After mockumentary sitcom "The Office" the original one made Ricky Gervais the king of British comedy, everyone waited to see what he did next. The answer was "Extras," a BBC and HBO co-production with an interesting conceit:. Andy Millman (Gervais) is a forty-something man with dreams of a serious acting career, but who works as an extra (though he prefers "supporting artist") on various films, allowing each episode to be built around high-caliber self-satirizing celebrity guests like Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet and Patrick Stewart.
But in "Extras" season two, which premieres on HBO this Sunday, it's Andy who's the celebrity. He's left extra work behind to star in his own BBC sitcom, paralleling Gervais' own rise from obscurity to fame after "The Office" aired in 2001. There's Orlando Bloom obsessed with his own good looks, Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe determined to prove he's no longer a little wizard boy (claiming "I've done it, with a girl, intercourse-wise") and Chris Martin sending up his do-gooder image. "Can we get on with this?" Martin snaps during a charity appeal photo shoot. "I've got to do AIDS and Alzheimer's and land mines this afternoon, and I want to get back for 'Deal or No Deal.' Plus, Gwyneth's making drumsticks."
Just as "The Office" drew on Gervais' real-life pre-celebrity frustrations, so season two of "Extras" skews Gervais' experience in the public eye. The key difference is that Andy hates his own sitcom, as do the critics. "Extras" basically posits what would have happened if the BBC had taken his sharp "The Office" script and smoothed the edges until it was a lowest common denominator sitcom with a laugh track and catchphrases. There are cringe-worthy clips of the fictional show (titled "When the Whistle Blows") peppered throughout "Extras." It's like a British "Married With Children." Andy even wears a silly wig as Katey Sagal did to play Peg Bundy.
By mocking the limited nature of other sitcoms, and with Andy consistently echoing Gervais' own stated ambition to create something artistic, "Extras" is setting the bar very high. But while the first season was maybe too shallow and celebrity-driven to achieve Gervais' goals (though it was still amusing), the second season of "Extras" adds some surprising emotional depth. By removing the constraint of locating each episode on a fictional film set, the show is free to be more expansive with both plot and character. There are some genuinely heartbreaking, almost cinematic, moments of tragic pathos to go alongside the sarcasm and cringes. Episode one closes with Andy standing alone and defeated backstage, the audience still guffawing over his dreadful "Are you having a laugh?" catchphrase, while Andy is painfully aware of the terrible trap he's created.
Andy has a "Curb Your Enthusiasm"-type knack for getting himself into bizarre trouble, making headlines like "TV Bully Kicks Dwarf in Face." His dim friend Maggie (a brilliantly straight-faced Ashley Jensen) and idiotic agent played by Stephen Merchant (who co-writes and co-directs the show with Gervais) don't help Andy's cause, though their ramblings provide some absurdist laughs. But unlike Larry David's show, "Extras" gets noticeably darker with each episode, as Andy's situation slowly becomes more and more desperate.
The only problem is that "Extras" relies heavily on a working knowledge of British C- and D-list celebrities. Though some references were apparently altered, unless you're familiar with the likes of Keith Chegwin and Shaun Williamson (and there's no reason you should be), many of the in-jokes will fall flat. The jokes only work if you know who the celebrity is, so it's an odd choice for HBO to co-produce a show that occasionally places a barrier between itself and American viewers. But when television schedules are populated by offerings not much better than "When the Whistle Blows" (this means you "According to Jim"), a few obscure references won't prevent "Extras" from being a welcome oasis of satire, and a cringe-worthy British contemporary to "Curb Your Enthusiasm." S
The second season of "Extras" premieres Sunday, Jan. 14, at 10 p.m. on HBO.