review: extras – series two, episode two
September 23, 2006
An Extras episode can end in one of two ways. First and most common is a comedic moment so mortifying that the only reasonable response is to remain utterly silent as Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) saunters off, embarrassed and annoyed, and as Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman” plays softly over the credits. Rarer and no less wonderful–and even, at times, more so–is a sad, subtly funny scene for which the melancholy opening piano chords of Mr. Stevens’ “Tillerman” are the only accompaniment, one that embraces these characters’ flaws and charms with a well-timed dash of sentimentality as the camera pans upward and out until the screen fades to black. This sort of ending has been used only twice: in last season’s excellent finale and now in last Thursday’s episode (the second of this second season).
It is, by any measure, a remarkably unconventional and strikingly mature narrative, at the same time losing none of its comedic genius (much like the funny-sad “Christmas Special” episodes of Mr. Gervais’ The Office). You will recall from last week’s episode that Andy was faced with a choice: would he “sell out” and continue with a truly awful sitcom not at all representative of his original vision? Or would he cast this chance at fame aside and walk away, integrity intact? For better or worse, Andy Millman sold out to the BBC, and this most recent episode is all about his response to all that decision has forced upon him. Wrangling with an inflated ego, dismal reviews, and a horrendously incompetent agent (Stephen Merchant, never better), he treads lightly and uncertainly, burdened by no small measure of doubt regarding his minor success in the television ratings (six million viewers).
These swirling emotions rise to the surface most notably in one late-episode scene in which Andy, after first being granted access to the VIP section of a local nightclub, is unceremoniously booted out to make way for pop icon David Bowie. Bribing his way back in, he eagerly regales the clueless Mr. Bowie with the details of his recent misfortunes, hoping for some small insight from a real famous person. Instead, the conversation inspires an improvised musical composition about the “little fat man who sold his soul,” with Bowie on piano and the other patrons chiming in on the chorus: “he’s banal and facile/he’s a fat waste of space!” Andy can only sit back, vaguely smiling and thoroughly bewildered, jab his entranced friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) , and wait for the end.
Let us return, then, to the end (where I began). Seeking validation, Andy returns to a bar he visited early on in the episode wherein he was recognized (and accosted) by a man of questionable mental stability until Andy summarily walked off; “he was doing my head in,” Andy said at the time. And yet, seeing the man and his dodgy friends again, he immediately spouts off his character’s loathsome “catchphrase” and begins shaking hands and posing for photographs, grinning forcefully in a compromising acceptance of the moment. The music swells, and so it ends.
I didn’t feel much like laughing at Andy’s situation here, pathetic though it is; he’s far too much of a real person for that. No, a thoughtful silence was all that I could muster, and in it I found myself faced with the paradoxical notion that Andy could be both a sell-out and yet somehow still worthy of respect. No longer just an extra, he has fought strenuously to make something of his situation; that the result is less than he hoped for and probably deserved is a minor tragedy, one excusing of all Andy’s various undignified reactions.
Next Week: Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe–puerile hilarity will surely ensue.
–D. S. W.