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Gervais makes 'Extras' special

It was hard to imagine how Ricky Gervais would follow up ''The Office," one of TV's most indelible and painful comedies ever. His boorish boss was such a memorable spectacle of character flaw, Gervais seemed destined to be forever locked in our collective curio cabinet as the little man who put his foot in his mouth.

The fact that ''Extras" proves Gervais is more than a one-trick pony makes his new HBO series feel doubly satisfying. The show, which premieres tomorrow night at 10:30, is a sly piece of work that is quite distinct from ''The Office." It's similarly fueled by cringe comedy, as we squirmingly revel in the characters' obvious delusions. Written and directed by Gervais and his ''Office" partner Stephen Merchant, it has plenty of awkward silences in each half hour. But ''Extras" is far less terminally existential than ''The Office," less depressing to watch. Its palette even contains colors other than gray and beige.

In ''Extras," Gervais plays a significantly different, and less contemptible, character than boss David Brent. A professional movie extra, Andy Millman is similarly out of touch with reality; he calls himself a ''background artist" and lies about having had speaking roles on his resume. He tends to talk himself into offensive corners, such as when he thinks a woman with cerebral palsy is actually a drunk. But he's not as brazenly foolish as Brent. Andy is quieter, and he knows when he's lying -- such as next week, when he pretends to love the work of Kurosawa to impress a producer.

Andy also spends as much time reacting to others' idiocies as he does being an idiot himself. His ineffective, pathetic agent (played by Merchant), for example, makes him look like a genius. Perhaps more than on ''The Office," Gervais lets other characters appear as fascinatingly pitiable as his own, such as next week when Ben Stiller plays himself as a parody of Hollywood self-importance and box-office obsessiveness. Stiller's a raving moron compared to Andy's ordinary nitwit.

In each episode (there are six, and the show has already been renewed) Andy and his friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) work as extras on a different movie set. Standing around in Nazi garb or Victorian costumes, they have bizarre encounters with other extras, and with the stars of the movies. (Stiller, Kate Winslet, and Samuel L. Jackson are among those who parody themselves in the series). Tomorrow, on the set of a Holocaust movie, Winslet does a brilliant turn as the star, a raging cynic who says to Andy and Maggie, ''You're guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental." She serves as hapless Maggie's romantic adviser, culminating in some laugh-out-loud moments involving phone sex.

''Extras" forms a superior hour of comedy with Larry David's ''Curb Your Enthusiasm," which returns as sharp as ever for its fifth season tomorrow night at 10. Both shows revolve around men who have trouble editing themselves, who tumble headlong into politically incorrect positions. Both shows -- and both men -- make you wince with pleasure. But Larry David's bottomless neuroses turn ''Curb" into a more abrasive and outrageous half-hour. ''Extras" goes as much for pathos as it does for open laughs, as its backstage nobodies strive for their close-ups. Something extra lurks around the edges of Gervais's show, and that would be desperation.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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