How do you follow up the funniest half-hour of television since Seinfeld—or perhaps ever? For Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the co-creators of the beloved, internationally replicated show The Office, the answer was to scale back in ambition and amp up the gags. The six episodes comprising the first season of Extras, a fitfully hilarious HBO-aired series about fringe-dwellers in the movie industry, are as self-contained as installments of an old-school sitcom. Watch them out of order, and little is lost in terms of continuity or character, which may be part of the point, since the series centers on two "background artists" who rarely display the potential to evolve beyond their nagging prejudices and weakness for self-humiliation. On "The Difficult Second Album," a making-of featurette included on the DVD, Gervais jokes that the difference between his Extras character and his officious boss in The Office is that he got rid of the beard and the tie. Otherwise, the comedic repertoire is pretty much the same.
Gervais and Merchant recruit a new big-name star for each episode; they borrow those stars' cultural cachet, but at the same time, invariably make their "real-life" personas cruder and more juvenile than anyone might expect. Highlights include Kate Winslet, who, when she isn't on-camera as a nun saving Jews in World War II, offers kinky phone-sex advice ("I'd love it if you stuck your Willy Wonka between my Oompa-Loompas"), and Ben Stiller as an egomaniacal director who bullies a mutinous crew with worldwide gross figures from his hit comedies. In the downtime between takes, Gervais and fellow extra Ashley Jensen troll for speaking parts and dates, respectively, but their efforts usually lead to embarrassing faux pas.
While Extras gets the most from its guest stars, the central dynamic of the show is between Gervais and Jensen, who seem bonded by their petty small-mindedness, though Jensen carries it off more sweetly. Where everyone else would be appalled by, say, Jensen's refusal to date a man with one leg shorter than the other, or Gervais' attempts to curry favor with a Bosnian widower, they really see eye to eye. At their best, Gervais and Merchant exploit these grueling moments for the squirmiest laughs on television.
Key features: The aforementioned featurette, plus strong deleted scenes from each episode and endless outtakes of Gervais cracking up in the middle of a scene.