Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 6, 2007)
As his follow-up to the very successful 2001-2003 series The Office, Ricky Gervais decided to lampoon the film industry – from the inside perspective. That led to the debut of Extras in 2005. It didn’t last long, but that was Gervais’s ideas. Two seasons and 12 episodes later, Extras wrapped.
We’ll deal with Season Two at a later time, because now we need to begin at the beginning. I’ll look at all six episodes of Extras Season One here. The plot synopses come straight from the show’s official website.
Episode One: Kate Winslet: “On the set of a Holocaust film set in a nunnery, Andy Millman (Gervais) and the film's star, Kate Winslet, become privy to Maggie's (Ashley Jensen) latest secret - that her new boyfriend (John Kirk) has a phone-sex fetish. In her proper nun's habit, Kate offers some X-rated counsel, and comes clean about her true motives for doing the film (Holocaust = Oscar). Meanwhile, to get a date with an extra named Suzanne (Charlotte Palmer), Andy resorts to lying about his religious beliefs after being questioned by Suzanne's sister Francesca (Francesca Martinez), who has cerebral palsy. He gets his hot date - to a church prayer meeting, where his tales come undone when he is questioned by a priest (Kevin Moore)."
“Winslet” sets the tone for Extras right off the bat – and does so in a splendid manner. We learn the essence of the main characters in a tight manner that eschews tedious exposition. For instance, Andy doesn’t tell us that he’s a struggling actor, but we get the gist of his personality and life in simple ways.
I love the way the stars who appear are willing to lampoon themselves as well. Not only do we get to hear Winslet talk dirty, but also we hear her happily admit that she’s doing a Holocaust movie to win an Oscar. This is tight, non-PC fun that launches the series in a most satisfying manner.
Episode Two: Ben Stiller: “Andy is close to getting his first speaking part after he befriends a Bosnian widower (Boris Boskovic) whose story is being made into a film. Maggie is giddy about a crying role, and even giddier when she meets an attractive production manager (Steve Jackson). At a set party, Andy tries to ingratiate himself with the film's producer (Jay Villiers) while Maggie discovers her new romantic interest has a 'Herman Munster' shoe, a boost for a shortened leg. The two get kicked off the set after sticking their own large feet into their non-speaking-part mouths."
While it works well, Episode Two can’t keep up with the pace of the first show. Part of the decline comes from the use of Stiller. He’s perfectly entertaining, of course, but it’s not as delightful to see him poke fun at himself; Stiller often spoofs himself, so it doesn’t seem so wicked to watch him act like a jerk. Anyway, even though E2 isn’t one of the best, it’s still amusing.
Episode Three: Ross Kemp: “On the set of an epic war drama, Maggie pursues a dashing fellow extra (Raymond Coulthard) in line for the port-a-potty. Andy is frustrated that he's not getting any lines — or even a body part on screen. He pays a visit to his agent (Stephen Merchant), who tells him his phone was unplugged for a few days, then blames Andy for not pulling in any work. 'I'm not sure there's a demand for little 45-year-old blokes,' he tells him. 'You might want to consider throwing in the towel.'
"Defeated, Andy returns to the set, where he befriends British soap star Ross Kemp, who promises to get him a line. This lifts his spirits, until he unwittingly starts a fight between Kemp and soccer star Vinnie Jones, and discovers the actor is completely full of it.
“At least Maggie finally sees some action — bedding the handsome fellow extra, though she disappoints him when she appears to be playing a 'background artist' in the sack."
I think Extras works well for us Yanks, but some programs lose a little in translation. The issue here stems from E3’s guest star, as I have no even vague idea who Ross Kemp is. I had to do an IMDB search to figure out if I’d seen him anywhere in the past, and the answer was “no”. He’s done virtually nothing to make him known to a US audience.
Even with the absence of a recognizable guest, E3 rebounds from the less stellar E2. It helps that we find a return from Andy’s incompetent agent Darren. The dim Maggie also gets better than usual moments as she pretends to be smart to bag her fellow extra; her attempt to sound like she knows about the stock market really delights. This is another fine episode.
Episode Four: Samuel L. Jackson: “A fellow extra (Steve Speirs) helps Andy get a big line on the set of a cop movie, but the man expects friendship in return, torturing Andy with his wretched tales and badgering him to take him out. Maggie becomes smitten with the film's handsome African-American co-star (Michael Wildman), and tries to cozy up to him on the 'Actor Bus' — only to be sent away to the 'Background Bus.'
"While trying to dodge his new extra friend, Andy ends up in a cemetery visiting the gravesite of his departed Jewish mother, who apparently died giving birth to him when she was nearing 70. Maggie gets a date with the handsome actor, but things go awry back at her place."
E4 balances different story threads and portrays them all well. I especially like the “racism test” Andy uses to torment Maggie. Speirs offers a great guest performance as the annoying extra, and the sight of Maggie as she tries not to appear racist to Dan really delights. This is a very solid episode.
Episode Five: Les Dennis: “Andy's incompetent agent finally gets his client a speaking role — playing a gay genie in a stage adaptation of Aladdin. Despite Andy's best thespian efforts, the play crashes after its star, TV game show host Les Dennis, learns from Andy that his young fiancée (Nicky Ladanowski) has been fooling around with a stagehand — and takes it out on the audience. Meanwhile, Maggie sets off a family feud between the play's flamboyant director (Gerard Kelly) and his long-suffering actress daughter (Rebecca Gethings)."
It’s nice to get away from the movie sets, as E5 takes us to the stage. Gervais’s turn as the Genie is awfully funny and adds spark to the show. The Brit factor again diminishes the impact of the guest star, unfortunately, since neither I nor pretty much anyone else in the US will have the slightest clue who Les Dennis is. Even with that minor weakness, E5 provides a solid program.
Episode Six: Patrick Stewart: “On the set of an Elizabethan drama, Andy pitches a sitcom pilot script to Patrick Stewart, who shares his own screenwriting story ideas (he plays a man with special powers who makes women's clothes disappear, after saving them in Iraq). Though Andy admits he's never seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stewart gets his script into the right hands—as Andy's agent attempts to take credit. While working on the pilot, Andy nearly sabotages his big break after calling his script editor (Martin Savage) 'too gay.’"
My first experience with Extras came from this episode. My friend Kevin embraced the series before I’d heard of it, and he insisted on showing me the part of the show where Stewart discusses his script. Why? Because Kevin believes – correctly, in fact – that Stewart’s story is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see.
That scene remains arguably the funniest part of Season One, but E6 has plenty of other good moments. Darren’s incompetence as an agent continues to be hilarious, and the show really excels at all points. Season One ends with probably its best episode.