“I heard Ricky Gervais quit Twitter recently because it only has 140 characters. Well that’s 139 more characters than he’s ever come up with,” zings an insulted Johnny Depp in the second episode of “Life’s Too Short.” And while the gag is hilarious (as is Depp), there is a small ring of truth of it. The multitasking actor, writer, producer and director (he takes on every job in this new series) has mined a very specific comedic niche, with characters like David Brent and Andy Millman, that finds the lives of ordinary middle-aged men at the mercy of their ego and hubris, with humiliation often following their thwarted schemes to move up the ladder or follow their dreams. And while Gervais is a bit player (along with longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant) in “Life’s Too Short,” the familiar traits and themes of his celebrated previous series is here in ample supply. That it still works to uproarious effect with a laser sharp wit and keen eye for observation, is a credit to Gervais’ skill in perfectly capturing the anxieties and insecurities of men of a certain age.
This time around, it’s Warwick Davis who takes the lead (and co-writes the series), and as the opening credits explain, he’s the little person actor who has starred in “Willow,” the original “Star Wars” trilogy and the ‘Harry Potter‘ films. Here, he plays a heightened version of himself (excuse the pun) that is not unlike Andy Millman, who believes his talent far outweighs the recognition he has received to date, and he longs to land the big meaty role he feels he deserves. The first episode of the series is essentially an introduction to the world and characters we’ll be spending time with over the next few weeks. Filmed in Gervais’ now standard faux-documentary style, we learn that Davis is in the process of being separated from his wife and owes a huge tax bill thanks to the efforts of his incompetent accountant (Stephen Brody, who is essentially an archetype of Merchant’s Darren Lamb from “Extras“). Davis is also running his own agency (of sorts), Dwarves For Hire, and hires Cheryl (Rosamund Hanson who played Smell on “This Is England“) as his unethusiastic and clueless secretary.
If you haven’t guessed by now, the show is essentially a hybrid of “Extras” and “The Office.” From the former, we get another look at the entertainment industry from someone who (at least in the series) is near the bottom of the totem pole, and forever looking to get higher. For Warwick, everything is a calculated PR move from setting up his own website to joining an advocacy and equality group for rights for little people (which leads to one of the show’s most gloriously cringeworthy scenes, when Davis compares himself to Martin Luther King Jr. during a BBC interview). With a tax bill looming, Davis takes on gigs even Andy Millman would turn down, a desperation played to hearty laughs. Meanwhile, “The Office” influence is felt during the sequences with Cheryl at the office of his agency. Warwick even has his own trademark mug on his desk (emblazoned with his name and picture), and with the roster of stars he presents turning out to be a mostly hapless bunch, his feeling that he deserves grander things than his desk and small office provide, wouldn’t be out of place with David Brent.
But as we mentioned, while the ingredients may be very familiar, Gervais and Davis do cook up another winning formula that is engaging and riotously funny, while turning the innocuous hiccups of daily life into their own comedic scenarios. But the series thus far is not without its flaws. The format of show relies on cameos each episode (another page from “Extras”) and while they offer some of the best laughs, they are rather unimaginately introduced. Davis literally runs into Liam Neeson during a meeting with Ricky and Stephen, while both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter come from various gigs that the actor signs on for. Even the presence of Gervais and Merchant is rather lamely explained, as Davis makes a habit of dropping in on them in the hopes of getting work (wouldn’t he just hire an agent or talk with different people in the industry rather than just these two guys?). It’s easy to look over these weaknesses when the show is as good as it is, but as the season continues, we do hope the celebrity encounters are given some variety.
Also yet to rear its head, are dark and deeper themes and emotions that turned both “The Office” and “Extras” into classics. Both shows bravely strode into dramatic territory with rich and often surprisingly moving results, but if there are shades of that here, they are yet to be seen. Thus far, “Life’s Too Short” leans toward comedy over pathos, but with Davis’ version of himself struggling with divorce, a financial burden and a career that has not gone as planned, the structure is there for some compelling avenues to be explored, and we hope those routes are followed.
But three episodes in (we’ll discuss the second half of the series in a few weeks), “Life’s Too Short” shows that Gervais and company are still at the height of their powers. The comedian has found a fantastic and fascinating lead in Davis whose performance here is fearless. He gamely allows himself to be subject to some truly degrading (and gaspingly funny) moments, while keenly able to shake it all off and power ahead, ever hopeful that his desires and opportunities will finally dovetail. “Life’s Too Short” is another acute, perceptive study of ambition and the unexpected, often side-splitting surprises that lie in wait. [B]
“Life’s Too Short” airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.