HBO’s Sunday-night pairing of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Extras, the new series written by and starring The Office‘s Ricky Gervais, couldn’t be more inspired. Gervais has cited Larry David’s show as a prime model for The Office‘s brand of mortifying comedy. And the two shows share a similar feel—both thrive on semi-improvised ensemble acting, and both are set in the entertainment milieu. Unlike HBO’s other showbiz series Entourage or The Comeback, though, Extras is not about the famous but those peons of the movie industry who occupy a role midway between actors and stage props. In one scene, an assistant director complains about a female extra’s “rubbish” breasts—he needs some decent maidservant cleavage for that proper Regency-period drama atmosphere.
Gervais plays Andy Millman, who ditched his job at a bank to fulfill his thespian dreams. So far he’s failed to secure even the most minor speaking role and instead works as a “background artist” (as he pretentiously terms it). In every episode, Andy shamelessly schemes to secure a line of dialogue; another running joke is his clumsy attempt to sneak into the foreground of shots. Gervais is a comic genius specializing in the art of discomfort, but this new character doesn’t have the same compelling anti-charisma as The Office‘s David Brent—in part because Andy is such a peripheral figure in his workplace, but also because he’s a more subtle creation, a mixed bag of the admirable and reprehensible. He underplays Andy with a mumbled delivery that sounds like someone literally mincing his words. Disappointed U.K. reviewers quickly proclaimed Maggie (Ashley Jensen) Extras‘ true star. Andy’s friend and fellow extra (the one with the inadequate boobs), Maggie has a moony face perfect for British costume drama roles as “washerwomen and toothless wenches.”
Gervais is also partly eclipsed by the show’s structural gimmick: In each episode, a different real-world star appears as the leading man or woman in whatever production the two extras are working that week. Taking on the role of buffoon or creep occupied by Gervais in The Office, the celebrities—Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Stiller, and various British actors—caricature themselves. Stiller is insufferable as the pompous celeb directing a “serious” movie about ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Kate Winslet reveals unexpected comic gifts as the leading lady in a WW II picture. Dressed as a nun, she offers incongruously raunchy advice to Maggie, who’s having problems satisfying her boyfriend’s craving for dirty talk. “Why don’t you start off with something light—’I’d love it if you stuck your Willy Wonka between my Oompa Loompas’?—something fun, a bit jokey?” suggests Winslet in her British strawberries-and-cream accent. “Then you can get more hardcore, rattle off the old classics—’I’m playing with my dirty pillows and I’m aching for your big purple-headed womb-ferret.'”
The dazzle of these star turns doesn’t do much to alleviate the deliberate drabness of Extras, which lingers over the humdrum inner workings of the filmmaking experience. The show’s action takes place in the gaps between the “action,” those extended periods of hiatus and hanging around. Likewise, the set of Extras is off set: There’s lots of loitering behind the scenery and waiting in line at the catering truck or the Porta Potty. Gervais and co-writer Stephen Merchant (who also appears as Andy’s wonderfully inept agent, the antithesis of Entourage‘s Ari Gold) exploit the humorous incongruity of everyday behavior set against silly period costumes and sets. Andy flirts with a female extra by playing peekaboo behind a swastika-embossed banner, while Maggie hits on a production assistant, oblivious to the bloody wound still painted on her forehead.
Always on the outskirts of everything, Andy has far more insight into other people’s motivations and self-deceptions than the excruciatingly unselfaware David Brent ever did. Andy’s perceptiveness sometimes makes him manipulative, but it also endows him with a trace of empathy. In one episode, he conceals his atheism from a Catholic girl with cerebral palsy for fear of jeopardizing her faith in heaven (where, he speculates, she dreams she’ll be “playing volleyball” as an able-bodied angel). Andy even forgets his careerism for a moment and stands up to Stiller during one of the director’s bullying tirades. The cameras aren’t rolling, but for just a few seconds, the bit player gets to be the hero.