You would have had to have been living under an exceedingly large rock for the last few years to be oblivious to the huge cultural splash Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's series 'The Office' has made in the pantheon of modern British comedy. Unique and superbly observed, the series grew from modest beginnings to establish itself as one of the most critically lauded shows of recent times, creating a cult hero out of hapless boss David Brent and catapulting Ricky Gervais from '11 0'Clock Show' makeweight to the comedy colossus he is today. To their credit, Gervais and Merchant quit whilst they were ahead, bravely choosing to end 'The Office' after two series and a Christmas special despite the popularity and the paychecks. Now, some two years after Wernham Hogg closed its doors for the final time, they face the ultimate test when returning with their new sit-com 'Extras'. Popular entertainment is a tough business, and it's made even harder when your first effort scaled such heights as 'The Office' attained. Some people chose to cling to the safety blanket and rehash 'The Last of the Summer Wine' with ever depleting casts and plotlines (is that Clegg going down a hill in a bath tub again?). Others desperately try and break away and fall flat on their face (the phenomenally successful 'Hi-Di-Hi!' springs to mind; when it's cast stumbled listlessly from 'You Rand M'Lord' to the death rattles of 'Oh, Doctor Beeching!' insomniacs the country over breathed a sigh of relief). No doubt knives were being sharpened for Gervais and Merchant. Critics who had buoyed them up were ready to smash them down, and avid fanboys with expectations reaching the stratosphere were sat primed to pour scorn on anything that wasn't Brent related. It is with great relief then to report that there is no egg on faces here. 'Extras' brims with all the sardonic comic delight that made 'The Office' king of the pile at the start of the decade. Proof that lightening can in fact strike twice, 'Extras' proves itself a more than able successor, with six remarkably consistent episodes full of charm, wit and laughter. Gervais again takes centre stage, this time as aspiring actor Andy Millman, short, rotund, and the wrong side of forty. The series follows him through various shooting sets with his best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen). Millman earns a frugal living as an extra, forever searching in vain for that one line of dialogue that can elevate him into the upper echelons of acting. Each episode is centred around a different shoot, with six different celebrities (Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp, Kate Winslet, Les Dennis, Samuel L. Jackson and Patrick Stewart) offering able support as the star names Andy aspires to act alongside. Gervais and Merchant certainly don't take too great a blind leap into the darkness here. Despite the varying cast and location, the nucleus of the humour is still full of what made 'The Office' so distinctly original and successful. Gervais jokes on the accompanying documentary that Andy Millman is David Brent without the beard. Whilst he does himself a disservice here, there is still much to link the two characters. Andy comes across as a more likeable character, lacking the Alan Partridge-style narcissism that distinguished Brent, and being blessed with a more tangible wit and intelligence than his counterpart. When put in precarious situations however, that cringe-worthy embarrassment that Gervais enacts to a tee is again rolled out to similar effect. One can't help but laugh with evil glee as Andy talks himself into a corner over such contentious PC hot potatoes as racism, disability and sexuality. Again he operates on the outside, longing to be invited into the inner circle. There is a wonderful self-deprecating humour to Gervais' work. Where it would be easy to cast himself as a more traditional leading man, he excels as one of life's nearly men who only gets a support role in a panto because Jono Coleman wasn't considered fat enough. If we were to be hyper critical of 'Extras' it could be argued that as an overall piece of work it isn't as lovingly observed and woven as 'The Office'. The characters that populate Millman's world, whilst entertaining (Merchant and Jensen especially give great comedic performances), lack that depth of characterisation and intensity that the staff at Wernham Hogg possessed. Both Maggie and Andy's agent are somewhat docile two dimensional creations designed more to highlight how Andy is deserving of more, than actual living creations in their own right. Redressing the balance however, this more slapdash approach to characterisation actually works to intensify the comedic aspects of the show. If 'The Office' was better as an overall concept, then 'Extras' is certainly the better comedy of the two (if you watch the show more for out and out laughs than for an inner exploration of just why you are Tim from Wernham Hogg and your life isn't worth living then this is probably more for you). Reverting from the fly-on-the-wall aesthetics of previous work into a more situation comedy friendly 30minute vignette certainly helps the show to move smoothly along and integrate more overtly comical material into the script. This is in no way indicative of a sell-out from Gervais and Merchant however. Forget the 'My Hero's' of this world, and consign that laughter track to the dustbin, for this is a sublime example of how to play to the bigger marquee without sacrificing integrity. The celebrity performances are uniformly excellent with the exception of Samuel L. Jackson who must have filmed his scenes in the time it takes to eat a rich tea biscuit. He phones in a 'blink and you'll miss it' performance which is astoundingly superfluous to the episode he stars in. Aside from this aberration, all involved take good natured pot shots at their on-screen images. Top of the pile must however by the tour de force performance from one Les Dennis whose painfully bare appraisal of his life must be commended. This is how pathos should be integrated into comedy; it's unsympathetic, brutal and absolutely brilliant. The episode is the cornerstone of the series and is quite possibly the most luminous thirty minutes Gervais and Merchant have conjured up yet. A special mention must also go to Patrick Stewart, whose straight faced pitch of his self-penned script to Millman has to go down as one of the funniest scenes in recent memory. Make no mistake this is comedy gold and deserves a home in any self respecting fans library. Devotees of 'The Office' should pick this up as a no-brainer, whilst those who just fancy a good chuckle could do worse than giving it a spin as an anecdote to the terrible anodyne trash they have a habit of serving up on TV nowadays.
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