27 October 2006
Extras: Series 2
So, the series finished with quite the whimper last week, despite a brilliantly minimalist performance from Robert DeNiro. It seems to me that Ricky Gervais tends to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm to see what he can nick, and repackage for his own show. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way, just that he seems rather ‘inspired’ – sorry, inspired – by Curb.
We have the character of Barry (Shaun Williamson) who, to me, seems like an extended meditation on the little story arc where Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) guested on Curb, playing himself, and articulating his annoyance that he was typecast, which was a waste of a man as prodigiously talented as he.
However, as he got into his inevitable arguments with David, especially about how he was nothing like George in ‘real life’ (a complex and confused term when it comes to this style of hyperreal comedy), he was reduced to the petty, chubby, balding archetype that characterises both George and Barry.
Of course, one key difference between the character of ‘Jason Alexander’ (as he appeared in Curb) and Barry is that of success; Barry is viewed as unsuccessful in life, a man who has had so little TV work post-Eastenders, that he has resorted to moonlighting as a roofer, and doing odd jobs. Jason, on the other hand, is a former star of one of the biggest TV shows in US history. He’s pretty set for money.
The other would be their roles in the respective programmes. Jason is there to reiterate how closely George was based on Larry; I’m unclear of the level of causality here, but the similarity seems to extend to Jason as well. So we have scenes in which Larry and Jason get caught up in argument about such trifling matters as who should go to whose office for the next meeting; both acting like real life avatars of George.
Conversely, Barry’s character seems to exist in Extras as a counterpoint to Gervais’s Andy Millman. Both are overweight, quite ugly, and in their forties. However, whereas Millman is on a constant search for dignity and nobility in his extra work or, this series, his sitcom, Barry seems content to wallow in mediocrity and self pity.
In terms of guest stars, this series has had almost too many. Excellent were Keith Chegwin, Stephen Fry (in a wonderful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, bathroom scene) and Richard Briers. Daniel Radcliffe and Orlando Bloom had good lines, but seemed to be trying too hard. Coldplay’s Chris Martin was decent, though too self-aware, and I’m uncomfortable with the parody of 'rock star on a show to pimp his band' when that was precisely what was happening in reality.
Of definite note was the cameo, near the close of the series, of Sir Ian McKellen who, while acting to a traditionally high standard, seemed rather a forced presence.
Of course, he was necessary as the homosexual director (and the downfall of that episode was the fact that it was predicated on homophobia – I thought Millman was supposed to be a decent bloke), but his actual character seemed to be a photocopy of Patrick Stewart at the end of the first series. He echoed the Stewart template of ‘I’m a posh actor who everyone loves, but really I’m a bit stupid’ to a tee; a tad too obvious for my liking.
The upside to the cameo was there, though, and was very smart; if a tad subtle. What I enjoyed about his character was the insistence that acting was all about pretending to be a character you were not, as he cited the fact that he was not actually a wizard called Gandalf. That, in itself, would not have been so funny, but I loved its nod to the abysmal (in the show) performance by Chegwin, which he attempted to excuse by saying ‘but me sister isn’t dead’.
While in that opening episode, Millman could look at such a comment as indelible evidence that his guest star was rubbish, the exact same sentiment coming from such a respected thespian as McKellen must have been troubling for the protagonist. So it was a shame that the rest of the episode descended into ‘I’m not gay’ jokes.