Tag Archives: Extras

Television About Television on Television: The Television Years

I quite like television (don’t know if I’ve mentioned that before), so one of my favourite things is television programmes that are about television programmes. In that regard, recent weeks have been simply delightful, with both W1A series 2 and the Episodes series 4. Quelle richesse!

Episodes, which continues tonight, features two married British screenwriters, Bev and Sean (played by Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan) who go to Los Angeles to have their pet project mangled and regurgitated by the Hollywood Television Machine. In season 4, their original pet project has been dropped by the network, leaving its star, Matt Leblanc (played by Matt LeBlanc) out of work and out of pocket, while Sean and Bev are back into the fray trying to pitch a new show to various bizarre Hollywood executives. And this is great for so many reasons. One: Tamsin Grieg, Stephen Mangan and Matt LeBlanc, all of whom are comedy royalty. Two: a hefty dose of fish-out-of-water Brits-vs-Americans humour, with both sides managing to be surprisingly empathetic despite their quirks and foibles. Three: a (presumably partially accurate) insight into the way Hollywood works, with scripts being passed around, picked apart and rewritten beyond recognition, lots of arse-kissing, creepy network executives, people pretending to like each other, cast and crew members who are either overly enthusiastic or lazy as hell… TV, baby!

And I’m enjoying this fourth series much more than the previous one, which got a bit soapy and weird, with lots of angsty storylines. The main issue was that Bev and Sean were separated, so they – along with pretty much all the other characters – were all sleeping with everyone else and getting upset about it. This season, the show is back on form (notwithstanding a slightly weird lesbian storyline that seems like a deliberately controversial rehash of old plots). Bev and Sean are a team once again, which gives us a united British front of scepticism, tea-drinking and passive-aggressive disapproval against the excesses and enthusiasm of the Americans, as well as allowing Grieg and Mangan to do what they do best and actually interact with each other in a humorous fashion (Green Wing, how we miss thee). Matt LeBlanc also has a particularly fun new storyline of having lost thirty-two million dollars of savings to a rogue accountant, which gives him an excuse to be massively bitchy and self-centred – again, what he does best.

In contrast to Episodes, set in Hollywood, stands W1A, set at the BBC in London. The programme (whose latest series was so short that it was finished before you could say ‘OK, here’s the thing with this’) follows a group of people working in TV development and planning; and it has many things going for it. First of all, it’s set at the BBC, that staple of broadcasting greatness. I see the exterior of New Broadcasting House (it’s no Television Centre – RIP – but you can’t have everything) and there are all the establishing shots of all the researchers and producers and developers tapping away at their BBC desks and I clap my hands in glee at being part of it (ish).

Also, some of the characters are properly fantastic. My absolute favourite is Will the intern, the single most hopeless person in the history of anything, who manages to get away with not being able to perform even the simplest of tasks because he looks so lost and sweet. This series, he’s even managed to have one or two moments of absolute brilliance that have saved him at the last minute from being thrown out on his ear; this is especially pleasing because no one looks more surprised about it than he does. And of course there are other great aspects to the programme, including: Jessica Hynes as painfully nonsensical PR guru Siobhan Sharpe (“If you get bandwidth on this, you’ve got maple syrup on your waffle from the get-go”), the fact that all the meeting rooms are named after celebrities (“Let’s have lunch in Tommy Cooper”), the constant mockery of the BBC’s own nearest and dearest (for example, the uncannily well-timed jokes at the expense of Jeremy Clarkson that aired shortly after he was fired from Top Gear), and, of course, the soothing narration of Lord of All Things David Tennant.

The only thing that limits W1A’s greatness (in my eyes) is that, well, it could be more TV-y. Obviously it started life as Twenty Twelve, with all of the characters working for the Olympic Deliverance Commission, and I loved it back then, but, you know, it was about sport, and that always hung over the programme like a sweaty, lycra-clad spectre. So when it was announced (after the Olympics had finished) that the whole team was moving to the BBC, I was very excited. But, in the end, it turns out that the reason they could get away with changing the setting was that it’s not really about sports, or the Olympics, or television, or the BBC – it’s about working in an office with a bunch of people who are terrible at their jobs and thereby make you terrible at yours. Aside from the name-dropping, the references to BBC shows and the odd cameo (of which more later), W1A could really be set anywhere and it would function the same.

In fairness, both W1A and Episodes do have quite a lot to live up to in terms of shows about shows, since they are following in the wake of two particularly shining examples of the format. One is Extras, which ended in 2007, but which still makes me laugh when I think about it. As a reminder, Ricky Gervais starred as Ricky Gerv- sorry, as Andy Millman, an aspiring actor-writer who is currently stuck wallowing around in the shallow end of the acting pool as an extra on various low- and high-budget productions. As with W1A, a lot of the comedy lies in how useless everyone is, particularly Andy’s agent, who barely seems to know how to use a phone, let alone how to hobnob with producers and directors to get Andy the kinds of roles he wants. BUT, unlike W1A, we get to visit the actual sets on which Andy and his chums are filming, and more frequently than we do in Episodes. As such, we’re introduced to bad catering, cramped dressing-room conditions, uncomfortable costumes, incredibly pretentious stars and awkward homophobia. Extras, how we miss thee also.

