Monday, 23 October 2006

EXTRAS 2.6 - "Episode 6"

Monday, 23 October 2006
19 Oct 06. BBC 2, 9.00 pm
DIRECTORS & WRITERS: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
CAST: Ricky Gervais (Andy Millman), Ashley Jensen (Maggie Jacobs), Stephen Merchant (Agent), Shaun Williamson (Shaun/Barry), Robert Lindsay (Himself), Jonathan Ross (Himself)

Andy is guilt-tripped into visiting a sick boy in hospital who's a fan of his sitcom, all at a time when he's becoming showbiz mates with chat-show host Jonathan Ross...

Reality and fiction collide with each other in the final episode of Extras' entertaining, but narratively weaker second series, when Andy (Gervais) is interviewed by Jonathan Ross on TV. Footage of the interview is taken from Gervais' own interview on Ross' show, and the plot sees Andy becoming friends with Ross, much like Gervais is in real life.

So it's clearer than ever that Andy Millman is an alternate version of Ricky Gervais, for while Gervais struck comedy gold and critical respect with The Office, Millman struck comedy bronze and critical disdain with When The Whistle Blows. Andy is Ying to Ricky's Yang, essentially.

The blurring of realities in Extras certainly reaches a high point with Episode 6, and it actually seems very egotistical to splice your own interview into a sitcom and get a showbiz mate involved in your meta-comedy. It might just be a bit of fun for Gervais, but after spending the past five episodes extolling the evils low-brow sitcoms, etc, it seems hypocritical to so blatantly do something similar yourself.

Thankfully, the Ross-Gervais love-in disappears quite quickly, leaving the rest of the episode to compensate. Andy's social life is again inconvenienced by the mother of a sick boy who's a fan of Andy's sitcom, and he's talked into sitting at the kid's bedside. Later, Andy gives his agent an ultimatum: a meeting with screen legend Robert DeNiro to discuss a film project, or he's fired...

While series 2 of Extras has lacked the wit and realism of series 1, often relying on crudity to gets its laughs, it's true that the pitfalls of fame have been quite neatly handled. Here, the lure of showbiz friends and parties pulls Andy away from his true friend Maggie, in a plot that might be obvious but is performed well by both actors.

The headlining star is Jonathan Ross (although a late surprise guest eclipses him totally), and Ross essentially plays himself. Unlike previous guests, Ross' persona isn't twisted cruelly, as his real personality is already quite exaggerated (his love of Japanese toys, etc) although he does star in a marginally homo-erotic water pistol fight at a picnic...

Ross might get top-billing, but it's Robert Lindsay who steals the show, playing an egotistical version of himself. It's a great performance, particularly in his embarassing rendition of a Broadway hit to a sickly child. Lindsay even plays along with some good-natured jibes about his sitcom My Family (a huge ratings hit, but reviled by industry insiders -- much like the fictional When The Whistle Blows).

Episode 6 is enjoyable and belatedly marks a slight upsurge in quality from the show. Extras is always worth watching, but the early episodes totally lacked the spark of series 1 and focused too much on Andy's sitcom. Episode 6 still contains crudeness for easy laughs (a masturbation scene with a pornographic pen) but that doesn't really matter so long as there's a balance with more substantial and witty jokes.

Ashley Jensen's role has been seriously undermined to nothing more than comic stooge who feeds Andy lines, whereas she was an enjoyable character in her own right last year. There is also a tendency to recycle the same gags, but dress them up differenty, leading to almost every episode having a comic misunderstanding involving a disabled person.

The show doesn't end with anything to suggest a new direction for a third series, unless the unseen DeNiro meeting leads to Hollywood, but I hope there is one nevertheless. I think there's more mileage left in the premise, although series 2 was shakier than series 1, so I'm not clamouring for an extra portion like last year.