Monday, April 14, 2008

Extras - The Christmas Special (2007)

(Image from HBO)

Extras - Christmas Special (2007)

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are a terrific comedy duo, and as with 'The Office' they wrap up their terrific series 'Extras' with a 90 minute special. I enjoyed the first two seasons that chronicled Andy Millman's (Gervais) transition from lowly extra to star of a critically reviled but massively popular TV series, 'When the Whistle Blows', a journey he was accompanied on by his best friend Maggy (Ashley Jensen). The Christmas Special sees Andy enjoying his life as a B grade celebrity while trying desperately to have credibility at the same time. What really stings is the fact that one of his former 'extra' colleagues has hit the big league in movies, earning both critical and commercial success. Envious, Andy fires his useless manager Darren Lamb (Stephen Merchant) and gets a new, professional manager to try and earn some credibility with better roles. Meanwhile Maggy gives up the demeaning life of an extra to become a cleaning lady; she becomes despondent with her life, which she perceives as a failure. To add to her woes, her friendship with Andy becomes strained as she witnesses him change into an arrogant, obsessed celebrity who's never happy with what he has.

I remember reading somewhere (I think it was CHUD) how this show captured perfectly the curse of mediocrity. Andy is a mediocre actor / artist / celebrity, but he refuses to accept his own mediocrity. Despite having come so far, he still wants more and believes that he deserves it. On the one hand he enjoys the benefits of his success but on the other he has nothing but contempt for the people who like his show, which he feels is beneath him. And thus, the obsession with becoming something more, one that consumes him and causes him to push aside his real friends. I think the show captures a genuine human dilemma - most of us are never going to make a big difference to the world or be massively successful (the measure of which is, naturally, subjective), no matter how much we may want to. While there's something to be said in favour of ambition and drive and seeking to do great things, there's also something to be said about being happy with what you've got and not losing it while trying to reach for something bigger and better. This final episode allows Andy to finally come face to face with the reality he's been doggedly ignoring.

This final 90 minute episode is about as good as the series. The awkward moments, the embarrassments, the bizarre situations, and the silly conversations between friends, they're all here. The writing is sharp; I love the way this continues the story from the series and wraps it up with a truly moving conclusion. In addition to chastising human foibles, it also eviscerates the hollowness of celebrities and celebrity culture. If there's one major flaw with the episode it's the Maggie storyline, which is often dragged down by some overblown scenes depicting her misery. Apart from that, it's terrific. Gervais and Jensen are in top form. Gervais somehow manages to make Andy Millman sympathetic and funny despite him being an asshole at times; without Gervais's performance the awkward moments wouldn't work at all because we wouldn't give a damn about his predicament. Jensen's Maggie was sometimes annoying in the series with her stupidity, but she was always endearing and is still so despite the overly morose nature of her storyline. She's also, strangely, the voice of wisdom and reason in this final installment. Stephen Merchant is as hilarious as ever with his portrayal of the inept doofus of an agent who seems to be oblivious to everything but still has a good time being Andy's agent (his sole source of income). There's also some fun cameos from Clive Owen and George Michael in there, amongst others.

'Extras - The Christmas Special' is a fitting conclusion to a great comedy series that features some truly side splitting moments and also manages to be an insightful depiction of human nature that contains a strong element of pathos. There are some scenes from these 13 episodes that have been indelibly burnt into my memory, and I can't say that about too many TV shows. Watch this, but only after watching the series of course.

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