Review: Admit it: you enjoyed this morality play

Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale, BBC1; Sense and Sensibility, BBC1; The Truth about Binge Drinking, ITV1; J K Rowling: A Year in the Life, ITV1
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The Independent Culture

Ricky Gervais is in full flow: "The Victorian freakshow never went away ... now it's called Big Brother, or X Factor, where in the preliminary rounds we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multimillionaires .... Shame on you, and shame on me ...."

Yes, it's "that" speech from the Extras Extra Special Series Finale, the one Ricky Gervais's character Andy Millman delivers from the Big Brother house the cheesy heroic diatribe that stops the world in its tracks, repairs the character's troubled private life and temporarily destroys his career, so he can rise to greater glory from its ashes. This speech belongs to a grand tradition. You get it in the 1976 film Network, at the beginning of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or even (sort of) in Tootsie. You never, ever get it in the real world.

Extras is stuffed with dramatic tropes like this. They are well-executed, but extremely well-worn, too. The actor waiting for the phone to ring. The one-upmanship at the celebrity restaurant. The awful estate agent, pulling down the fold-out bed (don't tell me you didn't see that one coming). Ricky Gervais, hiding behind a journalist's back, miming secret instructions to Ashley Jensen, which she misinterprets: hilarity ensues. That particular routine has been touched up as many times as Margaret Dumont.

Are these plot features ghastly old chestnuts, the mannered theatricalities that Gervais set out to destroy with The Office? Or are they classic tropes, profitably applied to modern celebrity culture? Viewers and critics are furiously divided over this. I say divided, dischmided. Get over yourselves and admit it: you enjoyed it. Extras is marvellously entertaining, with the courage of its unfashionably moral convictions (loyalty and lack of ambition don't get lionised on many modern sitcoms). Perfection is a tiny spot on the map and Extras doesn't hit it, but at least it gets lost in a generous kind of way, becoming over-structured and eager to please, rather than disappearing into the slough of pretension, or become wilfully disobliging, like Jam and Jerusalem (which returned this week for a second unwanted series). Extras has the courtesy to deliver. OK, perhaps it wants to have its celebrity cake and eat it, criticising them one minute, then giving them profile-boosting cameos the next. But who cares? Any show that gets Ronnie Corbett to appear on screen pretending to snort cocaine has my vote.

The first episode of Sense and Sensibility was a little drab. Muted colours, unbeautiful heroines, rushed characterisation. It felt very small-screen. Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters, though fine as individual branches, never convinced as a tree vocally they came from different postal codes. Momentum gathered in part two as the prevailing mood of stiff drabness became a foil for secret passion. Willoughby scissoring one of Marianne's curls was invested with extraordinary erotic power: trust Andrew Davies to recast the rape of the lock for the Romantic age the ravishing of the ringlet. But there were still clunky moments and dull gaps where the camera lingered on an irrelevance. And when Daisy Haggard (Man Stroke Woman) was wheeled in as the Comic Turn, I turned and ran. Next week there is another memorably sexy moment (featuring David Morrissey, perfect as Colonel Brandon, angrily carrying a damsel in from the rain) and the three-parter comes to a gratifying conclusion, somehow achieving a real promise of happiness and a sense that both the sisters have matured. The controversial opening scene, an enigmatic fire-lit seduction, also finally makes sense. (Look away now if you don't want a plot spoiler: it's a flashback to Willoughby seducing Colonel Brandon's 15-year-old ward.) Sticking with this production reaps rewards, though you can't expect it to keep pace with Ang Lee.

The Truth about Binge Drinking sold itself as a public health warning against alcohol. It acted as a public health warning against manipulative TV producers. They made Michelle Heaton, a pop poppet formerly of Liberty X, binge drink every night for three weeks. Really, you'd have thought the poor girl would have been better off sticking to panto. (Then you heard her having singing lessons. Ah well.)

The programme reduced Heaton to a nervous, teary, flatulent wreck every hiccough caught on her personal handicam. It was like licensed torture, a sort of pornography of degradation. I hated this programme, typical of its hateful genre, which humiliates people (women, actually, always pretty young women) while pretending to prove some risibly obvious health point. If this programme were a person it would be a sanctimonious git with wandering hands.

When stars keep themselves as closeted away as JK Rowling has done, one assumes they are, shall we say, impersonable. Nervous tic, maybe, or vowels like an ice-crusher, or airs and graces. What an unexpected pleasure, then, to watch JK Rowling: A Year in the Life and find her utterly likeable: straightforward, strong, droll. Clearly she participated in the making of the programme and was determined not to come across as triumphalist about her great good fortune, but the balance went the wrong way. Dirge-like music sounded throughout, and when she revisited her modest pre-Potter home (where she was touchingly pleased to see her works on the shelves) she openly wept. It's hard to imagine a male mega-star author whose TV profile would have struck such an apologetic note.

Finally, hurrah! for the BBC iPlayer, which was launched on Christmas Day. It's a revelation. All programmes can be viewed online for a week after transmission. No more (delete as applicable) rushing home/ missed episodes/weeping because the video tape ran out before the pit ponies were saved from the inferno.

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