DVD Review: Extras: The Complete First Season
So when I was sent a preview copy of the first season of the pair's follow-up effort, Extras (out Tuesday), I was intrigued but wary: after such a successful debut, the sophomore effort more often than not disappoints. Also, all the reviews of the show I had read during its BBC and HBO runs (I have neither channel) were of the mixed-to-positive variety. So... is it worth buying, renting, or neither? I'll let you know after the jump.
Packaging: Two discs, each with three episodes (can I tell you how much I love those limited British seasons?). It's your standard DVD packaging, with an index card and the two discs. Nothing fancy.
Picture and Sound: Standard for a TV series. The English subtitles were helpful for me, due to what I call "Benny Hill Syndrome," or the inability to hear people talk fast in working-class British accents (or in the case of co-star Ashley Jensen, working-class Scottish accents).
Special Features: Not many. There are deleted scenes and outtakes -- mostly of Gervais laughing during takes -- on each disc. The second disc has two featurettes: "Extras: The Difficult Second Album", in which Merchant and Gervais talk about making their Office follow-up (and hawking merchandise from the first show), and "The Search For Leo," where Steve and Ricky try in vain to get in touch with Leonardo DiCaprio after Jude Law drops out of making an episode at the last minute. Both featurettes were as funny, if not more, than the episodes, and the second one made me feel better about my frustration in trying to get celebrity interviews.
Review: Those who saw the show during its BBC or HBO runs already know the plot: Andy Millman and Maggie Jacobs are two friends who work as movie extras in London. While Maggie is OK with her lot in the industry, Andy wants to be more -- he considers himself an actual "actor" -- and in every episode tries to further his career any way possible. Both Andy and Maggie get themselves in situations where they dig themselves into verbal holes that they can't get out of, sabatoging either's chance of getting past their stations in life.
Millman's got a little bit of Gervais' previous character, David Brent, in him, but there are only one or two instances per episode where we see what is becoming the Merchant-Gervais signature: humor brought out of discomfort. As I said, both Andy and Maggie say things that they immediately regret -- Maggie doesn't know how to deal with dating a black guy; Andy, an athiest, fakes his way through a Catholic prayer meeting in order to get it on with one of his fellow extras -- but the episodes largely concentrate on the relationship between the two friends and how Andy tries to get ahead in his career. Merchant is funny as Andy's bumbling agent, who has zero faith in Andy as an actor.
The funniest part of the series is the guest stars who usually play an integral part of each episode. What's refreshing is that for the most part -- Sam Jackson is the exception -- the guests gamely play wacked-out versions of themselves: Kate Winslet is an expert at phone sex; Ben Stiller is a Napoleonic bastard of a director; Patrick Stewart writes a screenplay where women's clothes constantly fall off. Les Dennis, who UK fans know well from his comedic ventures and his hosting stint on Family Fortunes (the British Family Feud), does the best guesting job, playing up some scandal and hard times from his recent past and baring himself in more ways than one. It's very generous of Merchant and Gervais to write such funny lines and situations for their guests, and it shows in how much each actor throws his or herself into the material.
Ashley Jensen is a revelation. Sure, we've seen some of her comic chops on Ugly Betty, a job she surely got from her turn on Extras. But here, she's front and center, and she plays Maggie with cute vulnerability that plays well against Gervais' signature arrogant insecurity. Her nonsensical small-talk conversations with Andy -- "Would you rather have a bionic arm or leg?" -- have an easy chemistry that makes it look Jensen and Gervais have been working together for years.
But overall? The first season of the show wasn't as consistently funny or emotionally gut-wrenching as the first season of The Office was. Sure, both Andy's and Maggie's situations change as the season goes on, but you don't really see either of them develop as steadily as Brent and the other members of Wernham-Hogg did. And some of the plotlines were pretty straight out of Sitcomville; I mean, I've seen some of the black-white stuff on The King of Queens, for crissakes. We just don't identify with Andy and Maggie that strongly. I'm not sure if it's because the setting -- movie sets, trailers, etc. -- isn't as familiar to me as a drab cubicle farm was. But neither the funny nor the cringeworthy moments had the impact I would expect from Gervais and Merchant.
I've heard that Season Two, which premieres on HBO on January 14, is better. I'll have to wait for the DVD, I guess. But, for fans of good comedy as well as fans of Gervais and Merchant, this set is worth a rental to tie them over in the meantime. Comparing it to a classic like The Office is tough, and it doesn't fare well in that light. But on it's own merits, it hits more than it misses, which is all anyone can ask.