That species of star known as the celebrity altruist is a creature in whom the British comic Ricky Gervais seems to have absolutely no faith. The actors, directors and rock singers who give money to Holocaust foundations and adopt babies from impoverished places and expound before the United Nations General Assembly on the crisis of African debt — these people simply do not figure in his consciousness, one consumed by a brilliantly uncharitable view of fame.
“Extras,” midway through its second queasy, funny season on HBO, is Mr. Gervais’s deft essay on the vainglory of the well known. And it leaves you wondering, in the end, whether Mr. Gervais down deep imagines no real difference between what motivates Clint Eastwood and what drives Vanna White.
Each week Mr. Gervais — who writes, directs and stars in the comedy with his creative partner Stephen Merchant, with whom he also worked on “The Office” for the BBC — gets celebrities to appear on the show as themselves. Kate Winslet and Patrick Stewart showed up last season; Coldplay’s Chris Martin appears this Sunday in the taping of a public-service announcement, which he tries to exploit to promote his new album.
The celebrities are not meant to be playing themselves; not really. They are there to enact Mr. Gervais’s caricature, largely reprising the same dim, self-aggrandizing megalomaniac over and over. Every time they do, they seem to be inadvertently making Mr. Gervais’s point for him, because by getting in his game, they are betraying the kind of self-regard that leaves us assuming that they consider themselves exempt from his critique. Anyone who subjects himself to Mr. Gervais’s camera must believe that he does not belong to the class of arrogant jerks that Mr. Gervais is making so much fun of.
“How do I act so well?” Ian McKellen earnestly asks Mr. Gervais’s character in a forthcoming episode. “What I do is I pretend to be the person I’m portraying in the film or play,” he whispers. “You’re confused. Case in point, ‘Lord of the Rings,’ Peter Jackson comes to New Zealand and says to me, ‘Sir Ian, I want you to be Gandalf the Wizard,’ and I say to him, ‘You are aware that I’m not really a wizard.’ ”
Mr. Gervais’s character, Andy Millman, is an actor who had been making his living as an extra and has seen his fortunes change this season. An even greater misanthropy has accompanied the shift. Andy has managed to sell a workplace comedy to the BBC. He stars in it, and though the network suits have insisted it be stupider than he had ever hoped, he suddenly finds himself among the quasi-famous.
So when he complains to a boy’s mother in a restaurant that the boy is way too loud, without noticing first that the boy has Down syndrome, his tactlessness becomes front-page tabloid news. He is ultimately forced to have his picture taken with the child as he gives him an Xbox.
Andy has more money now, but he gives it away only meagerly, and merely for the purpose of small-scale image enhancement. When a homeless man recognizes him on the street, Andy gives him £20. When Andy asks the man what, hypothetically, he might ever say about the exchange to the press, the man responds, “I’d say, don’t ask Andy Millman for money because he’ll only give it to you begrudgingly.”
The new conceit — Andy as a real television actor — gives the show a sharper focus than it had last season and puts Mr. Gervais’s talents in the foreground more easily, giving him greater claim to Andy’s selfishness and diminishing his abjection.
Abjection, one of the show’s favorite themes, is now almost entirely Maggie’s to bear, and she bears more than a viewer’s comfort level can sustain. Played by Ashley Jensen, Maggie is Andy’s closest friend in the world of disrespected extras, a Bridget Jones without the wit, verbal range or ability to attract good-looking bad men.
She is a foil for all the big egos around her, pathetic, but in a different way, because she possesses ambition for nothing. And yet her apathy toward the actors she lets humiliate her leave them courting her approval: celebrities crave recognition even from those they denigrate or barely notice.
In one exceptionally funny episode a few weeks ago, in which Maggie is an extra in a period courtroom drama starring Orlando Bloom, she points out to him that women approach him only because he is famous. There’s really little else special about him at all. He disagrees: “They’re not doing it just because I’m famous. It’s my looks as well.”
He goes on to explain that other actors don’t get nearly as much attention: “I’ll tell you who gets ignored: Johnny Depp,” Mr. Bloom says. “On the set of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ the birds just walked straight past him: ‘Get out of our bloody way, whoever you are, we just want to get to Orlando.’ ”
Mr. Gervais wants to get to the world’s Orlandos, and also, subversively, at them.
HBO, Sunday night at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant; Charlie Hanson, producer; Jon Plowman, executive producer.
WITH: Ricky Gervais (Andy Millman), Stephen Merchant (Darren Lamb), Ashley Jensen (Maggie Jacobs), Shaun Williamson (Barry).
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