Last Night's TV: This turkey was anything but wonderful

Holby City, BBC1; Extras, BBC1
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The Independent Culture

I don't object on principle to a little moral improvement over Christmas, even if you're not remotely interested in the Christian aspects of the festival, it's worth going in for a little self-mortification after all that gluttony and shuffling around of material goods. What I can't stand is having it foisted on me by the kind of people who make television programmes. Take Holby City, a perfectly adequate specimen of its unambitious kind, the soap-derived hospital drama, but I'll be damned before I'll admit that anybody connected with it is sitting higher up the moral tree than me. Last night's episode drew freely on Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, in which the James Stewart character, George Bailey, contemplating suicide after a particularly rough day at the office, meets his guardian angel. Wishing he had never been born, George is granted a vision of the world as it would have been, and is horrified and overjoyed to see how much good he has done.

In this updating, George's stand-in was the shambling, bearded surgeon Elliot Hope, still traumatised after a sexual-health nurse suffering feelings of inadequacy ran amok in the hospital with a crossbow, a couple of episodes back (come on, keep up, keep up). Elliot's daughter was wounded, and his son has, coincidentally, just been sentenced to a year's imprisonment for drug-related offences. With Elliot wondering whether to end it all, enter Richard Briers to demonstrate the worth of his existence, assisted by a white stretch limo (driven by a chauffeur called, ooh, catch the religious reference, Gabe), and mysterious choirs singing medieval carols and intermittently whirling Elliot into dances with elves.

Since I regard the original as one of the richest and most affecting films ever to come out of Hollywood, you won't be surprised to hear that I thought the remake was incompetent to the point of sacrilege. But this wasn't just film snobbery: even my in-house Holby City fan, invited to observe and submit comments, walked out after about five minutes shaking flecks of rabid spittle off her adolescent jowls, wondering where it had all gone wrong. What it did add to the mix, that James Stewart never achieved, was to give the viewer an authentic frisson of empathy: there was a point towards the end - during an encounter with Elliot's miraculously resurrected, motor- neurone-disease-afflicted yet remarkably soignee and articulate wife - when I began to see never having been born as preferable, sometimes, to prime-time TV.

Extras very nearly made it all better. Having achieved wealth and celebrity, thanks to the popular if not critical success of his catchphrase- based sitcom, "When the Whistle Blows", Andy Millman, the jaded actor played by Ricky Gervais, wants to add integrity and credibility to the list. Instead, what he has is a talking doll in his likeness, sat on the shelves of John Lewis next to the Jade Goody talking doll ("Am I minging?"), and only shifting at all because the price has been slashed. As his agent points out, though, even at a reduced price, the dolls turn Andy a healthy profit, because they were manufactured for next to nothing in sweatshops, and since the youngsters in the sweatshops are right in the target 10-year-old demographic, they're probably having a lot of fun doing it.

The first half-hour or so contained some brilliant gags, of all the sorts you expect: top-flight celebrities (Clive Owen, George Michael) merrily playing the prima donna, bottom-feeding ex-celebrities (Hale and Pace) gamely accepting humiliation, Stephen Merchant, as Andy's feeble agent, achieving a kind of higher geekiness, this time involving shoes encrusted with Great Dane faeces, and even a bit of superbly turned slapstick (Andy's girdle snapping during an audition, abruptly spilling out a middle-age spread). At its best, Gervais's comedy works so well because the laughter is forced out through squeaks of pain, and parts of this were agonising in a way The Office never was. Where Dave Brent was pathetic because he couldn't see how stupid he looked, Andy Millman was because he could see it all plain; it's a comedy about the painful business of settling for second best, which most of us face every day.

But in the second half, Gervais and Merchant, the co-writers, set about giving us a straightforward morality play. Andy forgot his roots, forgot who his friends are, became over-attached to his own celebrity, and finally had to get his comeuppance, which consisted of a spell on Celebrity Big Brother, in the house with Lionel Blair and a woman famous for having made a hit single on the back of her son's headline-grabbing shooting. As Andy realised the hollowness of fame, I felt I was being lectured to. The real problem was the hypocrisy, though: this was a show about the importance of not thinking you're better than your audience, which managed to patronise its own audience by assuming they needed a clear-cut moral, and they needed it spelling out. Oh, well. By this time next week, I'll probably have forgotten the morals and just retained the gags. Which should set me up for a happy New Year.

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