Let it never be said that HBO’s sitcoms neglect the wide panoply of human experience. They’re about such diverse people as aspiring actors, sitcom creators, washed-up actresses and hot young actors and their agents. Now Ricky Gervais (The Office) has created Extras, debuting Sunday, about, yes, the people who stand around in the background of movies. Coming in 2006: Gaffers.
Unlike the wide cast of The Office, Extras centers on two characters, Andy (Gervais) and Maggie (Ashley Jensen), two friends and perennial "background artists." In a different picture every episode, they stand around and wait for something better to come along, a Vladamir and Estragon waiting for a good role instead of Godot. In The Office, the story advanced over time and characters developed. In Extras, until the last episodes, the stories repeat: Andy wheedles to get a speaking part and gets into awkward social situations with his colleagues; Maggie makes excruciatingly clumsy attempts to bed guys on the set.
The problem with making a sitcom about people whose lives are in a holding pattern is that the sitcom can end up in one too. Extras‘ movie-star cameos are A-list and often funny — especially Kate Winslet, expounding on how making a Holocaust film is a sure ticket to an Oscar. But the whole ritual of celebrities poking fun at themselves, a routine part of pop culture now, begins to seem tired. Ben Stiller, for instance, plays himself, as an egotistical jerk, directing a movie based on the life story of a war-atrocity survivor. It’s kind of funny, but it would be much funnier if Ben Stiller hadn’t been playing Ben Stiller the Egotistical Jerk for over a decade on awards shows, The Ben Stiller Show, The Andy Dick Show and pretty much any other show or special in which a comedian friend has asked him to play himself.
Still and all, Extras is a well-observed comedy of ego and hierarchy. Is it unfair to ask that a sitcom be more than very funny on its own terms? Yes. But as Andy learns over and over, life is unfair. And the fact is, Extras gets much better in its last two episodes (of six), when it broadens its scope. The next-to-last, about a young musical actress and her abusively pushy stage dad, is both hilarious and poignant, and it says far more than the episodes before about what unrealized ambitions — one’s own or one’s parents’ — can do to lives.
Here, finally, Extras aims for something more than well-executed insider humor. Extras is very good, and yet, like Andy, you feel it could be great if only it could get the chance to say something.