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TELEVISION REVIEW

Playing up small acting roles delivers big laughs

Stephen Merchant (left), Daniel Radcliffe, and Ricky Gervais in "Extras.' This season, Gervais's character gets his big chance. (RAY BURMISTON/HBO)

"Extras" is a little HBO comedy that draws big laughs at least once per episode. The series, from "The Office" creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant , is about a pair of acting extras stuck on a much lower rung of show business than the stars around them. But the stars they encounter on movie sets -- last season's roster included Kate Winslet; this season look for Orlando Bloom, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Radcliffe -- are garish, crude, egotistical, and unworthy of their celebrity. Go figure.

It's an amusing irony, and it makes "Extras" into a small cheer for the little guys. The show, which returns tomorrow night at 10, passes quickly but gleefully, in the manner of its closing theme song, "Tea for the Tillerman " by Cat Stevens. In the first episode, the flighty Maggie (Ashley Jensen) deals with the vain and insecure Bloom while serving as an extra on one of his movies. Miraculously, she winds up looking sophisticated next to his childish neediness. The more Maggie is unimpressed with Bloom's sexiness, the more he works to win her over, trash-talking Johnny Depp in the process.

This season, Gervais' s Andy Millman finally gets his big chance to create a sitcom and leave his extra days behind. He's climbing the ladder. But while Andy imagines his sitcom, called "When the Whistle Blows," as something subtle, his BBC producers prefer brash. Alas, there's always somebody with more power than our lovable extras. And so Andy's creative ideals take a whipping, and he'll either have to accept catchphrases and curly wigs or abandon his project.

Gervais was the center of "The Office," but here he gives up the cringing laughs to his guests (and to his co-writer Stephen Merchant, who plays Andy's crude agent). Next week's episode is the best of the three sent to critics, thanks to a scene-stealing appearance by David Bowie that I will not spoil here. It's unusual to see Gervais playing down, since he is best known for his attention-grabbing character on "The Office," and that may be why "Extras" hasn't gotten much notice. But Gervais is quite appealing as an everyday Joe who may be too normal to succeed in entertainment.

The revelation on "Extras" is Ashley Jensen , who makes Maggie so kooky, so proud, and so dear. Jensen brings to mind the late Madeline Kahn . She currently has a small role as Christina the seamstress on "Ugly Betty," but she shines more here. By her second scorning of Bloom tomorrow night, you want to promote her to lead.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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