When someone with the magnitude of comic Ricky Gervais declares something ‘the funniest thing we’ve ever done’, people are going to sit up and take note. Add in a primetime slot on the BBC and you’ve got a sure fire winner. Gervais, along with writing partner Stephen Merchant, have already produced two hugely successful sitcoms for the network, The Office and Extras. Life’s Too Short is, like The Office, a mockumentary style show, following the everyday life of famed dwarf and actor Warwick Davis, who plays a fictionalised version of himself. Is the show another runaway success for Gervais and Merchant, or are there signs of them coming off the tracks?
Unforunately, based on the first five episodes (of a total seven), Life’s Too Shot is definitely evidence of the latter. The problems are plentiful. Gervais and Merchant come dangerously close to committing the cardinal sin of comedies set in the real world (and shot in a faux documentary style, no less) of making every single character completely unbelievable and impossible to relate to. The premise is much like that of Extras; celebrities, including Davis, play exaggerated and distorted versions of themselves (or what we imagine them to be like), and the show is about the social situations these personas get themselves into as they spark with regular people. However, where Life’s Too Short falters is that the normal people don’t act like normal people.
Much of the show is based around the difficulties Warwick faces as a little person, but it appears that the amount of material Gervais and Merchant had when it came to said difficulties was extremely thin on the ground, hence their reliance on Warwick interacting with bigoted, offensive members of the public; in one scene, two cashier workers talk loudly to one another about whether dwarfs would need special condoms because regular ones would be too big; in another, a maître d’ immediately assumes Warwick is meeting another little person for a drink, and refuses to relent when Warwick makes an issue of the fact. In other words, things that would almost never happen today appear to be an everyday occurrence in the world of Life’s Too Short. It’s this lack of characters and situations able to ground the series in reality that creates issues for the show.
As with Extras, Life’s Too Short is filled with a plethora of Hollywood names making cameos. However, whilst the former series’ appearances generally ranged from the good to the brilliant, Gervais and Merchant’s latest outing has been considerably more hit-and-miss. Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, and Liam Neeson all achieve the desired effect. Neeson‘s scene, as he tries his hand at decidedly risqué improvisational comedy (in his trademark deadpan delivery, of course) is quite possibly the highlight of the series. However, other cameos have not fared as well. Right Said Fred make a bizarre and, ultimately, boring appearance, whilst Steve Carell quite literally phones in his performance, appearing on a Skype call with Gervais to play out the tired ‘badmouth someone when they’re still listening’ gag, not once, but twice (made all the more implausible by the fact that Gervais believes he has hung up, and yet is fully aware that a documentary crew are filming his every word).
Gervais and Merchant’s characters in Extras were arguably the best thing about the show – Gervais’ Andy Millman providing a perfect straight man for the various stars to bounce off of, and Merchant as his incompetent agent Darren. Here, however, playing themselves, they are arguably the most irritating thing about Life’s Too Short, repeatedly popping up for no real reason to belittle and insult Warwick and generally coming across as unlikeable wankers. Merchant’s Darren character is resurrecent in the form of Warwick’s accountant, who also serves as his solicitor in his divorce proceedings, but is horribly misjudged, taking the original incompetence and bumbling charm and taking it to the point where the audience are left wondering if the character is meant to have some sort of mental disability. Warwick’s assistant works along similar lines, taking the ‘ditzy secretary’ stereotype to extreme and unfunny ends with unbelievable levels of stupidity.
That isn’t to say it’s all bad though. Davis is great, oscillating between being socially-inept and pitiless to bewilderment at the world around him (as well he might). For Gervais and Merchant, the writing is unbelievably flabby compared to their previous efforts, but there are still some gems to be found in the classic ‘awkward social situation’ style of the pair (one particular highlight is a scene in a bar where Warwick tells his accountant to chat up a girl with the line ‘Warwick’s a bad boy’, only for his friend to say ‘Warwick’s bad - he’s a rapist’ – the best Warwick can salvage is claiming he’s a racist, before leaving quickly). That being said, these flashes of comedic brilliance are just that – flashes. It’s not bad, but it’s a huge drop in quality from Gervais and Merchant, who one hopes will realise the error of their ways and move on to other, better things. For Life’s Too Short, unfortunately, life may not be short enough.