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TV Weekend: Life’s Too Short

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Ricky Gervais needs to stop hosting awards shows.

This is not a criticism that his searing jokes as host of the Golden Globes have been too nasty. It is not a criticism that his jokes at his last outing were too tame. It is rather a plea to a very funny man, capable of great work on TV, to get some distance from celebrity and the business of being The Guy Who Makes Jokes About About Celebrity before he becomes that dreaded thing: a comedian with one shtick, getting progressively less funny.

Gervais’ new HBO show, Life’s Too Short (Sundays on HBO), is a celebrity-cameo-filled comedy about a struggling actor suffering the degradations and frustrations of show business. You may recall Gervais’ last HBO show (well, his last live-action one, if we except the animated adaption of his podcast), Extras, a celebrity-cameo-filled comedy about a struggling actor suffering the degradations and frustrations of show business.

The superficial difference between the two is that Gervais doesn’t star in the new one. That role goes to Warwick Davis, a little-person actor who in real life has been in Willow, the Harry Potter movies, and Return of the Jedi (as Wicket the Ewok). He plays a version of himself, trying to find gigs, representing other dwarf actors as an agent, and, this being a Gervais joint, starring in a documentary. We meet Davis in a familiar Gervaisian state: he’s trying to piece together a career, bit part by fan-convention appearance, getting through it tunnel-vision determination and an exaggerated sense of his star status.

Gervais appears, with comedy partner Stephen Merchant, in a supporting role as Ricky Gervais, creator of The Office, whom Davis imposes on for advice and favors. (Davis had a part in season 2 of Extras.) It’s as if Gervais has become CEO of a company that dispatches unfortunate minions to go out in the world and suffer comically on his behalf: after he meets with Davis in his office, you half-expect him to buzz Karl Pilkington in for an Idiot Abroad assignment.

Extras was well-reviewed by critics when it came out. I liked it too, but I had to admit there was something that grated about it: a smug overtone to its satire of show business. His character, Andy Millman, aspired to create a comedy not unlike The Office, got the chance to–and saw his dream bastardized by a network trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. There were a lot of well-observed black-comic moments in Extras, and a moving conclusion about the dangers of too much fast success, but also the suggestion that we should all be thankful that the dumbed-down pop-culture machine didn’t kill The Office in real life.

Extras, however, at least had an idea behind it–and heart, and character development. Life’s Too Short is, in the three episodes I’ve seen, just an excuse for a string of set pieces about how ridiculous stars, and non-stars, are. Some of the funniest bits are guest spots involving celebrities–Johnny Depp confronting Gervais over his Globes routine, a too-serious Liam Neeson trying to do comedy. But they’re barely organically connected to the larger story, as if Gervais simply wanted a vehicle for some celebrity sketches and threw together the Warwick Davis idea to hold it together.

(Worse, the scenes, especially Depp’s, feel as if they’re building up Gervais as the dangerous comic who doesn’t care what celeb he makes fun of. But they’re plainly grand old opportunities for the guest stars to have a bit of fun and show themselves to be good sports–just another version of the kind of in-celebrity gladhanding that Gervais’ comedy mocks.)

As for the A-story, you might think that the premise, which affords plenty of jokes about Davis’ height, is exploitative and offensive. I don’t think so, because it’s more or less the same kind of lacerating humor that Gervais would subject one of his own characters to. And that’s the real problem here: we’ve seen this before, only with Gervais in the lead. When Davis in turn alienates a fan with his self-absorption at a convention, I see David Brent, deluded into believing his reality-TV fame makes him a star. When I see Davis chasing after minor gigs, I see Andy Millman trying anything to keep his career alive.

It seems like Davis was cast not just for his stature, but because the show would be too obviously old hat with Gervais in the lead. Davis himself has quite good delivery and timing, but his line readings and verbal tics are exactly those of a David Brent or a Gervais monologue—which is maybe both a compliment to him and a failing of the show. It’s a good thing for a writer like Gervais to have a distinctive voice, but not to create protagonists who are essentially interchangeable versions of each other.

For all that, Life’s Too Short can be uncomfortably funny in a familiar way, and if you’re OK with the familiarity, you might like it well enough. But the problem with the humor of discomfort, which Gervais pioneered with distinction, is that it doesn’t last long when it becomes a comfort zone.