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Why Ricky Gervais is a Genius, and Britannia Will Always Rule the (Air)Waves

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First of all, an important disclaimer. This entry is not an addendum to my Top Ten TV Crushes post (to which a very important addendum has already been added). I have never had a crush on Ricky Gervais or on any character he plays onscreen. I’m sort of in love with Ricky Gervais’s mind and his writing ability, and as for his two alter egos, David Brent of The Office and Andy Millman of Extras, they are the guys you love to hate — yet end up inexplicably cheering for by the end of the series. How does he do this? How can Gervais write, direct and act characters that are so funny, so scathing, so horrible and yet so sympathetic? The man is a freaking genius.

(NOTE: This post contains spoilers for both Extras and The Office).

We just finished watching the two seasons of Extras, plus the series finale special. The Office, Gervais’s first BBC sitcom, is probably the better known, especially since it spawned an American spin-off which people tell me is pretty good (although I can’t bring myself to watch it because I love the original SO MUCH). However, I think Extras is every bit as good. It has all the strengths of The Office, plus the hilarity of huge Hollywood stars from Sir Ian McKellan to Daniel Radcliffe playing cameo roles each episode as the worst possible versions of themselves — nightmarish celebrity freaks so completely self-absorbed they make David Brent look like a world-class humanitarian. (I think my favourite is Orlando Bloom desperately trying to convince Andy’s friend Maggie that she does find him irresistible — or perhaps it’s Patrick Stewart explaining with great seriousness the screenplay he’s written in which he has superhuman powers, which he uses to make women’s clothes fall off).

The lead character, Andy Millman, is sort of combination of the obnoxious David Brent, the character Gervais created in The Office, mixed with the lost-but-lovable Tim character played so brilliantly by Martin Freeman in The Office. In Extras, Andy is a movie extra. Unlike his best friend Maggie who is happy just being an extra for the cash and the chance to brush up against celebrities, Andy wants to be a star: he dreams of acting in real roles, of writing and directing. In the second series he gets his big break: a sitcom script he has written actually makes it to air and he finds himself selling out on his dream, allowing the show he created to become something he never imagined, just so that he can keep chasing the elusive carrot of show-business fame.

Andy is Everyman, the underdog we root for, yet he can also be unbelievably tactless, self-absorbed and obnoxious, especially when things are going his way and he has a little bit of power he can wield over people. And he can be cruel to the few people who actually care about him, especially the long-suffering Maggie. Their relationship is one of the best things in the series: there’s no hint of romantic attraction but there are real strong feelings between them, which makes it one of the rare good portrayals of platonic friendship that I’ve ever seen on TV.

The structure of the series is almost exactly the same as The Office: a first season in which the characters bumble through unfulfilling career lives, a second season in which things go from bad to worse, and a 90-minute finale special in which the characters reach new lows, only to end on a high note. How anyone can write material as scathingly cynical about human nature as The Office and Extras, and then strike moments of real, genuine hope and sweetness, is beyond me. But that’s the brilliance of Ricky Gervais; he captures the heights and depths that people are capable of. Each of us can be both the cynical jerk and the truly sweet person who genuinely cares about a friend, the artist who wants to create with integrity and the fame-hound who’ll do anything for a headline. And nobody does a better job that Gervais of capturing the battle over which will win out — while making me laugh so hard I almost fall off the couch. You laugh at the characters, you cringe for them, but you cheer for them too. Like Tim and Dawn’s kiss at the end of The Office, Andy’s televised speech to Maggie at the end of Extras is a triumph of the human spirit when we’ve already seen how utterly ridiculous the human spirit can be.

And here’s the best part about both these series: they have endings. Specific, clearly defined endings that the creators (not only Gervais but Stephen Merchant, who deserves kudos not just for his behind-the-scene talents but for his portrayal of the World’s Worst Agent in Extras) planned and worked towards. Each series is a self-contained and complete work of art. They end when they should end, and neither ratings nor critical acclaim seem to have seduced these guys into stretching their brilliance beyond its natural ending.

