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An 'Extras'-special season of non-caring

Adrian Myers / HBO
How Ricky Gervais manages to get A-list stars to portray themselves in a bad light in "Extras" is one of the seven wonders of the world.
The fame-grubbing sinks deliciously lower as Ricky Gervais and company wrap up.
By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 15, 2007
"Extras" isn't the first show you think of when you hear the words "Christmas Special."

Conjured by television's current professor of comedic dark arts Ricky Gervais, the HBO comedy is a painfully hilarious look at the entertainment industry through the eyes of Gervais' alter ego, Andy Millman. A paunchy middle-aged former banker, Millman possesses just enough arrogance and insecurity to convince himself that he ought to be an actor. In Season 1, Andy and his friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) worked as extras and waited for their big breaks. In Season 2, Andy's came in the form of a dull-witted but popular comedy show, which he wrote and starred in. That season ended the series, though with no particular bang, and so it is not surprising, given Gervais' many rabid fans, that he would put together "Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale."

The timing, like the show, is strange and wonderful. Debuting Sunday at 9 p.m., it falls right in the center of the annual end-of-the-year treacle fest and, boy, is it a bracing change of pace. Really, what better time than the holidays to yank the final shreds of illusion away from Hollywood, exposing the small, craven heart of celebrity as it mewls and shrinks away from the light? After watching this finale, even Santa may want to rethink his relationship with publicity.

Andy is famous, you see, in a minor league, Hello! magazine sort of way. His braying catchphrase, "Are you havin' a laugh?," is No. 1 in Britain and it's driving him crazy. Because he is an ac-tor, a serious ac-tor who has somehow gotten trapped in a semi-literate brand while his arch nemesis Greg (Shaun Pye) is making swashbucklers with Clive Owen.

Howling at the despicable vagaries of fortune, Andy takes steps. Right over the backs of his few and needy friends -- including the dear and adorably dim Maggie, who falls on very hard times after refusing to be humiliated by that same Clive Owen.

How Gervais manages to get A-list stars to portray themselves in such exquisitely bad light is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller and Patrick Stewart have all provided hysterical self-send-ups, but Owen may top them all (though George Michael makes an appearance that apparently surprised even Gervais).

Exposing the petty, mean-spirited and often just plain stupid power struggles of the entertainment industry, "Extras" has always been as much a morality play as a comedy, and in the "Finale," it dips from dark to bleak.

Andy has never been held up as a paragon of virtue -- he is just as driven and petty as the next actor in line -- but caught in a purgatory of B-minus-list fame, he plumbs the depths of celebrity, and his aching need for it. There are still plenty of laughs but the pain is more palpable, more sustained, and his slide into raw ego will make anyone who has gone from desire to obsession squirm in their seats.

If you need to, you can draw a true if crooked line from this "Finale" to "It's a Wonderful Life," with reality TV serving as Potterville, but really, why would you? With the new year just around the corner, with an entertainment industry in strike-induced crisis, it's as good a time as any to contemplate the folly of envy, the pitfalls of blind ambition and the empty-hearted nature of celebrity.

Of course, Gervais, meanwhile, is busy firming up all his TV and movie deals and granting the occasional interview. So you do have to wonder, in the end, is he making a point he believes in or is he just havin' a laugh?


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