HBO's monochromatic all-Hollywood spectrum of comedies has indulged in up-and-comers ("Entourage") and has-beens ("The Comeback") before reaching into the hasn't-been bin to deliver "Extras," the pay channel's best half-hour since "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
HBO’s monochromatic all-Hollywood spectrum of comedies has indulged in up-and-comers (“Entourage”) and has-beens (“The Comeback”) before reaching into the hasn’t-been bin to deliver “Extras,” the pay channel’s best half-hour since “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Drenched in mortifying moments courtesy of “The Office” creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, it’s an at-times painfully funny tribute to wannabes everywhere, with Gervais as a self-described “background artist” who will descend into all manner of humiliation and treachery to get any speaking part. Dilute the British flavoring and this BBC co-production is an apt companion to “Curb,” which returns this week.
Granted, it would be nice if HBO could reduce its preoccupation with an insider’s view of showbiz and celebrities eager to play semidistorted versions of themselves, thus demonstrating what good sports they are. Still, Gervais’ Andy Millman, much like his “Office” alter ego David Brent, is so needy and oblivious to his tin-eared pronouncements it’s extremely difficult to resist.
The channel also wisely put its best foot forward by rearranging the episodes to debut with by far the best three previewed, as Andy and his pal Maggie (Ashley Jensen) play extras in a Holocaust film starring Kate Winslet as a beatific nun. Winslet overhears Maggie complaining that her boyfriend likes dirty phone talk, and what follows is a riotous stream of bedroom dialogue made all the more amusing by the fact she delivers it while wearing a habit.
An equally wicked side plot has Andy trying to woo an actress on the film by pretending to be Catholic, a deception rendered all the more cringeworthy during his exchanges with her devout sister, who has cerebral palsy.
The only problem in opening with this half-hour is that it skips some exposition provided by the third, which was previously the first. That episode introduces Andy and his not-terribly-helpful agent, played by Merchant, as well as Maggie’s tendency to stumble into promising relationships that invariably end in horribly awkward ways.
The second installment lands in between, literally and figuratively, featuring Ben Stiller directing a gritty refugee story. Even against the yardstick of portraying yourself as a jerk, he goes the extra mile, reciting his accomplishments to the cast and crew, which include “the biggest Martin Luther King Jr. Day opening weekend ever” and the precise international box office total for “Meet the Parents.”
Gervais and Merchant excel at capturing scenes of quiet discomfort as well as palpable desperation in the face of near-constant rejection. Those qualities elevate “Extras” above the surface-deep “Entourage” or often-frustrating “The Comeback,” which nevertheless concluded its run on a rather elegant note.
In his way, Andy proves every bit as oblivious as “Comeback’s” Valerie Cherish while chasing the dream from a different place and almost without exception a funnier one — such as his dimwitted attempt to fake his way through a discussion about Japanese cinema to ingratiate himself to a producer.
Although perhaps too dry to be everyone’s cup of tea, “Extras” remains genuinely clever throughout. For those with a taste for Gervais’ brand of comedy, that alone should be cause for enthusiasm that’s difficult to curb.