Both "The Office" and "Extras," the two short British series from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, are unexpectedly poignant pieces of work. They are, on the one hand, shining exemplars of cringe comedy, landing knuckle punches exactly where grandiosity meets humiliation. They give us narcissistic characters making utter fools of themselves, steeped in verbal self-incrimination, sinking in the quicksand of their vanity. And yet both shows have enough heart to evoke our pity and, yes, alas, it's true, our empathy. We cringe because we know.
HBO's "Extras" is a TV gem destined always to get a little lost in the shadow of "The Office," particularly since the American "Office" has been such a mighty success. In only two six-episode seasons and, tomorrow at 9 p.m. in "Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale," the show has formed a wonderfully concise and unromanticized view of fame from both sides. It has portrayed our contemporary desperation to be fa mous and in the proximity of famous people; and it has lampooned what fame does to those who manage to find it. The HBO-BBC production stands, alongside "The Comeback" and "The Larry Sanders Show," as one of TV's most slyly unflattering self-portraits.
The 80-minute finale is the perfect cap to the series, an ugly yet emotionally resonant morality play about the price of selling out. The episode has a self-standing quality, and it's completely understandable to newcomers; but it's richest for fans as the culmination of a years-long plot arc. The story began in 2005 with hapless movie extras Andy (Gervais) and Maggie (Ashley Jensen) living through demoralizing on-set moments, many of which involved jokey appearances by the likes of Ben Stiller and Kate Winslet playing nasty versions of themselves. In last year's season two, Andy finally found success by creating a ridiculous BBC sitcom called "When the Whistle Blows" and wearing a clown-like wig as its catchphrase-spewing star. He won public attention and money, but no respect.
Now, Andy has become a little monster of insecurity and need, and when we first see him in the finale, he is a member of the bickering cast of "
One of Andy's absurd demands to his new agent is that he wants a part in a Martin Scorsese film, but he's already there in a way. The "Extras" finale is a cousin to Scorsese's biting "The King of Comedy" as it teases out the cruelty, obsessiveness, and joylessness of celebrity. Those who crave fame on the show have slippery identities, and those who have achieved fame are captive to it. Of course, "what price Hollywood" is an old story, but in "The King of Comedy" and "Extras" that simple tale becomes a trip through a hall of warped mirrors and no one, not even the audience, gets out without appearing ghoulish.
The "Extras" supporting cast members are extraordinary, as always, particularly Merchant. He is absolutely committed to Darren's idiocy, and he has created a buffoon who is as original as Michael Richards's Kramer on "Seinfeld." Jensen's Maggie is a dimwit, too, but she is extremely dear. When Andy enlists her in his Ridley Scott ruse, she is clueless, unable to get her innocent little head around such a twisted deception. Watching Maggie gird up to clean bathrooms is heart-breaking, given her dreams of glory. In the fame-infected world of "Extras," the intellectually challenged characters are sweet heroes in comparison to the successful ones, with their snakelike intelligence and cynicism.
The cameos are memorable, too. On a movie set, star Clive Owen shreds Maggie's dignity and, in the process, his own. And George Michael is on hand for a set piece about the "queer bench" in a local park, in case we've forgotten how the media stalks its prey into ignominy. The presence of these notables adds to the verisimilitude of "Extras," and reinforces its already shrewd glimpse at the misery of those on the top of the heap.