It boasts a promising premise, but Life’s Too Short, the latest sitcom from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, rarely lives up to its potential, wasting a very game comic performance from co-creator Warwick Davis in the process. Davis, the star of Willow and a bit player in a number of Star Wars films, plays a venal, arrogant, increasingly desperate version of himself, a “showbiz dwarf” whose opportunities have dried up and who scarcely even gets recognized anymore. In his quest to regain some semblance of fame, he grovels, humiliates himself and backstabs any and all remaining friends over the course of the first season’s seven episodes.
Davis, who I can only imagine is an extraordinarily nice person in real life, is clearly relishing the chance to play such a despicable character, and his pratfall-laden asshole bit is generally pretty amusing.
Unfortunately, nearly everything that surrounds him is a lazy retread of Gervais and Merchant’s earlier, better work. Like Extras, the show takes aim at the artifice of showbiz, includes a number of celebrity cameos and even features an inept confidant — Steve Brody’s accountant, a pale imitation of Merchant’s mercilessly clueless agent, Darren Lamb. And like The Office, the show adopts a mockumentary format and features a lead character whose outward blustering masks severe self-loathing.
Just revisiting these ideas wouldn’t have necessarily made for a bad show, even if it wasn’t all that original. It’s just that everything is so breathtakingly half-assed in Life’s Too Short. Like many shows, the mockumentary format is just used as a narrative shortcut, but never has it been so obvious that talking heads are being used to paper over plot points. The celebrity cameos lack the bite and weird specificity of those in Extras. In that show, we got an uncomfortably close look at celebrities’ absurd personal peccadillos. Here, everyone from Johnny Depp to Helena Bonham Carter to Sting is just kind of a jerk. The one exception is Liam Neeson, whose bit as an aspiring improv comedy star is easily the funniest moment on the show.
Even more half-assed is the notion of Gervais and Merchant playing themselves as Davis’s sort-of friends who wish he would stop coming around to their office looking for work. Rarely do these scenes — and there’s one in every episode — offer up anything other than a chance for Gervais to preen and insult Davis. Save it for Karl Pilkington, please.
When Davis gets some distance from Gervais and the cameo nonsense, there are some solid moments of cringe comedy, as he deals with the implosion of his marriage to Sue (Jo Enright) and tries to overcome his own priggishness in a budding relationship with Amy (Kiruna Stamell), but it’s hardly worth wading through all the other stuff for. Just watch that Neeson clip online.
The two-disc season one set includes several extras, including a standard making-of featurette, several behind-the-scenes clips, deleted scenes and outtakes.