60. "Daniel Radcliffe," Extras (2006)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Ricky Gervais did not create "cringe comedy" from scratch, just as Seinfeld wasn't the first sitcom to focus on the mundane (or "nothing"). But his first series, The Office, was groundbreaking in the way he lingered on uncomfortable moments, refusing to break the tension with traditional jokes and audience laughter. The change in style mirrored the change in the way we view TV. Just as sitcoms with live audiences encouraged families to laugh together, the long, silent pauses in The Office matched the increasing tendency of people to watch alone. I should say the nearly silent pauses; you can hear the copy machines operating during awkward moments on The Office, just as you might hear your refrigerator humming as you watch the show.
Extras, Gervais's follow-up series, takes the same style but applies it to the paranoid atmosphere of show business rather than the smothering monotony of office work. This premise allows for celebrities to play deranged versions of themselves, such as a sadistic David Bowie taunting Gervais's character with an improvised song about a "little fat man." (Bowie's been around long enough to have participated in the gentler, 1970s tradition of celebrities playing their "private" selves on variety specials with Bing Crosby and the like.)
Daniel Radcliffe: (taking off his Harry Potter glasses and going into full douchebag mode) Oh, God, I've still got these on. I don't need these. They're just for the character. Even if I did need glasses in real life, you know, I never read.
As entertaining as Radcliffe is, the highlight of this episode is the frenzy that erupts after Andy asks a waitress to quiet a noisy kid in a restaurant, not knowing that the child has Down syndrome. The truth is bad enough, but, in a manner that's become depressingly familiar, the media has to keep adding new allegations to keep the story going.
TV news reader: (Fox blonde reading from script) He's in a restaurant, and he's insulted a Down syndrome boy. Both mother and son are completely devastated because it was an unprovoked attack.
Male co-host: Did he hit him?
TV news reader: Well, it doesn't say. If he did strike the boy, he deserves to be banned from television. (applause from studio audience)
(cut to radio studio)
Radio host: Well, have you heard about this? TV actor Andy Millman has hit a Down syndrome child. Today we're asking, "Are celebrities out of control? Is it one rule for us and another for the rich and famous?" Tony's on the line. What do you make of the Millman character?
Caller: What can you say, Nick? It's disgusting! Absolutely disgusting. I mean, excuse my French, but I think he's a shit.
Radio host: No, you're excused in this case because I think you're right.
Because this is a Ricky Gervais show, none of the misunderstandings get sorted out, and apologies for social offenses only make things worse. If you don't mind a sitcom where the truth never comes out and characters never behave rationally, this is all very funny. Otherwise, stick to the morality tales on the news channels. I'd join you, but they're just too cringeworthy for me.