The other magnificent programme involving how all the facets of television-making interact is 30 Rock. Set at the peacock-bedecked NBC in New York, the show follows the trials and tribulations of a writer/producer (Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey) and studio exec (Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin) as they try to maintain a grip on their writing team, actors, crew members, assistants, love lives and reality. As with Extras, 30 Rock finished several years ago; but I came late to the 30 Rock party, and am desperately trying to stretch the final season out for as long as I can (we’ve arrived at the last episode, and I don’t want to watch it, because then it will be over *sob*). I LOVE IT. In particular, and more so than any of the other shows I’ve mentioned, 30 Rock holds up the whole business of television-making to the light and examine the cracks, before filling them up with comedy putty. For example, an episode I watched recently featured the main star of the fictional show-within-the-show tweeting that women weren’t funny, which led to Liz Lemon being absolutely hilarious as she tried to prove to everyone that women were funny, and in doing so creating an extremely funny episode written and performed by a women (Tina Fey), thereby proving to the real world that women are funny. (If that doesn’t make sense, never fear: it makes even less sense in context.)

And this is the really great thing, not just about 30 Rock but about the other shows I’ve mentioned as well: they generally involve people in television making fun of themselves and their careers. The fictional writers, directors, production staff and crew all come off looking like hilarious buffoons, largely due to the efforts and self-awareness of the real writers, directors, production staff and crew. And particular credit must go to the ones who actually appear on screen – not just actors and other celebrities, but people who you’d think weren’t quite so used to putting themselves out there for mockery. A previous blog post listed some of my favourite television cameos, but it’s worth giving a quick shout out to some of the other great (and surprising) appearances from these four shows: 30 Rock’s inclusion of Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing (among other things), as a struggling writer who’ll do anything for a gig; Moira Stuart in Extras as Ronnie Corbett’s drug mule; in Episodes, the appearance of a ‘Friends co-star’ in the fictional sitcom that turns out to be Gunther (James Michael Tyler); and Mary Beard on W1A being subjected to the atrocious attentions of Siobhan (“Of course, not everyone can be Lucy Worsley”).

Basically, these shows are fantastic because (a) they’re a double dose of something I love, the almighty television; and (b) the people who make them also love television so much that they’re prepared to look like idiots to make it as wonderful as they possibly can. My kind of people. I peacock you all.

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The Rise of the Meta-Celebrity

Since film and television began, actors and other famous people have been paid lots of money to pop in unexpected places, say a few lines, and disappear again, leaving the audience going, “Wait, was that…?” Increasingly, though, celebrities are rendering the question moot by appearing as themselves, or at least grotesque, exaggerated versions of themselves. Of course, some of these Meta-Cameos* are egotistical puffery, but others nail it, pulling off the neat trick of proving themselves funnier and more likeable by pretending to be an awful human being. In celebration of the people in this second group, we now present a highly subjective, mostly arbitrary, vaguely ranked list of celebrities playing themselves on television: The Official and Definitive List of TV’s Best Meta-Cameos Ever!!!**

10. Trudie Styler in Friends

The appearance of Trudie Styler (AKA Mrs Sting) was brief but fruitful. Although Styler was a good sport, the storyline involving her was slightly underwhelming (mainly because it also involved the entirely forgettable Ben Gellar), and Styler herself wasn’t especially humorous. Nonetheless, her presence sparked hilarity anyway because it opened the gates to some eve-more-insane-than-usual behaviour from Phoebe, including a series of Sting-related puns (“Look, I just pressed a button triggering a silent alarm. Any minute now the police will be here.” “The Police? Here? A reunion?”) and a song that gave even Smelly Cat a run for its money.

9. Stephen Hawking in… well, pretty much everything

Stephen Hawking’s brain apparently works so fast that even explaining the universe only takes a couple of hours a week, because he’s played himself in more TV programmes than you can shake an event horizon at. Particularly entertaining appearances include The Big Bang Theory, where he causes Sheldon to have a mini-meltdown, and The Simpsons, where his wheelchair can fly, but perhaps the most notable is his appearance as a Star Trek hologram (of himself, so it totally counts) that plays poker with Data (Brent Spiner). It was, as Spiner himself put it, “the most notable moment in television history since Albert Einstein guest-starred on Gunsmoke”.

