Tuesday, March 27, 2012

HBO Does The BBC With Extras: The Complete First Season!

The Good: Funny, Well-acted
The Bad: No real character development, Short
The Basics: Mostly funny, but so short and lacking in real decent DVD bonus features, Extras - The Complete First Season is a fun pick.

I have been watching quite a few works from the BBC lately. So, when I took a break from BBC productions to watch a DVD set from HBO, I was rather surprised to find a British comedy! The series is Extras and I picked up the Complete First Season inexpensively enough on DVD to give it a shake. I suppose I ought not to be as surprised as I was: HBO developed Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show (reviewed here!) from the original BBC production. But I was surprised by how BBC Extras was.

Instead of taking graphic risks like HBO is generally known for, Extras presents a rather dry British sense of irony and quiet humor. There is no laugh track (yea!), the jokes are not telegraphed and a great deal of the humor is based on putting characters into terribly uncomfortable situations, like discussions about racism or sex talk.

That said, it's a funny little series and on DVD, Extras - The Complete First Season is a pretty solid afternoon of entertainment. Sadly, this DVD boxed set is comprised of only six episodes and as a result, it is easy to go through it very fast. The series focuses on Andy Millman and his friend Maggie, who work as extras on various films. While working in the background, they struggle for lines so they can move up and potentially become stars some day.

Andy is ambitious and is represented by a lazy agent who never seems to look into getting him work. Still, Andy treats Darren well, even paying him for work he does not do. As Andy is ambitious and trying to get his own series made, Maggie is dimwitted and stumbles into situations where her ignorance or outright stupidity land her further from getting decent work. Often enough, Maggie finds herself in an uncomfortable situation and Andy does what he can to try to extricate her from it, usually making things worse for himself.

Each episode is defined by the famous guest star who shows up and interacts with Andy and/or Maggie on the set of the shoot they are working on. The first season is comprised of the episodes:

"Kate Winslet" - Wherein Andy finds himself in a position where he is attracted to a woman playing a nun, whose sister has cerebral palsy. A devout atheist, Andy listens to the sister talk about god's majesty and finds himself lying about his faith to impress the woman he is interested in, resulting in a terrible date . . . at a church reception! Kate Winslet tries to teach Maggie how to perform phone sex,

"Ben Stiller" - Wherein Andy uses a survivor of genocidal acts to try to get a line in a movie that Ben Stiller is directing,

"Ross Kemp" - Andy sits down next to actor Ross Kemp, who brags about how buff he is, which leads to a rivalry between the stars of two sets when Andy mentions it to his professional rival on a nearby set,

"Les Dennis" - Andy gets work in a play as a genie who makes gay jokes, working alongside the morbid and self-destructive comedian Les Dennis. While Andy tries to keep the star of the play from a complete emotional breakdown, Maggie befriends the daughter of the director to Andy's show. The director, who is almost a parody of gay, has an unusually close and professionally demanding relationship with his daughter and Maggie puts her foot in it by mentioning this to her,

"Samuel L. Jackson" - Maggie has the hots for a black actor working on the project she and Andy are currently on, but he walks in on her consistently making remarks that make her sound like she is a racist. Even as she tries to win a proper date with him, it becomes clear that his skin color is an issue, though not through any sense of racial hatred (just ignorance) on her part. While Maggie tries to get closer to the actor, Andy tries to extricate himself from a clingy police officer who wants him to spend time with him off set,

"Patrick Stewart" - Tired of Darren's lack of ambition on his part, Andy takes a script he has written and presents it to Patrick Stewart, the star of his current project. Darren and Andy are astonished when this actually works and Andy's series is put into active development at the BBC. Unfortunately for Andy, he is paired with a script doctor who is gay in the campiest possible ways and he mentions this to Maggie, who tries to get the BBC-mandated writer to tone it down.

The series is a series of real extremes. In "Samuel L. Jackson," the climactic scene is hilarious for the uncomfortable way Maggie and Andy try to convince Jackson and his costar that Maggie is not a racist (seriously, I'm chuckling thinking about it and writing those lines). It is laugh out loud funny. And as a HUGE fan of the Star Trek franchise and geek culture, it's delightful to watch Patrick Stewart sit in baffled silence when he realizes there is an unmarried, single male who does NOT watch Star Trek! Seriously, hilarious beyond belief.

But for the life of me, I don't think I laughed during any of "Ross Kemp." It just was a whole miss of an episode. And the Ben Stiller schtick, where he is the most arrogant jerk in the world works well in the beginning of that episode, but goes to an obvious hyperbole by the end.

My only experience with star Ricky Gervais prior to watching him on these two discs was with his guest starring role in the third season of Alias. There he played a terrorist and the role was dark and disturbing, so his sense of comic timing went utterly unused. He seems to be a good actor in that he plays Andy as a very simple, direct guy who is not funny - though Gervais clearly has that talent down. Indeed, Gervais's Andy Millman might well be the best example of a character who is not at all funny, but is funny to watch.

Similarly, one must assume that Ashley Jensen, who plays Maggie, is a great actress. If Jensen were as dimwitted as Maggie is portrayed as the episodes would never get done because she would never be able to get through the lines they give her. Even with cue cards.

On DVD, the two-disc set features deleted scenes for each episode as well as a featurette on the making of the show. As well, there is a small collection of outtakes on a gag reel. This is not a great set for those who are looking for great DVD bonus features.

Despite the references to BBC productions like Eastenders, Extras is very accessible to American audiences. It is funny, clever and well-acted, when it is not dull and . . . well, British.

For other works featuring Ricky Gervais, please be sure to visit my review of:
The Invention Of Lying


For other television reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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