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Extras: Series One

The dreaded "sophomore slump" is a major showbiz fear — the conventional wisdom being that it's rare for an artist to follow a successful first effort with something equally good. Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais refer to it as "the difficult second album," and they were faced with such a dilemma when they were pitching a new series to follow their breakout hit The Office (in a discussion between the two that's offered as a bonus feature on this DVD release, Gervais says, "I think the only way to avoid the difficult second album syndrome is to make sure that your first album's not very good." Merchant's reply: "Whereas ours was a blinder. In a lot of people's opinions, not ours… the Golden Globe boys liked it.") As with "The Office," Merchant and Gervais sought to create a show wherein the setting of the story was merely a backdrop to hapless characters who engage in small, generally humiliating adventures. Their series Extras, about a luckless middle-aged actor named Andy Millman, wrings the same sort of squirm-inducing comedy from the world of filmmaking that "The Office" gleaned from 9-to-5 pencil pushing, with Gervais' pudgy, wannabe thespian having the same embarrassing lack of people skills as "The Office's" David Brent, minus the ego. Built into the show is the delightful gimmick of featuring high-profile stars in each episode, playing themselves — or, rather, twisted version of themselves as Merchant and Gervais see them. Extras debuted on BBC2 in July, 2005 and then stateside on HBO two months later, earning excellent reviews from both British and American critics. A second series — with guests like Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellan, and David Bowie — hit HBO in January, timed to coincide with the release of Season One on DVD. Merchant and Gervais have said that, as with their BBC version of "The Office," they don't intend for there to be a third year of the show: "People are always asking why we didn't do any more," Gervais said in a 2006 interview. "But we just wanted to leave people wanting more."

The essential premise of Extras rests with Andy Millman (Gervais), a 45-year-old actor who gave up his day job to follow his dream full time. This means taking a number of roles as "background" on films, spending his days dressed as Nazis or bewigged footmen, and trying to get even one line of dialogue by ingratiating himself with stars and producers. His friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen, now on ABC-TV's "Ugly Betty") is content to work as an extra, spending most of her energy on finding romantic partners while on set. The pair are friends possibly because no one else would have them — they each have impossibly bad social skills, stumbling into embarrassing situations and then making things worse as they try to extricate themselves. But the funniest portions of each episode are usually those involving the guest stars. Kate Winslet, dressed in a nun's habit for her role as a selfless sister who helps to hide Jewish refugees from the Nazis, gives Maggie graphic advice on how to talk dirty on the phone, and she cheerfully admits that she's doing the film just so she can finally nab an Oscar: "I don't think we need another film about the Holocaust, do we? I mean, how many have there been? We get it, it was grim — move on." Patrick Stewart describes the plot of his screenplay to Andy, in which Stewart will play a James Bond-like character who has the supernatural ability to remove women's clothes with his mind. And Ben Stiller, predictably playing himself as an egomaniac, demands of Andy," Do you know who I am?" to which Andy replies, "Starsky or Hutch — I don't remember which." While Extras doesn't offer the universal appeal of "The Office," it's still a treat. So long as you can stand the exquisite agony of watching desperate people bumble their way into awkward situations due to their own insensitivity, that is. Merchant and Gervais may not have invented comedic existential angst, but they know how to mine it for full effect.

*          *          *

HBO Home Video offers the complete first series of Extras — all of six episodes, this being the BBC — as a nice two-disc package. The anamorphic transfers (varying between full-frame and 1.85:1 for the movie-within-the-show scenes) are pristine, and the DD 2.0 stereo audio is very good. Bonus features include outtakes reels on each disc, close to 20 minutes of them, mostly devoted to Gervais ruining takes by laughing — and he has a very big, loud, high-pitched laugh — plus deleted scenes. "Finding Leo" is behind-the-scenes video of Gervais in a hotel room, trying to figure out how to get hold of Leonardo DiCaprio's agent after Jude Law is unable to appear in an episode (9 min.); "The Difficult Second Album" is Merchant and Gervais discussing the new series and casually pimping "The Office" tie-in products (21 min.). The two have been doing a radio show in Britain for years that mostly involves them just sitting around and talking, and it's easy to see why the show is popular — the two are hilarious together.
—Dawn Taylor

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