What a difference a TV year makes. When the Extras Christmas Special aired last year, it was certainly funny, but it felt a little too keen to hit you with on-the-button references to pop culture. That sat uncomfortably alongside a critique of celebrity culture that felt several years out of date (Big Brother is for the fame-hungry? Who knew!).
There were still great jokes in it, and better cameos than the regular Extras series had managed. But in any given scene it could feel like a real mess. Gervais’s career climber creation, Andy Millman, had decent banter with insult master extraordinaire Gordon Ramsay, but that would give way to his falling comic star tiresomely trying to sneak into the Ivy. The genuine comedy of June Sarpong and Lisa Scott-Lee acting (or, perhaps, ‘acting’) as fame-hungry parasites was lost under an obvious world-weariness with reality TV that didn’t need to be said.
I remember Andy’s now well-known speech at the end of Big Brother about the exploitative nature of celebrity culture as particularly needling me when I watched this last Christmas. But although watching it back now it still seems self-indulgent, in other places, the message feels less ham-fisted. Chief among them is the decline of Andy Millman’s friends – Maggie becoming a cleaner and regretting her wasted life, and Darren getting stuck as a Carphone Warehouse salesman with hasbeen EastEnders – just as his life starts becoming what he thought he wanted it to be. It’s the funny-moving combination that is obviously being strained for elsewhere in the programme.
The show is at its best, though, when it isn’t making a point but is just playing it for laughs. George Michael passing through Hampstead Heath on lunch from his community service, for fly-tipping with Annie Lennox, is laugh-out loud stuff, as is Clive Owen telling a film producer that he ‘wouldn’t pay for that’ at the idea of having Maggie as a prostitute.
The extras are also a right laugh, so long as you ignore the option of watching more Big Brother scenes. But – and this is probably the real sign that it isn’t going to earn a place as a real classic – it’s hard to recommend it as worth spending fifteen quid on, when you know full well the show is going to be on telly in a few weeks.
The problem with Extras was always that it wasn’t as good as Ricky Gervais evidently thought it was. That’s still noticable in the knowing looks and barely-surpressed laughter with a lot of material among the cast, which constantly threatens to turn this into the British Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it just about manages to feel less self-regarding and simply more funny than the TV series.
Extras – The Special is out now
22 December 2008