This almost never happens in American TV and it almost always happens in British TV, which is why British TV will always be better and why I don’t think I’ll ever get into the U.S. The Office. Yes, there have been great American TV shows that I’ve loved, but every one has in the end dragged itself painfully across the finish line, bleeding ratings and begging to be put out of its misery (naming no names, but I’m sure you can think of examples too) while those last seasons, tacked on in a shameless bid for fortune and fame, erased the memory of a once-great series. The beauty of the British Office is that we never have to know how Tim and Dawn get on as a couple or where David Brent can possibly go next in his career. The series ends perfectly — Tim and Dawn hook up, Brent gets one moment of redemption and manages to smack down the loathsome Finchy, and we’re done. No messy afterthoughts, no backpedaling to string out the sexual tension for another three years — we’re just done. When Andy and Maggie drive off, almost literally into the sunset, at the end of Extras, we don’t need to know where they’re going. The story has ended and we can be satisfied that we saw something through, saw it well done from beginning to end.

So many of the great British series are short but brilliant gems. Only — what was it? — fourteen episodes of Fawlty Towers, yet it defined comedy for a generation. Just last night I dropped a chicken breast on the floor, picked it up and rinsed it, and Jason came up behind me and said, “Don’t worry Mr. Fawlty — what the eye don’t see, the chef gets away with.” (It helps that he can nail accents dead-on). Would ten seasons of Watery Fowls have made it any better? Would The Office have been better if we’d had to follow the characters through another seven years of career setbacks, relationship ups and downs, and wacky hijinks (as will inevitably happen with the American series, doomed by its own popularity and the inability of anyone in American television to ever say “Enough is enough!”)???

OK, I’m down off the soapbox. If you like cutting-edge comedy that makes you laugh hysterically and think just a little (and you aren’t too offended by strong language and “adult themes”), and you haven’t yet checked out Ricky Gervais’s work, it’s time to run-don’t-walk to rent or buy The Office and Extras.

And while you’re looking for more great TV, you might just want to read a good book. Here are new reviews of a few good ones I’ve read lately.

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5 thoughts on “Why Ricky Gervais is a Genius, and Britannia Will Always Rule the (Air)Waves

  1. I like a few of the BBC shows too (although I can’t get into the murder mystery ones that seem to be everywhere…) – but my favourite has to be “Cold Feet”. I don’t know if you guys got it in Canada, but it aired in Australia quite a few years ago – and just like you said, it ended when it should have. It was a fantastic relationship-based expose of ordinary people – and as much as I enjoyed “Friends”, the cast of “Cold Feet” were much more real, much more like me. The end was sad, it was poignant and it left a lot unfinished in some ways. But it was THE END and it should have been. I’d be interested to know if you’ve ever watched it…my favourite character was Rachel – and there were bucket-loads of tears from me at the end – but I won’t give away why, just in case you happen to stumble across it. Go BBC!!!

  2. I LOVE Ricky Gervais. He’s one of my heroes. I love his stand-up, I love his characters… as you said, he’s a genius.

    I admit I watch the American Office. I think if you go into it with no expectation of it being like the original, then it’s easier to get into. The first season of the American Office was painful, though. The problem was (I believe) they were trying to adapt the British scripts for the American show, but none of the actors had the same comedic timing as their British counterparts. The second season was much better, though nothing like the original.

    One American show I loved and that had a short run was Arrested Development. That might be one you may want to check out.

  3. FLG, I have had Arrested Development recommended to me before. There definitely are some American shows I like (right now I’m a big fan of “House,” and “Monk” although I think they both show signs of age and should be ended soon) so maybe I’ll check out AD eventually. Karen, I’ve never heard of “Cold Feet” but I should see if I can find it. I liked “Friends” too back in the early days but it was the prime example of a show that dragged on long after it should have ended.

    We don’t even have basic cable and I generally think of the TV as the thing that’s attached to the DVD player — generally we catch TV shows well after they’ve aired by renting them from zip.ca or buying the DVDs if we like them enough … which gives us the chance to enjoy lots of shows long after the rest of the world has seen them.

  4. I just had a look and “Cold Feet” is available at amazon.com – although it looks like only series 1-3 were released in region 1 format for US/Canadian DVD players. It really is a great series, although I’m not sure I watched it from the very beginning. It makes me want to go and buy the DVD set for myself! Maybe I could do with a Mother’s Day treat…after all, carrying twins to 37+ weeks surely has some perks!!

  5. Ah yes, I’m a bit of a House fan myself. I suppose more of a Hugh Laurie fan, actually, but I like the show. And I enjoyed Monk in the beginning, but like you said, it’s definitely showing signs of age.

    One show I absolutely love, and am a die-hard fan of, is Lost. My favourite show by far.

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