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TV Weekend: A Little Something Extra

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HBO photo: Ray Burmiston

There’s a special problem writing about the highly praised. Once somebody has achieved greatness, any criticism thereafter is either taken as further confirmation of their brilliance or as a backlash. Once you’re known for getting standing O’s, applause is an insult.

So when I tell people that I like Extras, the usual reaction I get is, “Why don’t you like Extras?” Because I loved The Office. What’s not to love about The Office? So when I say that I enjoy Extras perfectly well, that I get a kick out of it whenever I watch it, that it’s a perfectly good sitcom–but that it’s no Office–it sounds like I’m saying, “So, Ricky Gervais has lost it.”

No, Ricky Gervais hasn’t lost it. Nor has Extras, which airs its movie-length series finale this Sunday. If you loved Extras, you will love the Extras finale. If, like me, you think that Extras was a perfectly funny show in which Gervais used his talent on a subject (celebrity culture) and a milieu much more obvious and familiar than the world he created at the Wernham Hogg paper company, then you will think that of the finale.

The finale continues the themes of Extras’ second season: former bit player Andy Millman (Gervais) has become the star of a shlocky sitcom and celebrity has gone to his head, leading him to neglect his best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen). He has fame–solid C-list fame, but still–and fortune, but he’s not happy. He wants respect too, and he’s chosen a career path that basically precludes that. So he shakes up his career, in a way that both threatens his livelihood and leaves him wondering what it will take to make him truly happy.

Like the series, the finale is full of scenes of uncomfortable humor that also reveal difficult truths about the characters: for instance, Andy comes across a display of talking dolls of his character in a department store which aren’t selling, and he’s forced to physically confront what a literally small man he’s made himself in his quest for fame.

This leads him to some darker places than he’s been in the two seasons to date, and Gervais is more than up to the dramatic moments. The script, however, occasionally crosses the line from moving to mawkish. (This is a particular danger for comic actors going dramatic: think Robin Williams or Roberto Begnini.) And while the climactic scene involves a fantastically written monologue/lecture on the fame culture and our complicity in it, it still is a lecture, and plays too much like one. The more-maligned American HBO show The Comeback was fresher and less sentimental on the same subject.

That said, Gervais is simply too good to reduce this familiar conflict–oh, you seductive bitch-goddess, Fame!–to cliches. The movies are full of biopics about hugely successful stars who fall victim to the confusions and trappings of stardom. And there are plenty of stories about unappreciated geniuses languishing in obscurity, or delusional dreamers throwing their lives away on showbiz careers they don’t have the goods or the luck to realize.

Andy Millman, however, is different. He’s is a figure who’s common in real life (and not just in showbiz), but rarely treated in TV or movies: the person who’s really good, but just not quite good enough. He’s a talented enough actor to be a lowbrow sitcom star, but not Oscar material. He’s a good enough writer to know that he’s selling out his art, but not quite talented (or brave) enough to create works of genius and work for respect alone. He’s self-aware enough to know he’s a sell-out, but not capable of succeeding otherwise. In one of the most memorable scenes, Andy meets with his new agent, having fired Darren in an effort to upgrade his career. (Co-writer Stephen Merchant, by the way, pulls off some fine tragicomic scenes.) His bigshot agent tells Andy that there are only a handful of people in showbiz who can be both huge commercial stars and respected artistic talents. “You will never be one of them,” he says flatly.

The fact that Gervais is, arguably, one of those people–if not quite a George Clooney-big figure–may make Extras’ premise seem a touch self-serving, but that doesn’t make its achievement any less fine or his rendering of Andy any less true to life. In the end, Gervais has earned the right to horse around with celebrity guest stars (here, Clive Owen, George Michael and Gordon Ramsay) and pronounce on the perils of fame. Even if Extras is no Office. And Andy Millman painfully, winningly shows, there are much worse things in show business.