RIC MEYERS: Slings and Extras
Another week, another pair of good examples as to how DVD extras can enhance, deepen, and illuminate a previous viewing experience…especially when the subject matter is show business itself.
First stop, north of the border, and one of Canada’s best television series. For years I’ve been enjoying Slings & Arrows, the tragicomedic travails of a Shakespearean Festival Theatrical Troupe. Created by some of the same folk who made the hit Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone, and The Kids in the Hall, it has been consistently engrossing in its three seasons (of six episodes each).
In the first season, we were introduced to the core cast as they tried to get the theater on its feet and mount a memorable production of Hamlet. Season two saw more complications amid the cast and crew as they battled the “Scottish Play (Macbeth).” Arriving on DVD this week is the third (and most say, last) season, in which a production of King Lear is the focal point.
The first two seasons set the bar high in terms of Shakespearean drama and human comedy, but this third season does not disappoint in any way. In fact, it manages to resonate the first two seasons as well as cap off the tales of once-institutionalized artistic director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), the love of his life Anna Conroy (Susan Coyne), the troupe’s financial director Richard Smith-Jones (former Hall Kid Mark McKinney), and the ghost of the former artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) … and, yes, you read that right.
In addition, each season features a new cast of actors who play actors who are brought in to star in the season’s featured play, and, if anything, the third time’s the charm. William Hutt, a beloved Canadian actor, stars as Charles Kingman, a beloved Canadian actor who takes on Lear in more ways than one (in fact, Hutt died shortly after completing his role as a dying actor playing a dying King). Playing the actress playing Lear’s honorable daughter is Sarah Polley, the luminous star of such movies as The Sweet Hereafter and director of the recent art house film success Away From Her (she’s also the daughter of Mark Polley, who has been featured in all three seasons of the show as one of the troupe’s supporting players).
Suffice to say that all three box sets of the series are worthwhile. Now, onto the extras on this latest, and reportedly, last season. There’s interviews with star Paul Gross (who you might remember from the Canadian Mountie at large CBS series Due South) and co-writer/co-star Susan Coyne. In addition, there’s bloopers, outtakes, deleted scenes, photo galleries, and even song lyrics, but what makes the extras extra special are uninterrupted, unedited, and extended sequences from the “final” production of King Lear itself, which take on additional dimension once you’ve seen the backstage drama that went into creating them.
From the classically sublime to the purposefully ridiculous, we go from the great white north to the great foggy east with the complete (six episode) second season of Ricky Gervais’ Extras. This was Gervais’ follow-up to his wildly successful original UK sitcom The Office, and deals with Andy Millman, an ambitious, somewhat self-deluding, actor and his adventures amid other struggling hopefuls as well as meglomanical stars. In the first season, he suffered the slings and arrows (nice tenuous connector, that) of humiliation at the hands of snobby fellow “day players,” as well as such stars as Ben Stiller, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kate Winslet.
When last we left him, Patrick Stewart had produced his sitcom script, which despite (or perhaps because of) network interference had become a big hit. Therefore, the second season concerns Andy’s adventures as a middling success, allowing Gervais and his co-creator/co-star Stephen Merchant to up the guest star ante. Now the likes of Orlando Bloom, “Harry Potter” Daniel Radcliffe, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and Ian McKellan get to do alternately inspired and insipid versions of themselves as callow, narcissistic, lusting, nutjobs while David Bowie, Robert DeNiro, and Dame Diana Rigg get to maintain their dignity, despite, in the latter case, having a condom snapped onto their head.
In addition, there’s reams of top British TV stars contributing their wit, but not their wisdom, since they allow Gervais and Merchant to make them look as ridiculous as they make themselves. The play’s the thing here as well, since the heaps of embarrassment, humiliation, and frustration are only made palatable by the expertise of the writing and performing. It’s all a cringy hoot.
And why, of course, should the extras of Extras be any different? Each episode has its own backstage doc, concentrating on interviews (both in and out of character) with the creators, stars, and guest stars. These were very helpful in making the nearly unbelievable extremes the series sometimes goes to both understandable and acceptable.
While I appreciate that this series was predominantly made for UK TV, it was also shown on HBO, so perhaps a little more British thespian background for unknowing Americans might’ve been called for in the importation. I mean, I know and love the likes of Ronny Corbett and Jonathan Ross, but would some bios of them and the others hurt? Sadly, they are no where to be found.
The bulk of the rest of the Extras DVD extras concern Gervais and company’s apparent inability to film a scene without cracking up. There’s “Deleted Scenes” and “Outtakes” which are essentially the same thing, and they all show the same things – that is, no one being able to keep a straight face at any time, anywhere. So extensive was the general hysteria that an entire featurette is given over to the “Art of Corpsing,” in which the actors are interviewed about each of them being unable to get through any given shot without quivering with laughter.
Finally, there’s the astonishing doc “Taping Nigel: The Gimpening,” which reveals in abusive detail Gervais’ extraordinarily sado-masochistic relationship with his film editor Nigel Williams. What Williams is willing to suffer at the hands of Gervais in order to maintain his relationship and job is jaw-dropping to watch, especially since it’s supposedly “all in good fun.”
What starts as deprecating practical jokes escalates (or is that degenerates) into a dominant/submissive SM orgy of duct-taped cosplay proportions. Comparing and contrasting what Williams suffers backstage to what Gervais suffers on screen is eye-opening (except for the poor editor, whose eyes are usually sealed shut).
Usually, I suggest that you watch the extras after seeing the feature or episodes in question. In the case of Extras, however, I highly recommend you watch the extras first. It makes seeing the simple scenes they couldn’t get through without falling about all the more wondrous to behold.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective, The Weekly World News and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.