UK, BBC (BBC/HBO), Sitcom, colour, 2005
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ashley Jensen, Stephen Merchant
Andy Millman doesn't consider himself an extra, just an actor who, at this stage in his career, is working as a 'background artist' in films and television. Maggie - Andy's best friend and fellow traveller in this twilight area of show-business - harbours no such delusions. She is content to hover in the fringes of the frame, and tries to use her situation to find a long-term boyfriend. Maggie has a regrettable habit of saying the wrong things, and when trying to extricate herself only digs herself deeper into trouble by inventing increasingly absurd excuses. Andy is a frequent bystander at these verbal train-crashes and his gallant attempts to rescue his friend from further embarrassment usually only makes matters worse. Not that Andy cannot manage to screw things up on his own. His obsequiousness towards stars and the role they might play in furthering his career often leads to embarrassing faux pas. And his ambitions are not helped by his agent, a jolly but useless desk-jockey who makes no attempt to hide his doubts about whether Andy has any ability or future. Working odd jobs in the agency is Shaun Williamson, briefly a 'name' in EastEnders - Barry, to be precise, a moniker by which he is still referred - but now virtually unemployable. In every episode of Extras Andy tries to haul himself one rung up the ladder, desperately hoping to secure a speaking role or to star in a comedy he himself has written. Such frustrations aren't helped by another would-be actor, Greg, who seems to be doing just a bit better than Andy, snagging those all-important lines of dialogue and generally working on a better class of production.
After the international success of The Office the pressure was on for Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to come up with a successful successor. Wonderfully, they succeeded. Extras was another naturalistic show that mined the theatre of embarrassment for its laughs. When established screen stars of every level began to mention that they would love to guest star in any of Gervais's shows the pair hit upon the idea of putting these stars into a new creation as twisted caricatures of their real selves, involved in plausible but clichd versions of typical productions. Extras, then, had great guest casts. Actor-director Ben Stiller portrayed himself as a money-obsessed control freak; Ross Kemp came across as a boastful hard-man whose brash front concealed a streak of cowardice; Kate Winslet sported a fine line in surreal sexual innuendo; Les Dennis essayed a warts-and-all tabloid version of his real self; Samuel Jackson flaunted a humourless coldness; and Patrick Stewart revealed an unlikely obsession with female nudity. All these guests proved to be great sports but, while their appearances added a frisson to the show, it was the characters of Andy and Maggie that provided its heart and soul. Their friendship seemed genuine, and although the audience may have wished them to get together, the platonic nature of the relationship seemed to strengthen the premise. As with The Office there was an authentic sentimentality beneath the surface cruelty.
At first glance, Andy Millman could have been a distant cousin of David Brent, but upon closer inspection he was an entirely different beast, with a winning sense of humour and a much softer view of his fellow man. Though it didn't make the same initial impact as The Office - such extraordinary successes are nigh-on impossible to emulate - Extras was a well-crafted and classy comedy that proved Gervais and Merchant were no mere one-trick ponies.
Researched and written by Mark Lewisohn.
Number of episodes: 6
Length: 30 mins