review: extras – series two, episode five

October 18, 2006

Sir Ian McKellen, you are surely a godsend. The venerable Shakespearean actor’s appearance on this week’s episode of Extras could not have come at a more fortuitous moment, breaking the show’s steep decline into irrelevance with an inspired plot built around, you guessed it, homosexuality (don’t groan) and made all the more uproarious by Andy’s at times flagrant homophobia. Specifically, boneheaded agent Darren Lamb (Stephen Merchant, of course) books Andy for a play directed by Sir Ian, who plays a demented version of himself, not realizing that it is, as Andy later rants, “a gay play.” It is familiar, to be sure, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

That is, I couldn’t stop laughing once the first 10 minutes or so had passed; the opening is devoted, inexplicably, to a dreadful scenario involving a makeup girl who expects, not unreasonably, that Andy knows her name after their weeks of working on set together–well enough, that is, to address an autograph to her. Naturally, Andy has no idea what her name is, and so we watch him fumble his way through their protracted conversation before she storms off, irate. Yes, it really is that dull.

Part of the joy of watching Extras has always been seeing famous stars behaving badly, and doing so without so much as a whiff of shame. Fellow RSC alumnus Patrick Stewart took that art to new heights in last season’s finale, but Sir Ian does him one better here by mustering his considerable presence in the service of some of the more embarassing dialogue I have ever heard anyone utter. “How do I act so well?” So begins his gravely worded oration to Andy at their first meeting, head waving slightly and brow furrowed as he leans intently towards a thoroughly befuddled Andy. It only gets better from there.

The other half of this week’s goings-on revolves around an unlikely romantic entanglement between two of our more prominent characters; I won’t reveal who, so as not to spoil the surprise–and it is quite a surprise–but I can say that, if it bears out in the future, it could certainly end up as one of the more genius turns by writers Gervais and Merchant; it strikes me as both blatantly obvious and yet completely unexpected. The implications are exciting, to say the least.

So, the play. It is indeed quite “gay,” with Andy awkwardly flirting with a “male acquaintance” while doing his very best to carry it off, if only for the sake of his bruised public image. And of course, opening night sees the attendance of Andy’s macho non-gay sort-of buddy with “butch” pals in tow and, in a not-so-shocking turn of events, all of the “Village People” (gays) Andy knows (including, in one mortifying scene, the one pictured above–remember him?); they of course defy all Andy’s efforts to convince everyone that he’s “just in it for the *rubs fingers together.*”

A last-minute bid by Sir Ian for a “physicalization of the emotional liberation” (I kid you not) provides the catalyst for the appropriate devolution into hyperbolic absurdity which, while not entirely satisfying, left me with the impression of a far more carefully constructed product than did any of the last few endings–with a smile, that is. The high point of the season has come and gone, I fear, but Sir Ian, more than anything else, rescues the show from the doldrums of mediocrity.  I salute him.

Next Week: Jonathan Ross and Robert Lindsay (not that I know who they are) round out this season’s crop of episodes, hopefully in high style. Bring a handkerchief, and start praying for another series.

–D. S. W.


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