Back for another too-brief flight of a half-dozen installments, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “Extras” proves definitively that the tandem responsible for the original “The Office” are no one-trick ponies. Despite mining what appears to be a played-out lode (yet another showbiz-insider comedy, complete with self-effacing celebrity cameos), the pair find hearty laughs in discomfort, elicit riotous turns from their guest stars and even manage a touch of pathos in the travails of the show’s hapless hero, Andy Millman, who discovers, to quote the old axiom, that when the gods want to punish you, they grant your dreams.
A frustrated extra the first year, Andy enjoyed a stunning triumph at the end of the first season, when the BBC agreed to produce a comedy in which he’d star. The thrill of victory, however, is soon replaced by the agony of seeing his concept dumbed down and turned into a broad goof, forcing him to wear a ghastly wig and deliver a silly catchphrase, “Are ya havin’ a laugh?”
Andy’s chum Maggie (“Ugly Betty’s” Ashley Jensen), meanwhile, is still toiling away as an extra, though she’s so painfully dense as to keep stumbling into hilarious situations, including a run-in with Orlando Bloom, who has a chip on his shoulder about Johnny Depp and keeps reminding everyone how good-looking he is.
Still, that pales compared with the second half-hour, when Andy bribes a doorman to experience life behind the velvet ropes after being mobbed by knuckle-dragging fans in a pub. Alas, the plan backfires when David Bowie spontaneously turns his lament about the damn sitcom into an instant ditty, one that immortalizes Andy as “pathetic” and a “little fat man,” all to a catchy sing-along beat.
The third episode, though, might be the best, as Andy’s agent (Merchant, way over the top) lands him a small part in a feature co-starring Daniel Radcliffe — Harry Potter himself — who’s determined to remind everyone that he’s 17 now and has “done it with a girl, intercourse-wise.” A cameo by Dame Diana Rigg, no less, only adds to the inspired lunacy.
The celebrity tomfoolery notwithstanding, Gervais and Merchant remain remarkably adept at creating painfully awkward situations, from Andy griping about a noisy kid without knowing the lad has Down’s syndrome to Maggie’s addled exchange with the full-size fiancee of little person Warwick Davis, a co-star in the Radcliffe project.
The humor is often distinctly British, so much so that a few of the gags and references will elude much of the American audience. Yet “Extras” also comes garnished with a dose of the bittersweet, and achieves levels of depth and satisfaction no other recent showbiz-themed series — including “Entourage,” which gets the industry’s veneer right without penetrating that glossy surface — can match. (Actually, HBO’s short-lived “The Comeback,” in its swan-song, probably came closest.)
On a “God Save the Queen” note, there’s no telling where HBO would be without its mini British invasion, which in addition to “Extras” includes BBC collaborations on “Rome” as well as such longform imports as “Elizabeth I” and “Tsunami.”
Whatever the point of origin, thanks to Gervais and company, we are, indeed, havin’ a laugh.