Small parts, big laughs


When Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais began formulating the idea for their follow-up to the BBC’s international smash The Office (currently being re-imagined quite smartly by Steve Carell and company on NBC), the temptation to go with something bigger and more populist must have been tantalizing.

It’s a relief to discover that they have instead pared down the comedy ensemble of The Office to the near-plotless, violently hilarious character piece Extras, which aired stateside on HBO. Extras is to The Office what Curb Your Enthusiasm was to Seinfeld—a smaller but sharper variation on the same theme.

Gervais stars as aspiring actor Andy Millman, a socially maladroit “bloater” scraping by as a film extra while trying to grovel his way into a small speaking part. The utterly charming Ashley Jensen plays his fellow extra and only friend Maggie, who attempts to sleep with nearly every man who wanders on a given set. Andy and Maggie are oddly likable tits who can’t help offending everyone around them; the show has a great time making a mockery of British civility.

Non-fans of The Office won’t find much to like: Gervais’ humor is even more droll and cruelly awkward, the British accents even thicker, and the gags on English pop culture even more obscure. Expect arcane references to comedian Ronnie Corbett, the U.K. pharmacy chain Boots, and gay writer/raconteur Quentin Crisp—as well as extended face time for ex-game show host Les Dennis and “hard man” Ross Kemp from the BBC soap EastEnders.

But Extras does have a bigger and more populist twist: the film-set concept allows for one self-lacerating celebrity cameo per week. Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Stiller—directing a film about Bosnian refugees but hilariously unable to keep his Hollywood ego in check—are among the first-season stars.