by Ben Kromer & r & & r & Extras (Sundays-,10pm, HBO) & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he first episode of HBO's Extras featured Nazis, the handicapped, atheists and Kate Winslet as a foul-mouthed nun. Any of those elements could put someone off of a sitcom, but none of it can match the tooth-grinding mental anguish of watching Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) and Maggie (Ashley Jensen) blunder through their lives. That anguish, the result of watching awkward situations growing progressively more awkward, was perfected by Gervais on BBC's The Office and has been carried over unchanged.
Extras is about a short, chubby Brit and a silly, shallow, possibly brain-damaged Scottish woman working as extras in a different movie every episode. Each film has its own guest star. Season One included Winslet, Sam Jackson, Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart and two actors who might be famous in other countries (Ross Kemp and Les Dennis). They all play bizarro versions of themselves in a manner similar to Curb Your Enthusiasm (also on HBO), and with about the same effect.
The show revolves around Andy and Maggie's friendship. Maggie wants a man but can't keep one due to things like blinding stupidity and passive racism. Gervais is her straight man, but still manages to sabotage himself, always saying the most inappropriate thing at the worst possible time. Andy's goal is to get real acting work, but he's stuck with a worse-than-useless agent played by Stephen Merchant, his co-creator on Extras and The Office. With no help from his agent, Andy is forced to ingratiate himself with stars and directors to get parts.
Andy is 43, single and hates his life. Maggie is too oblivious for much introspection, but she's pathetic as well. That's one of the things that I like about Extras and hate most about other sitcoms. Good comedy is for and about losers. It's hostile. Attractive, successful, happy people don't have enough to be hostile about, so they have to keep our attention by making out with each other.
Extras works because it's about people on the lowest rung of the Hollywood ladder -- a rung so low it's actually in Britain.
Last season, Andy was on the cusp of achieving his dream. Watch it get flushed away this season, with guest stars including Orlando Bloom, David Bowie, Sir Ian McKellen and the kid who plays Harry Potter.
This is the episode where Dr. House catches an absurdly complex case, says rude but funny things to colleagues and patients, makes diagnoses that no one agrees with, and is eventually redeemed by his own genius. Seriously, this is that episode. (Tuesday, 2/13, FOX, 9 pm)
Pants Off Dance Off
What you thought was the bottom of the reality TV barrel was actually a trap door leading to a dungeon full of spiders -- and Fuse's Pants Off Dance Off. Low production values make seeing youngsters strip to music feel like amateur soft-core porn; then you discover that you can see "more" on the Web page and realize you've been watching an advertisement for soft-core porn. This is basic cable's lowest point. For now. (FUSE, intermittent)
Three reasons to watch another show about lawyers: 1) Puffy James Spader's sexual charisma. 2) Extra-puffy William Shatner's compulsively repeating his character's name to surprising comedic effect. 3) Find out what happened to Candice Bergen, Betty White and Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after their shows got canceled. (Tuesday, 2/13, ABC, 10 pm)