TV UK, 22 July

So, Extras: is it as good as The Office?

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

No TV column this week could ignore the passing of a true giant in the development of television. RIP Gerry Thomas, inventor of the ‘TV Dinner’.

Way back in 1953, marketing executive Thomas was given the task by his employers of trying to find a use for the tons of leftover turkey after Thanksgiving. He spotted a tinfoil container being tried out as an early in-flight meal and devised a complete, three-compartment frozen dinner that went on sale for the princely sum of 98 cents. Presented in a box that actually looked like a TV, 10million were sold in the first 10 months. The original foil box is now in the Smithsonian Museum.

TV dinners, much like TV itself, have been blamed for the breakdown of family life and the rise of obesity. ‘He has a lot to answer for’, child psychologist and parenting expert Dr Pat Spungin told the BBC, reacting to Thomas’s death. ‘It’s a terrible invention as far as family life is concerned.’

Dr Spungin clearly thinks that watching the telly is a passive experience where people gaze, silently fascinated, at mesmerising entertainment experiences. In fact, most television programmes are rubbish and are talked at, moaned about and generally reacted to by the watching audience. It’s not the theatre, so there’s no Kevin Spacey to complain about you making noise. Has Spungin never seen The Royle Family?

I felt I was engaged in a kind of junk-food memorial to Thomas last night as I tipped my foil containers of chips, curry sauce and special fried rice on to a plate and planted myself in front of the goggle box. And in the spirit of the 1950s television that Thomas helped to promote, this week’s TV UK is brought to you in association with the Fortunate Chinese takeaway, Brayards Road, Peckham – Singapore noodles a speciality.

The must-watch TV last night was the first episode of Ricky Gervais’ new series, Extras. Gervais plays Andy Millman, an extra who desperately wants to be an actor. In last night’s episode, he’s working on a film set in former Yugoslavia directed by Ben Stiller (playing himself). This is a cue for typical Gervais humour: thoughtless and ignorant people, trying to look like they’re well-informed, but actually saying things that are at best tactless and at worst in bad taste.

It’s pretty funny for the most part. Millman telling the Kurosawa-loving producer of the film that he loves all the ‘number movies: Seven Samurai, Ocean’s Eleven, The Dirty Dozen‘ is as good a piece of cack-handed ingratiating as you’ll hear. On the other hand, Gervais treads a thin line at times between black humour and cheap shots.

The question everyone is asking is: ‘Is it as good as The Office?’ Probably not, but then even The Office is not as good as The Office – no show could be as good as the hype that has surrounded that show. But on first viewing, Extras could be very good – as is the American version of The Office, currently running on BBC3.

Another theme in Extras was illustrated by Stiller’s self-parodying turn in which he tries hard to make a worthy film about the plight of refugees in a war-torn country. How could he help the poor little orphan he sees on the news, he wonders? He could cheer him up by showing him the DVD of Dodgeball, or he could make a movie that draws attention to his plight. It is clear that the orphan is just a vehicle by which Stiller the star can present himself as deep and caring. Gervais is right to nail such behaviour as masturbatory.

But where does that leave Gervais himself? He’s already done turns in support of Comic Relief and Live 8 – both knowingly self-important performances in which he spent most of the time plugging his own DVDs. He clearly realises that stars helping starving Africans are, by and large, just being wankers. Even if his appearances for ‘charidee’ are heavily ironic, isn’t there a chance he’ll undermine his own satire by taking part?

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