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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t’s a little strange to be writing a review for the complete series of a show that debuted only two short years ago. Sure, it happens a lot these days (the advent of the DVD has even given new life to previously cancelled series), but when that particular show was never cancelled in the first place, you can’t help but wonder why its creators would ever want to take it off the air.
As it goes, most television programs overseas don’t have a particularly long shelf life (two or three seasons is considered standard practice, and many would even argue that it retains the show’s integrity), so when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant made the decision to end their HBO/BBC series “Extras,” it didn’t come as much of a surprise. Fans of the British comedy duo had already experienced a similar fate when “The Office” ended after only two seasons and a one-off Christmas special, so at least they were better prepared this time around.
For those who are still in the dark about “Extras,” the show stars Gervais as Andy Millman, a struggling “background artist” who’s desperately looking for his big break. Just when it looks like that day will never come, however, the BBC picks up Andy’s comedy series “When the Whistle Blows.” Of course, it doesn’t go exactly as planned. While Andy is serving as both writer and co-star, the direction of the show has drastically changed from witty office comedy to the kind of broad, blue-collar drivel best known for catch phrases like “Are you having a laugh?” Andy quickly becomes torn between his newfound stardom and the notion of selling out for fame, and in the process, jeopardizes his relationships with his dim-witted best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) and clueless agent Darren Lamb (Merchant).
The “extra special series finale” picks up where season two left off. Andy has mended his relationship with Maggie, but as his star continues to rise, he begins to wonder if Darren – whose only current offers for Andy are a guest stint on “Doctor Who” and a spot on the upcoming edition of “Big Brother” – is the right man for the job. Fed up with embarrassing himself on a weekly basis, Andy fires his agent and pulls the plug on the show. But when he realizes that he’ll never have the best of both worlds (respect and fame), Andy begrudgingly chooses the latter.
After seeing the series finale for the first time, I have to admit that I wasn’t completely sold. The overall tone of the 84-minute sendoff seemed far too depressing for a comedy, but after watching it again (perhaps with much lower expectations), it definitely grew on me. There’s really no other way that Gervais and Merchant could have ended “Extras,” and though I’m sad to see it go, the duo should be applauded for not being enticed to stick around just because they could.
As for the guest stars, well, they’re not quite as big-name as Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller, Ian McKellan and David Bowie, but they still have some of the episodes funniest bits. George Michael trolls the gay park and discusses his latest community service gig (“Sting called the fucking council, cause he’s a fucking do-gooder”), David Tenant appears in a short “Doctor Who” clip, Chef Gordon Ramsey gets into an insult-slinging tiff with Andy, and, in the best cameo of the lot, Clive Owen gets into an on-set argument about whether or not his character would pay for sex with an ugly prostitute. “Oh, fuck off. I’m Clive Owen – that’s mental.”
Ricky Gervais is hilarious as usual, and Ashley Jensen is an absolute star-in-the-making (why she’s wasting her time on “Ugly Betty” is beyond me), but some of the show’s finer moments actually come from Stephen Merchant and Shaun Williamson, both of whom clearly don’t mind embarrassing themselves for the sake of comedy. Williamson’s character has also been rumored for a possible spin-off, and while I’m not exactly sure I’d watch a show exclusively about Barry, my interest would definitely depend on just how big of a behind-the-scenes role Gervais and Merchant would play. They’re two-for-two so far, and if you haven’t had the time to experience either, this is the perfect time to start.
Special Features: The five-disc box set features nothing that can’t already be found on the season one and two DVD releases, unfortunately, but there is some good news at the end of the tunnel. Previously only scheduled to be released as part of the complete series gift set, the Christmas special will eventually be made available on Feb. 24. You can thank Ricky Gervais for that, who, after reading all of the negative comments about HBO’s shady marketing decision on Amazon and other major online retailers, made a call to end the insanity. Bravo, sir.