Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale (2007)

After a disappointing second series, creators/writers/stars Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant close down their second telvisual collaboration in heady, exhilarating style. Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale fulfills this uneven show's initial promise and even exceeds the best moments of its first series with exactly the sort of generous blend of awkward humor and warm-hearted characters that were the stock and trade of their masterpiece, the original British incarnation of The Office. They even take a stab at a sort of low-fi version of Network, with a ballsy, TV denouncing final sequence that really takes the screws to the medium that has nutured these artists' careers amongst so much other crap.

Extras mutated a bit over the course of its short run. Each episode of the first series (as they like to call their seasons across the pond) followed a dependable formula: hapless movie extras Andy (Gervais) and Maggie (Ashley Jensen) work (or, more accurately, sit around killing time any way they can) on a film set where they run afoul of a movie star or two, played by a rotating cast of guest stars. Invariably, these movie stars — people like Ben Stiller or Kate Winslet — were revealed to be horrific versions of the people we believe them to be based on their media personas; Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, for instance uses his public appearances at charitable causes as a springboard to plug his band's new greatest hits album. Much of the show's humor and tension rose out of the massive divide between the lowly (but kindly) extras and the powerful (but douchey) celebrities.

Things changed dramatically in series two. Through a combination of luck, skill, and sheer determination Andy gets a sitcom on the air of the BBC. Though Andy's idea initially sounds very much like The Office, the realities of network television transmute it into something much much worse: a trite, catchphrase laden piece of hackery called "When the Whistle Blows." As the show becomes a hit, Andy in turn becomes rich, famous, and successful. He also becomes a laughing stock amongst the critics and artistic types whose approval he desperately craves (Maggie, meanwhile, is still a miserable extra).

It seemed like a pretty clever idea for Gervais to sendup his own television career but, in practice, making fun of "When the Whistle Blows" was about as much fun as actually watching "When the Whistle Blows." There's basically just one joke there — the show is bad! Tee hee! — and episode after episode rung that bell over and over. And while the first season's high-low dynamics worked just as well for an American audience, something about the second's season's rigorous savaging of mainstream British comedy (most of which I have never had the opportunity to see) got lost in translation. Perhaps the finer points of of the shiticy of "When the Whistle Blows" (and its relation to stuff actually airing on the telly) were absolute knee-slappers when they aired in the UK. None of that came through here (and who the hell is Robert Lindsay?). It also didn't make a whole lot of sense for Andy to keep his oafish agent (played by Merchant) around once he became a successful network TV star. When he was desperate you could buy him depending on someone this woefully incompetent (selling his likeness to a doll manufacturer who cocks up the thing so that it never stops spitting out Andy's obnoxious catchphrase, "Is he having a laugh?"). Flush with success there's no way someone as driven as Andy would let someone keep dragging him down.

Thankfully, that becomes a crucial part of The Extra Special Series Finale, when another agent with promises of artistic freedom and critical respect lures Andy away. But when he decides to cancel "When the Whistle Blows," the work and the attention dries up. Now, in order to keep his name out there, he begins to desperately appear in the kind of dumb guest spots he'd vowed to reject a few months before (there's a killer scene with Gervais in a giant slug costume, battling the latest version of Doctor Who). Suddenly, he's a has been, and now he'll do anything to get a table at the Ivy. In what amounts to an 80 minute movie (as opposed to the series of 2 hourlong specials that capped off The Office), Andy must come to grips with what he wants, whether that be celebrity, or integrity, or maybe neither.

In the episode's climax (and I'm about to get SPOILERY), Andy has an epiphany on the set of Celebrity Big Brother, rails against celebrity obsession and reality television, declares anyone who watches it a moron and himself even worse for participating, apologizes to Maggie (whose fall on even harder times than Andy has gone totally unnoticed as his narcissism got the better of him) and storms off the show. In response, Andy becomes hotter and more popular than ever. Now EVERYONE wants a piece of him. So what to do now?

There's a lot of ways that big scene could stumble. The speech is didactic, the sentiment is probably more than a little off coming from someone whose had such great success in television, and the tearjerky elements could easily fall right into camp if Gervais couldn't actually act. Lo and behold he can! As he launches into this finger-pointing diatribe I was ready to hate the sermonizing on basic principles but he sells it, and as he begins to well up as he apologizes to the friend he never appreciated I must admit, I did as well. It's really quite a beautiful scene (and the joke that caps it off is a really funny one). The outcome of that speech strikes me as quite truthful; though the creators of these reality shows try to control them well past the point where anyone could really call them true "reality" the people who watch these shows specifically tune in hoping for something like Andy's speech. People love the rare moments when the contestants of these things actually do and say what they feel (take a catfight on the set of a dating show). It's great, too, that Gervais and Merchant were able to use the real name and (presumably) logo and set of Big Brother given how blatantly negative they are about the show and the junk culture surrounding it. If they'd had to set up a sort of faux approximation the scene wouldn't have half the bite.

So the Extras finale provides me the opportunity to use a great cliche: I laughed, I cried, I wanted more. And I can't wait to see Gervais perform standup live in the States later this year. What do you mean you didn't buy tickets yet? Are you having a laff?


Blogger Wealthy Pete said...

Good review. I enjoyed the ending as well, even though I think Ricky was also criticizing himself too. According to episodes of his Xfm radio show, he is regular viewer of Big Brother (which might explain how he got them to agree to sending them up). I just hope he keeps his promise never to appear on one of those shows.

I saw not just a bit of Network in the finale but also The Truman Show, not just because of the film's obvious influence on Big Brother. The spoiled climax, when Truman finds the way out of TV-hell while others watch with excitement on television, is mirrored with Andy. So is the woman who comes to his rescue at the end. At the very least both ending made me tear-up.

Aside - I had a dream a week ago where I was being graded on comments like this in class, and got a 55/100. Thank God for this life of pass/fail.

3:04 PM  

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