back to the Black Table
               
  BELIEVE THE HYPE? EXTRAS.  
   
   
 

Here's a question to ponder: In the last few years, has there been a movie, album, TV show or anything else that's as universally loved as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's "The Office"?

There are people who object to Radiohead and Eminem, Memento

 
 

and Sideways. Even "The Sopranos" lost steam as the seasons piled on. But "The Office" is generally adored, for very good reasons. Most obviously, it was exceptionally well done, a comedy with legitimately funny characters that touched on the daily grind of real life with insight and feeling. There were also other factors that worked to its advantage. Not including the "Christmas Special" epilogue, the show only ran 12 episodes, broken up into two seasons -- short but sweet. Also, "The Office" had the cache of being

       
 

imported from Britain through BBC America, which made it more difficult to find than the normal sitcom and therefore infinitely cooler to know about. Quality counts, of course, but "The Office" was helped into the pantheon because of extenuating circumstances.

"The Office"'s adoring throngs created humongous expectations for Gervais and Merchant's follow-up. When you're responsible for something that's regarded as "perfect" or "total genius," anything after that is almost destined to be disappointing. And from there, the question becomes, does the disappointing follow-up prove you're a one-trick pony? It's a lot of pressure for even the most gifted of artists.

The best I can say about the six episodes that make up "Extras" is that it confirms Gervais and Merchant can write -- they're funny guys. But I am now officially worried that "The Office" was a tremendous fluke, the likes of which we won't see again -- and certainly not by the people who made it.

Airing on HBO after its initial run on BBC, "Extras" tells the story of Andy (played by Gervais), a man whose midlife crisis provoked him to give up a comfortable business career to pursue his true love - acting. But Andy doesn't have movie-star looks, and so he spends his time as a background player while the real acting (and the actual stars) occurs in the foreground. As demonstrated by "The Office," Gervais and Merchant specialize in the comedy that results from the unfortunate intersection of big dreams and human limitations. Even more so on this new project, Gervais and Merchant articulate the fictional worst-case-scenarios your parents warned you about when they advised against a profession as a sculptor or performance artist. People who reach for the stars crash hard into the ground, they seem to be warning us.

Of late, HBO has relied on comedies revolving around the Hollywood community, but "Extras" tells it from the side of the unknowns -- and because it's set in England, there's also a geographical separation from the glamorous El Lay lifestyle. And at first, "Extras" promised to be a necessary alternative to insider-ish shows like "Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," a comedy focusing on the nobodies who won't ever become somebodies no matter how hard they try. But now I've seen the entire season, in its original running order from the BBC, and I have to dole out some bad news. After producing "The Office," a terrific show that walked to its own rhythm, "Extras" stumbles by adhering too closely to the HBO formula, losing the indelible cadences that marked Gervais and Merchant's earlier work.

The first warning sign occurred before the start of principal photography. The trades announced that "Extras" would incorporate "celebrity cameos" -- folks like Kate Winslet and Samuel L. Jackson playing humorous versions of themselves. Now, I'm sure that in parallel realities, people are still very excited at that sort of news: Hey! Look! It's Ben Stiller! Playing himself! But after "The Simpsons," "The Larry Sanders Show," "Arli$$," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Entourage," "Family Guy," Saturday Night Live" and every other episode of "Will & Grace," who finds that sort of stunt casting surprising or delightful? Isn't it just a shortcut way to trick audiences into watching a show? Except for Winslet's hysterical turn and Ross Kemp's nuanced one, performances that added to the larger plot in meaningful ways, the cameos on "Extras" feel strained, a chance for some big stars to seem "cool" by hanging with Gervais, the "it" comedy man of the hour.

This alone wouldn't be a deal-breaker if the rest of the show wasn't so problematic. But another detrimental HBO influence on "Extras" is felt in the show's reliance on "Curb"-style humor, veering into situations where the laughs come from creating uncomfortably awkward scenes of inappropriate social interaction. It's a simple comedic formula: Characters normally behave a certain way because it's the norm and proper, but instead they don't and then all hell (not to mention laughs) breaks loose.

Granted, "The Office" mined this style of humor as well, but it was often at the expense of Gervais' ungodly boss character, David Brent, a chauvinistic, small-minded buffoon whose delusions of grandeur made him the sort of middle-management nightmare that's the occupational hazard of every 9-to-5er. Brent's insults upon minorities and women were funny because they struck a chord - who hasn't had a boss who enjoyed making inflammatory comments just because he could? Brent symbolized all that was wrong with complacent middle-aged white guys -- and, by extension, most of the working world -- and so the damage had some realism to it.

Not so with "Extras." Here, the comedy is based on Andy and his bubble-headed friend, fellow extra Maggie (played by Ashley Jensen), putting their foot in their mouth by saying things that nobody -- I mean nobody -- says to minorities or homosexuals and then seeming amazed when it comes back to haunt them.

This irritation isn't helped by the fact that neither Andy nor Maggie is well-drawn. You sense that Gervais wants to distance himself from his Brent performance -- which was a little gem demonstrating how to make a loathsome character empathetic -- but he never quite decides if Andy is a fool, a realist, a conniving jerk or a loser, and therefore we can't be sure how to feel about him and his misadventures in the screen trade. (Is he supposed to be learning tough lessons about the absurdity of the biz? Is he supposed to be realizing that, really, he shoulda stuck with the day job? Does he honestly think he's going to make it? It's anyone's guess.)

But at least Andy seems remotely realistic -- Maggie just feels like an excuse for some gags to happen per episode. Whether trying to date a black man to prove she's not a racist or wreaking havoc with Andy's attempts to launch his writing career, there is a hopelessly naïve quality to her that borders on psychosis. In just about every episode, she unintentionally undermines Andy in some small or significant way, and you can't help but feel that Gervais and Merchant are working extremely hard to make these two characters such unlikely friends so that we'll never guess they'll hook up romantically. (To be fair, that issue is addressed at the end of the final episode, and while it's a nice touch to close on, it doesn't feel believable after what occurs between them before.)

But at its worst, in an episode where Andy gets entangled in the lonely life of a fellow extra who pathetically keeps extending offers of friendship, "Extras" is contemptuously superior to the world it has created, mocking those who just want a life in the arts while smugly parading its litany of big names who Gervais and Merchant can land now that they're famous. It's impossible to remove the thought that, behind its cheery tone, "Extras" is a way for its creators to settle scores, to remind their peers who made it and who didn't. Adding to that suspicion is the show's imbalance between realistic comedy and utterly implausible character motivations. If the show wants to be an accurate (and bitterly funny) report on what it's like to be an extra, why then is it so easy for our heroes to intermingle with big celebrities and get writing deals with the BBC? And if the show wants to be absurdist, pushing its star cameos to do totally outrageous things for laughs, how are we to accept "Extras" except as one more HBO fantasyland concoction?

Having a show like "The Office" on your résumé is a double-edged sword. It opens a hell of a lot of doors for you and it makes people more willing to support later projects, but it leaves a long shadow you have to work to escape. If "The Office" was special partly because it was lovingly charming and handmade, "Extras" is just one more example of getting too big for your britches and forgetting how you got so huge in the first place. I've been told that it's unfair to keep comparing Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's new show to their old one because since "The Office" is so good that "Extras" can't possibly compete. I'm also told that, c'mon, "Extras" is still a lot better than most sitcoms. That's all true. But if we shouldn't go into "Extras" expecting "The Office II," I think it's fair to argue that we should at least be allowed to hope for something more than a funnier "Yes, Dear."

Believe the Hype Rating: 3 out of 10

 

Want more?

 

Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.