An Extra Special Series…

extras.jpgWhoever says there’s nothing good on television must not have a DVD player, a local video store, or access to HBO. Between multiple seasons of The Wire and Extras available on DVD, the writers’ strike be damned. Hot on the heels of their wildly successful, critically acclaimed series, The Office, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant tackle the quest for fame and artistic control in their newest series, Extras, which recently concluded with a Christmas special that aired on both the BBC and HBO. The series’ two seasons are both available on DVD now and will most likely be packaged with the special finale (like The Office) in the near future. Extras, most specifically in its second season, presents a character embroiled in a deep personal, professional controversy that smacks of spiritual issues as well, though the creators might cringe at this suggestion.

The first season of Extras follows Andy Millman (Gervais) and Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen), two aspiring actors who are stuck in a rut of extras work as background props for more famous performers. Andy is constantly exasperated by his loyal, but untalented talent agent Darren Lamb (Merchant). However, at the end of the first season, Andy finally lands a sitcom with the BBC. The second season, and really the heart of the series, picks up here.

The second season finds Andy hard at work on the sitcom, When the Whistle Blows, yet frustrated by a lack of artistic freedom and integrity. His desire for high-minded art has been superceded by low-brow catch phrases, most notably “Are you havin’ a laugh,” and sexual innuendo. Critically panned, yet popular (six million viewers), Andy must reconcile popularity with creativity. In the end, though he is unsure of what he wants, he definitely knows what he does not want. Having drifted apart from his friends, Andy reunites with Maggie as they pull into an airport bound “for the sea.”

The first season of Extras parodies celebrity status, taking stabs at the real celebrities who play themselves. The second season continues this theme but also seriously reflects on the darker side of popularity as well. Andy grows increasingly self-absorbed and neglectful of his friends who are themselves experiencing personal and professional crises without the popularity and financial security Andy has attained. In the series finale, Andy submits to Celebrity Big Brother (a humiliating reality show) in a last-ditch effort to remain relevant. This finally pushes him over the edge. Surrounded by media hogs, he realizes what really matters and tears into a long rant about the state of celebrity culture in the UK and the US that will certainly be worth the price of the entire collection.

Comparing any sitcom to those of Gervais and Merchants is simply not fair. This creative team packs into seven and a half hours what other television producers take seven seasons to attain. The arc of Andy’s character is at once depressing, frustrating, and uplifting. Though the creators might scoff at the idea (one of Gervais’ stand-up specials is decidedly agnostic, and possibly atheistic), Andy’s quest for the perfect mixture of fame and creativity is also a spiritual desire to be known and loved. Ironically, in pursuit of celebrity status, he forgoes the most life-affirming, loving relationships he could hope for.

Extras (six hours for two seasons and a one and a half hour series finale) is available on DVD. The ninety-minute special is currently replaying on HBO.