8. Emma Bunton in Neighbours

Neighbours has had its fair share of Australian celebrity cameos, from Shane Warne to the Wiggles, but British viewers had a field day when Karl and Susan came to London to get married (for around the ninety-seventh time). They ran into Michael Parkinson, Julian Clary and Jo Whiley – as I do every time I go to London – but cream of the crop was Emma Bunton, who found Karl’s lost engagement ring and was rewarded by Karl having no idea who she was. Fortunately Susan made up for it by screaming with joy at recognising her. After all that excitement, Dr K and Susie Q got on a boat and were married by Neil Morrissey, because why not?

7. Josh Groban in Glee

Just so we’re clear: I’m not a Gleek, but I am a Grobanite. Groban’s appearance on Glee was short and not-so-sweet: he turned up to an a-capella performance given by Mr Shue and his cronies, insulted everyone who took part and then left to seduce Mr Shue’s mother, all the while referring to himself in the third person. The fact that he didn’t sing is pretty infuriating, especially since everyone else in the programme sings non-stop; but we did at least get to look at him. In the words of Mr Ryerson:  “He is an angel sent from heaven to deliver Platinum Records unto us”. Amen to that.

6. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes

Matt LeBlanc is pretty damn famous now, so in a way it’s bizarre that his most successful post-Friends role has been playing himself. But he does it with flair. Opting squarely for the ‘sex-mad actor who also played a sex-mad character’ archetype, LeBlanc gives it a slightly sinister edge by getting rid of all of Joey’s puppy-like innocence and replacing it with cold calculation and world-weary cynicism. Do we like the Matt LeBlanc who sleeps with every woman he can get his hands on, including a slightly psychotic stalker and his best friend’s wife? Not as such. Do we like the Matt LeBlanc who plays him? Yes.

5. James Van Der Beek (and Dean Cain) in Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23

Ignoring for a moment the bizarre new trend of giving your show a title that can’t actually be spoken on air (see also: S*** My Dad Says), James Van Der Beek has been quite enjoyable as a slightly whiny version of himself who hangs out with normal, non-celebrity people. But the last few weeks have seen him shoot up the list due to his acceptance into (a fictional season of) Dancing With the Stars, the USA’s version of Strictly. For one thing, his main rival is Dean Cain, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman, who is already awesome. For another, Van Der Beek can actually dance. Very nice.

4. Wil Wheaton in The Big Bang Theory

One of many Star Trek actors to cameo in The Big Bang Theory, Wheaton made a stylish first appearance by enraging Sheldon, which is always funny to watch (see ‘Stephen Hawking’, above). Since then, the development of the rivalry between the two has worked really well, particularly when Wheaton’s horrible behaviour induces us to feel sympathy for Sheldon (because nobody messes with Sheldon’s meemaw). And for those of us who are familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the bitchy remarks about the whining and uselessness of Wheaton’s character Wesley Crusher are bang on the mark – he really was THAT annoying.

3. John Prescott in Gavin and Stacey

You might be surprised to find this one so far up the list (that is, if you’d forgotten that this list was (a) official and (b) definitive). Prescott only appears for a few seconds and barely says a word, but this appearance was brilliant for three reasons. First, it’s an unexpected but good-humoured (and probably quite savvy) move from a man who was the butt (no pun intended) of a lot of negative jokes at the time. Second, it’s a great moment for Nessa’s character development – the audience has always been a bit sceptical about whether she really did sleep with Richard Madeley and Goldie Loookin’ Chain, roadie for The Who and sing with All Saints, but this finally vindicates her. Third, it’s John Prescott. In Gavin and Stacey.

2. Shaun Williamson in Extras

Extras, by its very nature, was full of actors pretending to be themselves, which made this one a very difficult call. Other contenders were Kate Winslet’s cynical nun, Orlando Bloom’s miserable failure with women, and Daniel Radcliffe’s sex-mad teenager – but in the end the award must go to Shaun Williamson, primarily because he manages to hold his own against Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, both very talented people, by wringing every last drop of sympathy out of being constantly overlooked. Plus, Williamson’s character, Shaun Williamson, also responds to the name ‘Barry from Eastenders’, which make him the only Meta-Meta-Cameo on the list. Kudos.

AND THE WINNER IS…

1. Adam West in Family Guy

Let’s be clear – the man who played Batman in the original TV series is already a legend and can almost certainly do no wrong (if proof was needed, I offer you this clip of what can only be described as a surf-off). But Adam West goes one step further and hits the top spot because his character in Family Guy is genuinely inexplicable. He’s the Mayor of Quahog and therefore nominally in charge; but instead of going down the megalomaniac route, West produces the dippiest, most surreal and probably most heavily doped up character on television. Plus, he’s 95% helium.

~

*Patent pending.

**30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, SNL and Entourage are excluded because, although they’re famous for exactly these kinds of shenangians, I haven’t quite got round to watching them yet…