It must be said: Extras, the new half-hour comedy co-written by and starring Ricky Gervais that premieres this Sunday at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO, is not as brilliant as his previous venture, the BBC series The Office. But that's roughly analogous to saying that Pierre, Herman Melville's first novel post-Moby Dick, was not as great as the one that preceded it. First of all, the man had just written Moby freaking Dick—give him a break. And second, Pierreis a fascinating oddball of a novel in its own right. Just so, even if Extras never accedes to The Office's heights of comic sublimity, it's still a rare find on American TV: a series that combines the ascendant genre of cringe comedy with Gervais' rich comic gifts, and his trademark humanism.
Gervais' character, Andy Millman, is a pudgy, fortysomething Everyman who's given up an unnamed but well-paying day job to become a film actor. Alas, his career is going nowhere, thanks to his fantastically inept agent (played by Stephen Merchant, the co-writer and creator of the series). As an extra (or, to use his preferred term, "background artist"), Andy's life consists of hanging around movie sets in absurd costumes (a Nazi soldier, a Regency footman), trying to wedge himself into the corner of a shot or sweet-talk his way into a single spoken line. Andy's only friend, Maggie (Ashley Jensen) also works as a movie extra; she's a good-natured ditz on a perpetual and fruitless search for a husband.
Together, Andy and Maggie get themselves into one humiliating scrape after another as they kill time on the periphery of the industry. In the first episode, Andy, an avowed atheist, pretends to be a devout Catholic to impress a woman he meets on-set. The next thing he knows, he's at a prayer meeting, launching into a long, disclaimer-laden monologue in front of an increasingly bemused priest: "That makes me sick, people saying that priests are pedophiles and kiddie fiddlers … I mean, they probably are … but there's no higher percentage of perverts … uh, there are nancies everywhere … uh … oh, condoms? Do we need 'em? I don't think so. Let the free seed of love gush forth, I say."
Andy Millman is a departure from the character of David Brent, the lovably loathsome boss at the center of The Office, though the two share a propensity to bury themselves in social shame. Andy is perhaps more like the real-life Gervais himself—intelligent and self-aware, yet constitutionally unable to keep himself from cramming his foot into his mouth at every opportunity. Where David Brent was blissfully convinced that he was the funniest, hippest, most happening boss in town, Andy Millman shares in the burden of embarrassment that we, the viewers, bear as we witness his daily excruciations. Extras also features guest stars like Ben Stiller and Kate Winslet, who play themselves in brutally self-incriminating cameos. We knew Stiller was funny already, but Winslet is unexpectedly so as a filthy-mouthed careerist who freely cops to doing a film about the Holocaust purely as a means to an end: "Schindler's bloody List, The Pianist … they've got Oscars coming out their arse."
Extras is perfectly paired with its lead-in on Sunday nights, the cringe-comedy pioneer Curb Your Enthusiasm, which begins its fifth season this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET with a return to classic form after last season's ill-begotten closer, in which the show's star and creator Larry David starred in a revival of The Producers. In Sunday's premiere, Larry's back to what he does best: not singing and dancing, but bullying, whining, and kvetching. When a whitefish-and-cream-cheese sandwich is named after him at the neighborhood deli, Larry attempts to trade sandwiches with his fellow celebrity sandwich-namesake Ted Danson, explaining, "I'm not a fish guy. You like fish." He hectors his hospitalized father (Shelly Berman) to come out and admit that Larry is adopted (as it turns out, he isn't, but wishes he were). And in a single half-hour episode, Larry manages, through various missteps, to alienate both the black community of Hollywood and its lesbian mafia (hilariously envisioned as a single-minded voting bloc headed up by Rosie O'Donnell).
Whether as The Office's David Brent or Extras' Andy Millman, the rotund, pie-faced Ricky Gervais has a sweetness and pathos that somehow makes you root for him despite everything. Larry David, bonier and more abrasive, fulfills a different role in the theater of cringe—he not only wallows in shame but glories in it. He's the liberated id that allows the worst part of all of us free rein. HBO has captured this quality in the show's new tag line: "Deep inside, you know you're him." It struck me, watching the season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm, that one of the most restrained, socially correct people I know—a shy middle-aged woman who would never leave the house without full makeup and a primly conventional outfit—thinks Larry David is the funniest person alive and reserves a special high-pitched giggle for his show alone. It must be because he says everything she would like to say but can't.