The mockumentary genre (or the more general type of naturalistic comic fiction, even when, as is the case with “Extras”, it doesn’t actually pretend to be a documentary) has kind of lost its novelty value, but it’s still pretty damn effective, at least for comedic effect. Traditional sitcoms are okay, but their contrivances, artificial beats and laugh tracks can get in the way of your enjoyment. Whereas when you strip it all down to seemingly unrehearsed human interaction, there might not be such a one line, one gag pace but, in the more casual way they come about, the laughs are all the more unexpected and intense.
Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap” is probably the forefather of this particular kind of comedy (though Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” came before) and Christopher Guest further perfected it in movies like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show”, but I think the form truly reached its apex in serialized television. It’s such a delicate balance you’ve got to achieve with the awkward pauses, fumbled bits, jump cuts… If it’s too smooth, you lose the improvised, anything-can-happen feel. If it’s too loose, then it can get dull. In a movie, that’s deadly, because you expect every moment to deliver. On TV (or TV-on- DVD), you’re somehow more patient. You’ve got investment building into a series and even if at times it lags, you figure the next episode(s) oughta be better. Does that make any sense?
Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office” are the best when it comes to this. They’re actually hilarious right from the start, but they’re even more rewarding the further you get along because you know and love the characters more and more, and you’re just happy to hang out with them. “Extras”, at least in its first season, doesn’t feel as brilliant as the aforementioned shows, but it’s still easy to flow along with it, enjoying the developing characters and, quite importantly, laughing hard and often.
Ricky Gervais is undeniably a comic genius and he’s got a knack for finding the funny in the least funny things, not unlike Larry David for that matter. Nazis, the handicapped, religion, genocide, racism, how gay is too gay, suicide, the death of laughter itself: it’s all fair game. I also love the rapport Gervais’ character has with Ashley Jensen, who plays a fellow film and telly extra. Every other episode has her desperately going after a new bloke and making a big mess of it, in ever more ridiculous ways. The other regular cast member is Stephen Merchant (who also co-writes and co-directs with Gervais, as he did on “The Office”) as a witless agent. They’ve got good chemistry together, but they’re actually at their funniest in the outtakes, as they almost never seem to be able to go through a take without cracking each other up!
“The Office” took place in the most banal, dreary environment, but “Extras” takes Gervais’ universe into showbiz itself. Yet don’t think it’s all lifestyle of the rich and famous, as his character Andy is still quite the pathetic buffoon – “a man with small parts”, as the tagline goes. Plus, all the stars who do guest appearances are taking the piss out of themselves: Kate Winslet just wants to finally want an Oscar, Ben Stiller is being a dick, Vinnie Jones showing Ross Kemp “what really hard is”, Samuel L. Jackson is mistaken for Laurence Fishburne, Les Dennis tries to cope with the fact that he’s a has been, Patrick Stewart is obsessed with women losing their clothes…
“Are you having a laugh?”