Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale is technically a Christmas special, but other than the box art depicting Ricky Gervais covered in lights with the tagline “Bloody merry,” you’d hardly know it. As with Gervais’ other short-but-sweet British hit, The Office, the Extras Christmas special is an addendum to a series that didn’t necessarily need it. It’s an excuse to hang out with the characters for just a bit longer, and even though the show only ran for two seasons, the characters feel fully realized and richly thought-out, having grown beyond broad sitcom tropes a long time ago. Even the most tenuous celebration of Christmas hits home when we care about who’s doing the celebrating.
How tenuous? Well, this isn’t the kind of Christmas special where Frosty The Snowman or Rudolph shows up. It’s not even an ironic Harold & Kumar thing where a twisted version of Santa makes an appearance. This is simply an extended episode of Extras with a few Christmas decorations hanging in the background. When we last left off after two seasons (six episodes each), Andy Millman had worked his way up from background extra to the star of a successful but catchphrase-happy sitcom called When The Whistle Blows—each episode is like a sketch from a fictional British version of Nickelodeon’s All That—while his friend Maggie Jacobs carries on the extras torch on his show and others. Andy is somewhat of a star, but it’s not as a respected artist, so therefore, he’s miserable. Maggie, meanwhile, is trying to temper her happiness for her friend Andy with the sad realization that her career is going nowhere, and slowly.
There’s a lot more show business drama in The Extra Special Series Finale than there is talk about the true reason for the season. But that’s because the special doesn’t have to have characters drink eggnog while singing “Deck The Halls” to a fake manger set up on the roof as they light their menorahs. There’s no Christmas in the title and very little Christmas in the actual scenes. But there’s plenty of Christmas spirit in The Extra Special Series Finale, specifically the idea that whatever it is you’re looking for can be found in what you already have.
When Andy was an extra, he had the dual dream of being rich while having artistic integrity. Maggie had a similar dream, only she seemed more content to put her dream on hold if it meant a little more time in the trenches with Andy, throwing out “Would you rather” situations for the two of them to laugh about. Now Andy has a modicum of financial success, yet he’s still not happy. His career, which he spent years building, has been reduced to one telling scene near the beginning of the special, where he finally comes face-to-face with the talking doll version of his When The Whistle Blows character.
Yeah, that scene really Christmases it up: There’s a shot of a tree and plenty of banter with the store clerk about how poorly the Ray doll is selling for the holidays. Even the racist Kramer doll is selling more than something that can only repeat, “Are you ’avin’ a laugh?” “Who would have thought people would eventually find that irritating?” the clerk asks, furthering the Extras’ M.O. of jabbing the fickle entertainment world from within.
The subtext to all this, obviously, is that When The Whistle Blows and the character of Ray bring millions of people joy. The dolls might not be selling well, but Andy needs only to sign a few, and they’ll fly off the shelves. Six million viewers tune in to the show each week (or as Andy will tell you, seven million), which is not a tiny amount. And the studio audience is filled with people wearing T-shirts with show quotes on them, some with Ray’s signature catchphrase and some with those of the other characters like, “I don’t get it” or “Velly velly solly.” These fans lose their shit at the arrival of Ray’s sister, played by Andy in drag.
The special morphs Andy Millman into his own Scrooge. Millions of people watch his show, so he cancels it. He takes away something other people love simply for his own narcissistic pursuit of more—in the most general sense. He’s already modestly successful financially, yet he’s always thinking about increasing his finances. Rather than stand by his loyal agent Darren Lamb, played with wonderful naïveté by Stephen Merchant, he goes for the quick fix in the form of hotshot agent Tre Cooper, who could give a shit what Andy is doing as long as it’s something. He has a career that’s the envy of so many struggling actors around him, even his best friend Maggie. He’s so wrapped up in his obsession that he can barely afford a second to appreciate what he has, much less how he got there. When a struggling extra approaches him on the set of When The Whistle Blows asking for help, something Andy had done countless times before—it’s actually the way he got his TV show made in the first place—Andy Scrooges the hell out of the poor guy.
It’s surprising how much of the Christmas special is done in earnest, without concern for laughs, even the ones induced by awkwardness that Gervais mines so well. It’s definitely not a bad thing; the special just feels more artfully constructed toward a narrative arc than the loosey-goosey nature of most Extras episodes—rife with improvisation and casual riffs on self-important movie stars. So much of the show was based on Andy’s struggles, and because he has a few things going for himself now, there’s going to be less of that. Still, he has a lot of insecurities about his success, and when those insecurities manifest themselves, the special feels like it’s having some good ol’ fashioned Extras-style fun.
