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Penguin or Flying Fish: The "Extras" Series Finale

I don't know about you, but I was unable to fall asleep last night as the series finale of Extras, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's brilliant rumination on the fickle hand of fame, fortune, and success kept me thinking all night long. Living in Los Angeles and working in the industry, it's hard to escape the constant whiff of desperation that permeates this town.

It's only fitting that the dark Extras, Gervais and Merchant's follow-up to the groundbreaking comedy The Office, would end on such a depressing note. It is, after all, the only way that the story of actor/writer Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais), dim-witted hanger-on Maggie (Ashley Jensen), and pathetic agent Darren Lamb (Stephen Merchant) can end: with more than a few cringe-inducing laughs, some raw emotion, and the potential for redemption.

Over the course of twelve episodes and last night's feature-sized Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale, Gervais and Co. have given us an insightful look at the quixotic nature of success, diametrically opposed as it is with integrity, and a scathing look at how quickly those who find fame and fortune forget their roots and abandon the friends who stood by them in their salad years. Life is, as slick agent Tre Cooper (Adam James) reminds us, cruel.

Andy Millman is no different; when we last saw him he had created a stereotypically cheesy sitcom entitled When the Whistle Blows, in which he's forced to wear glasses and a stupid wig and shout a hackneyed catchphrase for six million people each week. As a piece of art, When the Whistle Blows couldn't be more different from Gervais and Merchant's The Office and yet there are intentional similarities as Andy claims to have based Whistle's Ray Stokes on a former employer (as Gervais had done with The Office's David Brent) and wishes to wrap up his hugely successful series after a brief time.

For Gervais, the decision to end The Office came with his willingness to let the series go out on a high note; such a decision has given the series an immortal place in the pantheon of great comedy. For Andy, however, it's an opportunity to move on to bigger and better things, to stop shouting catchphrases at "morons." He wants fame on his own terms; he wants to conflate fame, with all of its trappings (table at The Ivy, paparazzi stalkings, interviews and acting offers) with artistic success. Instead, he sells his soul to the fame-making machinery of pseudo-celebrity.

Looking to cut dead weight from his management team, Andy quickly fires Darren, a decision which pushes him and sycophant Barry (former EastEnders actor Shaun Williamson) to return to work at Carphone Warehouse, where in a nifty cameo, he is now working alongside... former EastEnders castmate Dean Gaffney (who played shrill Robbie Jackson before he was fired from the soap in 2003).

My heart broke for poor Maggie, who finally finds her courage and pride when she walks off a set after being cruelly insulted by Clive Owen (in a painful, if hysterical, scene). With no employable skills, talents, or experience, Maggie leaves behind her so-called "glamorous" life as an extra to become a cleaner, scrabbling about in the dirt for a few quid an hour, a lifestyle not wholly unfamiliar to her. In a series of sad vignettes, we see how far she's fallen: the happy-go-lucky girl has been replaced with a charwoman who in one incredible sequence goes from washing dishes in The Ivy to sitting down next to Andy seconds later in the same restaurant. It's no surprise that self-absorbed Andy has no idea what she's been up to or where her sad little bedsit even is.

Yet even after he's lost Maggie, Andy still hasn't learned the price of selling out, instead agreeing to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, where to his chagrin he discovers that he doesn't even recognize his fellow contestants, a sad display of celebrity whores, reality TV stars, and bargain-basement has-beens (oh and Lionel Blair). It's a scathing indictment of celebrity culture and allows Andy (and by dint Gervais himself) to offer an assessment of our cultural obsession with fame and how all of us--even Andy--should be ashamed of ourselves for even watching. And he tearfully makes amends with disgraced Maggie, finally answering her question about whether he'd rather be a penguin or a flying fish. It's a speech that finally garners Andy the respect he's so desperately sought and made him finally a true media darling. And that's when the man so famously mocked in song by David Bowie finally does something right and achieves redemption in this Christmas special: he walks out.

Needless to say, that final scene between Andy and best friend Maggie is one that will forever remain with me as the two drive off to the sea, laughing the way they used to, to find a place where no one knows who Andy Millman is. In the end, we do believe that Andy really is that penguin about to eat the flying fish. The world is, once again, his oyster... or can be once again. And so Andy and Maggie drive off into the future, whatever it might bring them, together.

If Extras has always been about two friends' canny desires to make it big, then it's only fitting that the series ends on a triumphant--if slightly downcast--note about the redemptive powers of friendship, integrity, and honesty. Extras is virtuoso storytelling at its very best, mining comedy from the mundane, to hold up a giant mirror to ourselves and our society. I'll miss Andy, Maggie, Darren and all the rest, but I can't imagine a better way to end this intelligent, witty, and scathing series.

Comments

Gervais is brilliant not only as an actor/writer/director but also as an artist, knowing just how far to take his creations before cutting them loose. It may be heartbreaking when his stories come to an end but, by doing a finite number of episodes, Gervais ensures the integrity of his work which is something that most people in this business (like Andy Millman) never have the strength or opportunity to do.
Bianca Reagan said…
I loved this episode. It was touching. I heart Maggie. :)
wendy said…
Through all this, I've become a massive fan of Stephen Merchant, who is just a revelation to me. Anyone who hasn't watched the "extras" on the dvds of this series, especially the sitdown interviews with him and Gervais, is missing something special. I think I laughed as hard or harder at those as I did at the series itself.
Bill said…
Great stuff. As much as I'll miss the show, I love his committment to limited runs. Telling a story with a beginning and and end is so much better than fading into mediocrity and/or having the plug pulled by the guys writing the checks.

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