A few years back, Ricky Gervais created "The Office," a Dilberty satire on office work. Now, he's created "Extras," a wickedly funny satire on showbiz and acting, both seasons of which are contained here. And the fact that prominent actors appear in it -- as warped versions of themselves -- is just the icing on the comedy cake.
Andy Millman (Gervais) and Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jenson) are film extras -- Andy is embittered by his lack of success and his inept agent (Stephen Merchant, Gervais' work partner), while well-meaning Maggie merely pursues a series of crew members on the films they work in.
The first episode features the two working in a biopic directed by a brusque Ben Stiller ("Would you stop going on about your f**king dead wife?"), and Andy gets himself kicked off the set. Their blunders continue with other stars: Kate Winslet in a nun costume, who teaches Maggie how to talk dirty to her new boyfriend ("I'd love it if you stuck your Willy Wonka in between my Oompa-Loompas!"); Samuel L. Jackson, and Patrick Stewart, who is writing a movie about psychkinesis and naked women.
And in the second season, Andy gets his Big Break -- BBC2 is producing his sitcom "When the Whistle Blows," but they dumb it down until it's popular but critically lambasted. Meanwhile, he and Maggie tangle with a bunch of new celebs -- the arrogant woman-chasing Daniel Radcliffe and Orlando Bloom, self-promoting Chris Martin, a hostile David Bowie, and Andy even stars in a play of Ian McKellen's about gay love (much to his discomfort).
Finally, the Christmas special takes us forward -- Andy has fame and fortune from his sitcom, and Maggie is still struggling at the lowest rungs. When Andy blows up and destroys his own fame, he is forced to confront the fact that he cannot be both an "artiste" and rich'n'famous.... and also who his true friends will always be.
It's a bit depressing compared to the past two seasons, especially when Andy has turned into a big stupid sitcom diva. But it is funny in an understated way, and Gervais' televised monologue is an absolute, heartbreaking gem.
Part of the genius of "Extras" is that it isn't much like any other showbiz parodies -- the lead characters are on the lowest rung of acting, and the big egos are real stars making fun of themselves. Sometimes they play really nasty versions of themselves, such as Winslet saying that she's only making a Holocaust film so she can FINALLY nab an Oscar.
The other half of the comic genius is Gervais' direction, with most of the jokes based on socially awkward situations. It's all about cringing and giggling at once, such as when Andy's pals see him pantsless in Ian McKellen's dressing room. Those hideously embarrassing situations -- usually with some hilarious dialogue involving the star guests (Bowie's "little fat man/nobody's laughing" song is a gutsplitter) are what it's all about.
Gervais underplays a sort of befuddled, cynical extra, but you can really connect with his struggles, even when he gets his own sitcom. No matter what, Andy can always be depended on to jam foot in mouth, and occasionally to attack Warwick Davis. And Jensen is clumsily charming as Maggie, who tries to be nice to everyone but says all the wrong things at the wrong time, when she's not being pursued by Orlando Bloom or offending Samuel Jackson.
From start to finish, "Extras" is an uproariously funny, barbed looks at the strange world of showbiz, with the self-parodying actors as the final perfect touch.