ANDY THE ATHEIST: And clearer-thinking than David Brent — except when his foot slides down his throat.
Thanks, Ricky Gervais, for getting the dread “A” word into the open: ATHEIST! Was I the only one who noticed, who toasts Gervais’s free-thinking bravery? It was wee minutes into the first episode of Extras, his sublime BBC-to-HBO series now deep into its second season, that Gervais’s on-screen persona, would-be actor, Andy Millman, found himself in a theological discussion. He and his pal Maggie (Ashley Jensen) were passing time on the edges of a movie set, extras between takes, when Andy noted, casually, rationally, “I’m an atheist. I believe in science.”
Wow! Snuck here from doubting England and spoken aloud on American airwaves: “I’m an atheist.” Maggie, a believer, challenges him: “But what happens to you after death?” “You’re worm food,” is Andy’s gloriously apt reply. Mr. Film Culture, a non-believer since age 13, has been waiting forever for someone in the media gutsy enough to “come out.” Well, Andy Millman is mouthing on the telly what his creator espouses in real life. “Being an atheist makes someone a clearer-thinking, fairer person,” says Gervais in an interview.
Extras, the follow-up to the brilliant series Brit The Office, is, like that one, written and directed by the amazing team of Gervais and Stephen Merchant. A hilarious Merchant joins the top-drawer cast as Andy’s owl-eyed philistine agent, tall and lanky and very lazy, except for looking out for his 12-1/2 per cent. As for Andy, there are moments when he can be as stupid as The Office’s perennially doltish David Brent, when his foot slides down his throat with some offhand remark about gays or dwarfs or “the mental” that insults everyone around him and sabotages his hopes for a thespian career. He’s a lot smarter, and infinitely more self-aware, than deluded David, and with intelligence and self-awareness comes depression, despair, a wallowing in failure.
For much of the first season of Extras, Andy had a simple though obsessive desire. Richard the Third needs a horse; Chekhov’s three sisters pine for Moscow. Andy craves “a line,” a dribble of dialogue in the terrible movies in which he appears as “background” — that’s the insider term for extras seen (barely) in long shot. Pal Maggie seems okay as a supernumerary. She’s most interested in meeting a hot but caring guy on the set. Andy, woman-less, is all-career. His body burns for a film role. But there’s no chance for the little dude, since filmmaking panders to the stars.
Gervais took his cue from two American programs he adores, The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm, in bringing onto Extras slumming names eager to play soulless, grubby versions of themselves. The first season started strong with Kate Winslet as Kate Winslet running about as a nun in a cheesy Holocaust movie because such pious grandstanding could get her an Oscar. The second show was just as funny, with Ben Stiller directing a docudrama about ethnic cleansing, bullying a child actor, bragging to all about the world box office for Dodgeball, and firing Andy from the set.