Before an important interview, Andy recruits Maggie as a pretend personal assistant to make him seem important. He simply wants Maggie to answer the door and at one point during the interview interrupt by saying Ridley Scott is on the phone. But Maggie has this thrust upon her without even a moment’s notice, so she’s not great at it, and the interview quickly turns into an inquisition of Andy’s desperation as he tries to dig himself out. (It doesn’t help that she claims to be a close personal friend of Ridley Scott, and when asking to speak to him on the phone, Andy clumsily says that he hung up.) Another time, to seem like more of a leading man, Andy wears a girdle to an audition overseen by his rival Greg Lindley-Jones, and this happens:
In a typical Christmas tale of redemption, Andy would wander off into the night and witness how his actions have affected other people, eventually realizing the error of his ways. But in this case, Andy has no idea how bad it’s gotten for his friends. Andy runs into Darren on the street outside of the cell-phone store he works at now, and it barely registers that he’s there because he lost his main client. And while Andy’s appearing on Doctor Who and Hotel Babylon, we’re watching Maggie scrub urinals and wash dishes, coming home every night to her dank, tiny apartment. In fact, she’s given up on being an extra altogether. Without her partner in crime, it’s just not as fun. In a heartbreaking scene, Clive Owen demands to either replace Maggie as the extra his character sleeps with, or he should be able to throw mud and shit all over her face in-character; when Maggie objects, she’s very briskly put into her place. She eventually confronts Andy about what a jackass he’s been, and even though seconds earlier, Andy was yelling at Gordon Ramsay, he’s deflated and seems to hear her. Yet when she storms off to her car, Andy lingers at the bar for a second before deciding not to pursue her, instead storming into the Ivy dining room and confronting his agent. He chooses career over friendship when his friend needs him the most. It’s not even the career he wants; it’s one that requires him to sell out.
I often wonder how self-aware celebrities are (and I don’t mean the people who mock themselves on Extras like the brilliant Patrick Stewart in season one). I’d like to think that part of them remains grounded, but it must be difficult, even for the least bizarre ones. They’re suddenly surrounded by people who give every brain cell of focus over to them and talk about them constantly. They’re given opportunities to hobnob with society’s elite; some of those people might even become their friends. There are magazines and news outlets devoted to telling them how much better they are than everyone else. It probably takes just as much effort professionally as it does to try and have some semblance of a normal life, especially because there are systems set up to keep them from doing so. Part of that normalcy has to include working on art you care about—after all, if you’re looking to get into the arts simply to make money, then you’ve probably chosen the profession least likely to pay out. As Andy’s agent says to him, “Do you want to be rich and famous or have artistic integrity?” Andy says both, and his agent tells him that there are very few people in the world who can have it both ways, and that Andy’s not one of those people. There are models for success in place, and if there’s one thing the entertainment industry hates, it’s finding new models for success. The system rewards complacency and repetition.
So when Andy says he wants money and fame, his agent sends him to Celebrity Big Brother, a place he initially said he would never go.
The last 15 minutes of the special, give or take, occur in the Big Brother house. Andy watches as these desperate wannabes dance for the camera; one guy dances every second he’s awake, despite crippling back pain. For many of them, this is their last chance for stardom; for Andy, it’s his only chance. And seeing the type of people who surround him now—losers, and he’s one of them—makes him realize just how silly the drive for fame really is. The interesting thing is that the epiphany still comes from within, not from seeing how bad Maggie or Darren has it. It still comes from a selfish place.
But vanity is as good a starting place for change as anything. The floodgates open. Andy apologizes profusely to Maggie, railing against the entertainment industry while he does it. And it turns out, in fact, that he can have it both ways; his integrity-filled words catch the ear of the entire country, so when he exits the house there’s a press conference waiting to begin his career anew.
Andy doesn’t care, though. He leaves the green room before the conference can begin, so he can leave with his good friend Maggie. He’s spent his entire life trying to get the world to appreciate his gift, and he finally realizes that it’ll never happen. No matter how appreciated he might feel, it’ll never be enough. Extras spent its time skewering self-importance, and this message comes from that same place. Andy’s life has meaning because there are good people in it, searching for meaning right alongside him. It’s a very Christmas-y moral, but then again, this is technically a Christmas special—one with plenty of Extras flair.
Tomorrow: The most depressing holiday special ever.