Tuesday, February 06, 2007


The rise of Rome, the yawns of Extras

By Edward Copeland
As faithful HBO viewers count the days until the final batch of nine Sopranos episodes finally appear, we can bide our time with two HBO series in their second and final seasons: the drama Rome and the comedy Extras. During their first seasons, which I believe actually aired in the B.C. period given HBO's penchant for lengthy hiatuses, I liked Rome, but wasn't overwhelmed and found Extras to seem like it had been made from equal parts Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show with each episode only as strong as the guest appearance that came with it (Kate Winslet should have won that Emmy, dammit). Now that the second seasons have arrived, my assessment of Extras remains largely the same, but Rome keeps getting better, to the point that I may mourn its end.

Not as much as I lament the premature execution of Deadwood, but Rome has grown into something that's earned my fondness.

When Rome ended its first season, I wondered where it had to go since it ended with Julius Caesar's assassination, but boy was I wrong. If anything, the series has grown more fascinating for both its historical and fictional characters in the wake of Caesar's demise.

The biggest change came in the character of faithful soldier Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), whose life was transformed when he learned the child he thought was his grandson was his wife's by another man, causing his wife to kill herself and for him to leave Caesar unprotected at the moment he needed him most.

The events turned Vorenus into a gloomy gus, convinced he was a son of Hades and led by Marc Antony (James Purefoy) into the role of gang leader in an attempt to bring peace to the feuding factions among merchants. It was a fascinating twist, albeit a short-lived one as Antony ended up being run out of town to face the alliance of a now-grown Octavian Caesar (Simon Jones) and Cicero (David Bamber) take back the Republic.

I hope the rescue of Vorenus' thought-dead children at the end of this week's show doesn't portend that he will lose his edge as the final weeks of the series unfold. Vorenus' soldier buddy Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) continues to be one of the most entertaining character, even if he's often too quick to kill, he's loyal and a good hand to have around when needed. He even gets his freed slave to agree to be his bride after killing her boyfriend.

The ever-clawing cats of Rome continue to prove absorbing with Polly Walker's hilarious Atia versus Lindsay Duncan's Servilia. You have to think that if Dick Cheney watches Rome, he loved as Atia tortured the boy sent by Servilia to poison her, insisting that his confession "won't be considered valid unless he's tortured first." Sure, the show can be over the top and some of its historical accuracy is dubious, but it has become a show well worth wearing the HBO moniker.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Extras which, despite at least a few good chuckles an episode, hasn't been worth the effort given the pedigree of original British Office co-creator and star Ricky Gervais and after this week's episode, I can't help but suspect that he either realizes it or has devised the entire show with co-creator Stephen Merchant (hilarious as Gervais' character's clueless agent) as a sharp stick in the eye to Britcoms in general and perhaps his own success.

When he objects to the producers of his character's awful sitcom's decision to have a ludicrous Chris Martin of Coldplay cameo inserted into the sitcom set in a factory, it has to be viewed as a commentary on the celebrity cameos that have been the hallmark of Extras throughout its entire run.

Unfortunately, those cameos are about the only thing that stand out about Extras. I mean how can you not laugh at a scene where Daniel Radcliffe accidentally flings a condom onto Dame Diana Rigg's head who proceeds to lecture the young star about grammar and etiquette with the rubber dangling from her hair the entire time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show is neither original enough nor funny enough to justify itself. Every time his friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) or Andy (Gervais) himself says something they shouldn't to someone they shouldn't, you can't help but be reminded of how much better Larry David pulls that sort of thing off on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

While the celebrity cameos are the highlights, you also reflect on how the late, great Larry Sanders Show created real characters and stories that blended seamlessly with the cameos.

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