Sunday, October 30, 2005

HBO Sunday

For me this season's best Curb Your Enthusiasm was matched by the season's best Extras--and probably the best TV show of any kind I've seen in months. Larry David set up a great storyline--his friend Richard Lewis needs a kidney transplant. Will Larry take the test to see if he can be Richard's donor? Will manager Jeff Garlin take it? A flalwlessly funny episode, though I miss Shelly Berman.

Whenever I mention the Charles Paris series by Simon Brett, my noir friends rush to the exits. To me, for all the wan humor, these are among the most serious mystery novels I've ever read--serious without being pretentious. They are accurate depictions of a minor actor and major alcoholic who is always trawling for roles in any type of show biz that will have him from small parts in theater and films to radio commercials and informercials.

Tonight's episode of Extras, written by star Ricky Gervais, was like reading a Charles Paris mystery that a young John Osborne (think of his extraordinary play/film The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier in the title role) lent a hand in writing. Neither Gervais nor the wonderful Ashley Jensen as his female friend (she's always quick to say they're not lovers to anybody who implies otherwise) join a miserable acting troupe performing what has to be the worst children's play ever staged. Gervais plays a genie--a mighty pudgy one--but at least his dream of actually saying a line (he's been an extra in many parts but has yet to say a single word) comes true.

Very little broad humor tonight, which is what reminds me of Charles Paris--sad, untalented people for the most part except for the bisexual director/actor who bullies his daughter into an obscure showbiz life identical to his own. But as much as he's detestable even he warrants a kind of begrudging pity.

The centerpiece is the relationship between Gervais and a forgotten comic actor who is trying to re-establish a career for himself and using a beauitful young girl--who betrays him constantly, once with Gervais secretly watching--to prove he's back in fine form.

I'll probably irritate some people by saying that this is exactly the kind of serio-comic material that 99% of American film and theater people--especially writers--just can't seem to produce with any skill. We make it ham-handed over here. But the final long scene with Gervais in a pub (with an extremely short-skirted and sexy young woman seated at the bar watching him) is a true marvel of extremely subtle, shifting emotions carried only by Gervais' expressions. He's got a doughy folorn mug that betrays his every feeling and thought. What he's reacting to is the has-been's various statements that include a) swearing off "birds" b) committing suicide c) thinking he'll try to re-establish himself by bringing back his old material, which he loudly tries out on Gervais and gets everybody in the pub glaring at him d) wondering why all "faggots" (meaning those in the theater troupe) can't be as talented as Oscar Wilde e) briefly talking about suicide again (which he admits he isn't much good at because the only time he gave it a serious try a woman found him and he became so bedazzled by her "tits" that they drove all thoughts of death right out of his mind f) Yes (getting drunker now) maybe some of that old material he bellered tonight will redeem him all over again. The same material he starts bellering again, in fact.

The odd thing is how Gervais is directed in this scene. His expressions should be the comic part of serio-comic (Gleason reacting to Carney) but they're the serio part, a decent lost failed man (not his usual clownish self at all now) reacting to the inadvertent humor and nearly unbearable self-delusion of a man whose showbiz career ended tonight when he broke form and belittled from stage the few children who'd shown up to see the play.

An amazing episode with Gervais' real-life collaborator Stephen Merchant once again playing the world's single most incompetent theatrical agent. I don't know how the Emmys work. This is produced in the Uk. But it sure should win a best script nod in its category.


Blogger Richard Moore said...

We must be on the same wavelength. The Charlie Paris novels by Simon Bretthave long been one of my favorite series. No matter that the plots at times strain believability, I love the humor, the insider background on the world of British actors, and most of all love the character of Charlie Paris, always on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Like you, I thought of Paris while watching "Extras" and never more so than the episode last night with the scenes in the bar--always a regular haunt for Paris. As luck would have it, I am in the midst of reading A COMEDIAN DIES, a 1979 Paris novel, that has a wonderful dissection of an English chat show and its snotty host.

Richard Moore

10:52 AM  

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