Extras: The Complete Second Season - DVD review
From everything I heard and read, the second season of the Ricky Gervais / Stephen Merchant comedy was better than the first season. Of course, given the high standards set by Gervais and Merchant, that was saying a lot. After watching Season Two, I have to say that I agree with those assessments, but not for the reason that you think.
More on that in a second. But let's get the DVD basics out of the way first:
Packaging: Two discs, each with three episodes. On each disk is an outtake reel and three Extras Backstage featurettes. The second disc also has two other featurettes. Other than that, nothing special.
Picture and Sound: Standard for a DVD of a TV series. As with Season One, the English subtitles helped a lot, especially with a few of Ashley Jensen's lines (I wonder if the directors of Ugly Betty ask her to speak slower so American audiences can understand her better. Anyway, she's great on both shows, but that Scottish burr of hers can be difficult to understand at times).
Special Features: Definitely more extensive than on Season One. Each Extras Backstage featurette corresponds with an episode, with Gervais,.Merchant, and that episode's huge guest stars discuss the particular episode. Sometimes -- like in the case of David Bowie -- the interviews are hilarious BS. There are also outtake reels on each disc.
There are two additional featurettes on the second disc. One is "The Art of Corpsing," where the actors discuss the "art" of blowing lines (known as "corpsing" in acting circles). The second is "Taping Nigel: The Gimpening," which basically shows 25 minutes of Gervais tackling editor Nigel Williams and entombing him in various combinations of tape and paper, interspersed with Williams' thoughts on his boss' bullying skills. Either he's a great sport or Gervais pays him a whole lot of money, because I don't know if I would have put up with all that abuse. I will say, though, that the vision of Williams trying to eat a banana while his whole face is strapped down with packing tape is very funny.
Review: As I said, I liked this season better than Season One, but for an odd reason. Was it funnier? Not really; I think the big name guests were more consistently funny than they were last year, and the having Merchant as Andy Millman's inept agent Darren in every episode helped up the goofy factor (of course, with Darren you get Shaun Williamson, or "Barry from EastEnders," which is always a treat). But, just like the first season, I didn't find myself busting a gut during every episode.
But that's OK, because the game changed in season two. Millman, played by Gervais, has gotten the fame he wanted, but not the way he wanted it; instead of writing a thoughtful comedy, he writes and stars in a cliched, catchphrase-laden, critically drubbed, but extremely popular sitcom called When the Whistle Blows. How Andy deals with selling out, and how it affects everyone around him, is the key to what makes these episodes work better than the ones in season one. Now, it's not just Andy and Maggie as struggling extras in the silly "business of show," now Andy is a star, but not in a way that lets him enjoy it; Gervais does a really good job showing Andy's internal struggle, sometimes going straight from his sitcom character's signature line of "Are you havin' a laugh?" right to a look of "what the hell am I doing?" He probably does some of his best acting of the series in season two.
What people tend to forget is that in Extras, Gervais is mostly the straight man. Yes, Andy sometimes puts his foot in his own mouth, like when he unwittingly tells the parent of a Down's Syndrome child to quiet the kid down. But, most of the time, Maggie or Darren is the one getting him in trouble. And Jensen and Merchant both excel at playing two people who are just smart enough to be dangerous to Andy. Jensen, as usual, is fantastic; her stares of discomfort, for example, as Orlando Bloom awkwardly tries to hit on Maggie remind me of how the best comedic actresses can convey more with a look or throat clearing than with any number of words.
The big-name guest stars all do a credible job of playing against their public personas. Aside from Bloom, you have Daniel Radcliffe trying to show everyone he's a grownup (including walking around with an unwrapped condom in his pocket), Sir Ian McKellen explaining how the key to acting is to pretend to be someone else, Chris Martin looking to promote a Coldplay album while filming a PSA, and Robert DeNiro admiring Darren's nudie pen. David Bowie has the best guest shot, instantly composing a song about how much of a loser Andy is only seconds after meeting the woebegone sitcom hack.
Of course, there are all sorts of well-known British actors and personalities sprinkled throughout the series, like Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, and Robert Lindsay. Only the most ardent Anglophile TV fan would recognize and get the inside jokes that make fun of these folks' celebrity status, but even a philistine American comedy fan can laugh at the situations each gets himself in, like when 75-year-old Ronnie Corbett gets kicked out of the BAFTAs for getting caught with blow one too many times.
Extras as a whole showed that The Office wasn't a fluke and that Gervais and Merchant are the best comedy writing pair currently working on TV (and, given the quality of whatever little comedy is on TV right now, that's saying a lot). But with season two, we get to see some of the emotional pull that the boys showed in their landmark first series, along with a number of memorably funny scenes. It makes me really look forward to finding what kind of show the two of them are going to come up with next.