Well, it's come to this, the Extras finale, and possibly a send-off (for the moment at least) to the fine TV work of writing, directing and acting duo Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant. And yet I am a bit relieved, because Extras towards the end has begun to fall away and I suspect Gervais and Merchant need some time to work on other projects before returning. The Extras Special was an excellent piece of television, but far from perfect and similarly far from the best these two, or even this series, has produced.
The end of Extras series 2 disappointed me, because nothing had gone anywhere. There were some laughs, but all the characters remained undeveloped and there were no storyline pay-offs. So I was looking to the Extras Christmas special to tie everything together and bring the series to a head. And it did, with the interesting development of how Andy deals with stepping into the spotlight of fame, and more importantly with the cold chill of stepping back out of it. If Series 1 was about Andy being a no body, and Series 2 was about him attempting to become a somebody, then the Special is very much about him finding that somebody, and realising that somebody is, in fact, a bastard.
Thus, the series marked a significant character development for Gervais - clearly hoping to impress Hollywood - and he is clearly bursting every blood vessel to deliver a consumate performance. The actual result is something slightly less than that; he does deliver a fine performance at the end in a tear-jerking scene, but there are several times when he tries a little to hard and the subtlety is lost.
Ashley Jansen is the true star of the dramatic scenes, and its impossible not to get sucked in to performance as a depressed and frustrated Maggie. Personally I think there needs to be some sort of award in it for her for this one.
Merchant, however, is absolute dynamite, and accompanied with Barry from EastEnders, he yields the most enjoyable parts of the Special. He is flawlessly funny, but like Jansen is able to hang on to the desperate pitifull aspects of the character which is what invests some much of our emotional funds. This, however, only results in mild disappointment when both the Agent and Barry's storylines are left to fend for themselves, and not given the real closure that they deserve.
The biggest problem with the special is not hard to pin-point; ultimately Gervais and Merchant seemed to have written a comedy script and then said "Hold on, we need to put some dramatic bits in as well so all the fans will say 'w0w s0 emoshinal i cryed!'". The Special artlessly switches between quirkly comedy and tragic drama, making the drama seem schmatlzy and the comedy seem nervously stilted. This is coupled with an interminable score (featuring the basic Christmas production music over every scene and an overly used Kate Bush song that literally make me jump from fright the first time it came on), and some by-the-numbers directing that seemed to be yearning for the big screen with every unneccesary tracking shot. Gervais and Merchant seem to have lost focus, and the quality and writing and directing is only imperfect in its structure. Each line is funny or dramatic or whatever, but nothing fits together and nothing flows. Not easy viewing.
It is also worth mentioning the references that were intended directly for an American audience, such as Katie Couric and Sigourney Weaver's Direct TV ads. There is a slight air of shameless pandering to it all that seems to conflict with the message of how shamelessly pandering TV has become.
A slightly dissatisfying ending to a series that would generate our highest expectations doesn't seem unusual, and it would have been hard to live up to the hype. Ultimately though, the Christmas Special does give us a few comedy treats as well as a serious and sobering message about celebrity in the modern era. My hope that Gervais and Merchant wait a while before they return to unleash the full force of there genius and manage to create a series that overcomes the flaws of Extras.