Delivering a dark exclamation point to their second great series, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have wrapped up “Extras” with an expanded special to culminate its two six-episode “seasons,” as they did with the original “The Office.” While viewers won’t be havin’ many laffs, to borrow the show within the show’s catchphrase, the finishing touch represents a lacerating rumination on selling out and the allure of fame, reminiscent of the finale for HBO’s short-lived and underappreciated “The Comeback.” Whatever the milieu, the next Gervais-Merchant collaboration can’t come soon enough.
“Extras'” first half-dozen episodes dealt with striving wannabe Andy Millman (Gervais), an extra (or as he preferred, “background artist”) desperately yearning for stardom. The second flight saw him surprisingly fulfill that wish by becoming the lead in a low-brow BBC sitcom, proving it was possible for Andy to remain equally miserable in success — now as the clown fruitlessly craving respect and to be taken seriously.
The special finds Andy still mired in that unhappy malaise, while his friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) watches her career as an extra implode after a hilariously brutal run-in with Clive Owen — the latest celebrity to seemingly relish playing himself as a complete prick. (Frankly, nothing will ever equal Kate Winslet’s foul-mouthed performance in a nun’s habit or Ben Stiller rattling off his box office results, but Owen quickly vaults into the “Extras” top five.)
Andy, however, is too self-absorbed to notice Maggie’s troubles. Depressed over being a buffoon, he fires his dim-witted agent (Merchant) and signs with a new one who promises to advance him from the C-list to at least the B-list — though achieving that rise means doing distasteful things like appearing in “Celebrity Big Brother” and guest starring as an alien on “Doctor Who.”
“Extras” has always trafficked in discomfort, but Gervais and Merchant ratchet it up here, building toward a poignant conclusion that in some respects resembles “The Truman Show” as an indictment of our media culture, as well as “Stardust Memories” in its portrait of the comic as an angry middle-aged man.
Better known for “Ugly Betty,” Jensen has an opportunity to shine as the slightly dimwitted Maggie, the one constant in Andy’s image-obsessed life. Gervais also demonstrates more depth than usual, though part of that comes at the expense of consistent laughs. (Some of the U.K.-centric talent cameos won’t mean much to a U.S. audience either, though that’s a relatively small matter.)
The Brits certainly have a luxury in their freedom to craft little gems such as this that need only generate a dozen or so installments, but that hardly diminishes what Gervais and Merchant have accomplished by again living up to the elements in this project’s title: It’s extra, it’s a finale and it is, indeed, special.