Photo by Burmiston

If the nervy British humiliation-comedy classic The Office was about
delusional power in the land of the quotidian, then the HBO-BBC co-production
Extras — the newest series from The Office co-creator and star Ricky
Gervais — is, in some ways, the opposite. It finds humor in the dreary, time-killing
vagrancy inside a magic-making world of movies. The show’s playground, the film
set, is a land of mythical giants — Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Stiller
(to name three of the show’s guest stars) — but it’s a working world nonetheless,
a shade duller than a cubicle farm, and populated by the silent, watching, waiting
hopeful: the Guard No. 2’s and Hostage No. 3’s who fill out a frame.

Gervais’ character is Andy Millman, a self-proclaimed “background artist” — the full-time kind — who just wants one line, any line, a few spoken words on camera, something that allows him to feel like a real actor, which, of course, is what he tells people he is anyway. Even though he’s less of a boob and more of a likable wiseass than The Office’s gracelessly egomaniacal boss, David Brent (it’s basically Gervais’ shot at playing a luckless Everyman like The Office’s Tim), Andy still wouldn’t be a Ricky Gervais persona if he didn’t talk himself into embarrassing conversational corners or get caught in a wish-fulfillment lie. Certain predicaments have a Frasier-like girl-chasing slant, including a hilarious bit in which atheistic Andy pretends to be a Catholic to woo a fellow extra, only to get found out at a prayer meeting. Others are more Seinfeld-ian scenarios that tackle politically incorrect topics such as racism, homophobia and squeamishness over disability. But the sharpest wince-worthy comedy deals directly with Andy’s career goals. In the third episode, Andy casually boasts, during a downtime confab of bit players, that he once had a line on a sitcom: responding to a request for a bus ticket, “Yeah, sure, no problem.” When a jerky colleague relentlessly challenges his claim’s authenticity, Andy is forced to continually re-enact his big moment until it becomes obvious — thanks to Gervais’ patented brilliance at sloppy damage control — that he never had any dialogue. As with those who found The Office painful in its spotlight on knife twisting, the struggling actors in the viewing audience may want to avert their eyes from such flaying of a wounded animal. Others will just roar with laughter.

Extras may have the uphill task of distinguishing itself from Gervais’ career-defining debut — maybe the new one’s theme of disappointment could soften the blow for those with high expectations — but it also has to stand out in a crowded HBO schedule of Hollywood-themed comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. (The reality satire The Comeback apparently won’t come back.) While one slice-of-movie-life detail in Extras — the waiting-around dullness of film production — is spot-on, another gimmick — having big-name actors play themselves — isn’t really a gimmick anymore. Ever since The Larry Sanders Show turned the celebrity cameo into a double-dare form of idol tweaking, it’s practically become a rite of passage for stars to take the mick out of themselves somehow, somewhere — on an awards show or sitcom, even if few instances of this have ever been as tinglingly memorable as that first blush of David Duchovny falling for Larry Sanders. Ben Stiller has visited this well enough times that watching his obnoxious, tantruming filmmaker in this weekend’s episode ceased to be shtick and started to feel real, like some image makeover in Bizarro world. Winslet and Patrick Stewart, however, are naughtily funny — as a callously ambitious vulgarian and a dirty old man, respectively — in their turns at bat. And if Americans were familiar with the real-life romantic tribulations and cheeseball reputation of British “light entertainment” comedian/impressionist Les Dennis, his guest stint — one of the series’ funniest episodes — would probably have more resonance. At the very least, U.S. viewers will pick up that Andy’s getting cast as a gay genie opposite a has-been game-show host’s Aladdin on a local stage (that British theatrical tradition called panto) is a far cry from being in a Holocaust drama with Kate Winslet.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of Extras is that Gervais’ writing-directing partner, Stephen Merchant, has a priceless role as Andy’s blissfully incapable agent, an anti-Ari from Entourage whose desk is a hive of inactivity and who nonchalantly tells our hero, “What I’m no good at is breaking an actor.” Their meetings are gemlike exchanges of deadpan incompetence and hair-pulling frustration, worthy of the bygone era of comedy teams. Once, the agent demanded for another of his acting clients a million pounds or nothing, with disastrous results, he tells Andy. “Looking back, I shouldn’t have offered the ‘nothing’ option. Oh, well, live and learn.” Ben Stiller may not be a prick, and Kate Winslet may not be a foul-mouthed Oscar climber, but you know agents like that are out there.

EXTRAS | HBO | Sundays, 10:30 p.m.

Posh Talk With the Animals

One of the more unusual British imports to reach American viewers lately is the animated comedy I Am Not an Animal. The six-episode series, from I’m Alan Partridge co-writer Peter Baynham, debuts next Wednesday night on the Sundance Channel, although its mix of twisted laughs and surrealist visuals smacks of something you’d see between Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Harvey Birdman on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim hours. Like a show dreamed up by disturbed Disney employees, the story begins in a hidden vivisection lab, where a horse, a bird, a rat, a monkey and a dog live in mock comfort, having been taught to speak English and led to believe they are urban sophisticates whose natural habitat is a smashing dinner party. (They practice chatty pleasantries like “What was in the sauce?,” keep up with Ralph Fiennes from celebrity rags and dream of meeting smart Londoners like “a lawyer dealing with complex family issues.”) When a band of animal-rights activists invades the supersecret compound, our furry, feathered or coarse-haired heroes are set free and forced to make their way in a world where their own kind come off as mute, underdeveloped barbarians, while real humans usually run away screaming. One dotty old farm woman accepts them as is, but when she tries to feed a plate of sugar cubes to Philip, the group’s haughty, pipe-smoking horse and de facto leader, he responds with withering disapproval, “No disrespect, but these usually come with a pot of Darjeeling.”

Animal features rich voice work by a host of major British comedy talents,
including Steve Coogan (I’m Alan Partridge), Julia Davis (Nighty Night)
and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead). Equally entrancing is the digital photomontage
technique used for the animation, a sort of warped child’s collage book in motion.
When this series first aired in the U.K., however, it ran into controversy with
animal-rights groups over whether a vivisection lab is suitable comedy material.
But I prefer to think of Animal as a satirically appropriate companion
piece to Grizzly Man, in which the late bear activist Timothy Treadwell
made it fatally, tragically clear that he saw a cosmic through line between us
and the ursine. Baynham, meanwhile, raucously suggests what human qualities really
look like, so he gives us a rat with body-image issues, a lovelorn bulldog convinced
that Tim Robbins will leave Susan Sarandon for her, a horse with literary pretensions
who’s read only one book, and a suit-wearing sparrow who refuses to fly or part
with his shoe trees. And the monkey? It’s just horny all the time.

I AM NOT AN ANIMAL | Sundance Channel | Wednesdays, 11 p.m.

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