie Corbett have sold her out as their drug dealer. There's a wonderful po-faced speech about the recurring character's Barry from EastEnders dignity and integrity in walking away from Britain's biggest soap, just seconds before the actors jacket suddenly lets loose a deluge of sweets and snacks the actor has purloined from the set canteen. And there's some wonderful performances from the likes of Radcliffe, McKellen and de Niro who seem more than happy to send themselves up something rotten. Even Orlando Bloom manages to come away from the series with what little kudos he has for being a 'proper' actor intact!

'Barry from EastEnders' has a bigger role this series

This second series is the last that will be produced, although a Christmas special is apparently on its way to wrap things up. Gervais and Merchant seem to think the series has reached its natural conclusion, and with so many repetitions of themes that had already been covered in the first series, it's hard to disagree. For the most part the sketches and structure of each episode are better developed this time round, which means this second series is rather better than the first, if not in terms of number of laughs, at least in terms of polish.

Extras Series 2 may not be the writers' best work, but it's still so far ahead of most of what passes as British sit-com these days, that it's worth a rental, if not a purchase, if you missed the original broadcasts.

The series is presented as a two-disc set: the first comprising the series itself, the second featuring extra's that are more than generous for a TV series. The highlights are easily the 8-10 minute featurettes, one for each episode, where Merchant and Gervais discuss the episode with occasional sound bites from the featured guest star.

Daniel Radcliff reprises his Harry Potter role in one of the many celebrity appearances scattered throughout the series

The Art of Corpsing is an irritatingly long series of clips showing the actors, but mainly Gervais, fluffing their lines as they break into giggles over the simplest of lines. Those who've seen Gervais on chat shows will know that he has a nervous, rather fake-sounding laugh that he appears to invoke in response to anything anybody says, and this featurette just shows how quickly it can get annoying. It seems a particularly odd inclusion given Gervais' eloquent explanation on how awful corpsing is for those around the actor suffering from it. If corpsing is that unamusing for everyone other than the actor involved, why force us to sit through 10-20 repetitions of the same unfunny line?

The Outtakes is unfortunately more of the same, its only real purpose being to show that the guest celebrities can sometimes have problems remembering their lines or keeping a straight face too.

The package is rounded out with Taping Nigel, which is, frankly, a rather disturbing feature on the bullying 'practical jokes' the series editor has to suffer at the hands of Gervais. If you thought Gervais was a sophisticated, witty humourist based on the show you've just finished watching you may think again after seeing this feature. It's alarming how easily that Hyena-like laugh can be invoked at such length, and at such frequency by the most juvenile and schoolboyish of 'jape's. Men behaving like little schoolboys is never a trait I've found particularly attractive, particularly when there's a victim, reliant on the perpetrator for their daily wage, at the end of it!

If you missed the series on TV, the DVD is well worth a purchase. An excellent transfer presented in anamorphic widescreen means the show looks good, and it certainly has subtleties in the writing that repay repeated viewing. I just wish there were a few more belly laughs in it.

Robert de Niro is kept waiting for Gervais' character in the final episode of the series


Smitty Ian said...

as usual, the critics miss the mark and so do you. curb your enthusiasm as a quality show? episodes built around the hardships of a rich white man are a bit dull, contrived, and just plain pointless. extras is easily a better show. any dummy can see that?

Ian said...

I'd better pass this on to that "dummy" Ricky Gervais who has spoken at length about Curb Your Enthusiam (and got a rare interview with that rich white man you mention). But then what would that "dummy" Ricky Gervais know - he's only the guy that wrote "Extra's" :-P