After Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant‘s groundbreaking “The Office,” followed by the equally well received “Extras,” it seemed that audiences began to cool on that particular brand of comedy. Rooted in vain, unlikeable, ambitious and curiously sympathetic characters, it’s not clear where public opinion went, but “Life’s Too Short” certainly deserved a better reception than it got. Reviews were mixed and the first season (which aired in the fall of 2011 in the U.K., and in the spring of 2012 in the U.S.) didn’t seem to make much of a dent. (After strong premieres, audiences dropped off fast.) So unlike the previous efforts from Gervais and Merchant, which got a second season run before wrapping things up, “Life’s Too Short” has skipped to the end with a 1-hour finale that gives a bittersweet farewell to a show that’s worth catching up with if you missed it the first time around.
At the heart of the show is Warwick Davis, giving a underrated, committed performance and carrying the show pretty much all on his shoulders. He plays a fictionalized version of himself, struggling in the years since his appearances in the “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” franchises, and doing whatever he can to climb back up the ladder of fame he once experienced. This leads to no small number of hugely embarrassing, humiliating experiences, the type of which anyone who has seen a previous Gervais/Merchant will be familiar with. But at the end of the first season, Warwick had a bit of hope, finally settling into a relationship following his messy divorce, and running his own agency for dwarves. But when we catch up with him in the finale, two opportunities to get another bite at stardom are too good resist.
The first arrives via none other than Val Kilmer himself, who lands out of the blue in London to tell Warwick he’s been in talks with Ron Howard and George Lucas and that he’s starting development on “Willow 2.” The plan is to package it first and then pitch it to studios, and Kilmer has already put £5000 pounds of his own money in, and Warwick can get a producer credit if he does the same. Of course, the diminutive actor doesn’t have that kind of cash on hand, so he has to rally up some investors to chip to help him get the cash together. The scheme involves roping in his haplesss accountant, played by Steve Brody, but once the financial gears are turning, Warwick brainstorms another idea that is actually potentially fruitful. He gets the idea to round up Brit celebrity Z-listers Shaun Williamson, Keith Chegwin and Les Dennis (don’t worry if don’t know who they are, context is provided) and puts together a stage show around the trio combining their various one hit wonder talents. Resembling a variety hour, after a rocky start, it becomes an unexpected success, and it seems that Warwick finally has some real major talent to represent, and for once, he’s happy to be behind-the-scenes.
Of course, as you might expect, nothing goes to plan and in the usual fashion for Gervais and Merchant — and it’s still refreshing — “Life’s Too Short” avoids wrapping things up in a neat little bow. What the show has always been about (and what it shares to some degree with “Extras” and “The Office”) is that drive to be the best in whatever endeavour you’ve undertaken. In the characters written by Gervais and Merchant, this usually means they give in to their uglier nature, with selfishness, narcissism and sometimes a little bit of ruthlessness coming to the fore. And certainly Warwick’s journey — as he admits at the top of the finale — has seen him steal from and exploit his own clients, and generally put himself into situations that leave him exposed professionally and emotionally because it provides the small chance to take another step up the ladder of success. But at what point does that become a delusion?
Well, “Life’s Too Short” ultimately argues that clinging to faint hope is okay. There will be plenty of time when you’re dead to ponder if it was all a waste of time, or if your talent was never that good, but you only have this moment to make the most of whatever shot you’ve got. And “Life’s Too Short” tenderly closes on that sentiment; Warwick’s victory ultimately has nothing to do with his career but really with his own realization and acceptance that his best days might just have gone by already. But that doesn’t mean he has to walk away from everything either. For anyone still plugging away at a novel, playing music or really creating any kind of art, it’s the kind of unspoken concession many come to on their own, but that some like Warwick, need to find after heading down a tougher path. (It’s telling that he ignores the obvious signs that “Willow 2” might not be as real an opportunity as Kilmer is selling it; the dream is much more attractive notion to buy into.)
The laughs aren’t quite as gut-busting and the mood a bit more melancholy, but “Life’s Too Short” provides a worthy ending to a show we would’ve been glad to see more of. But what we got will have to suffice, and with only one season under its belt plus this one hour send off, anyone looking for a quick weekend marathon on something they might’ve missed would do well to track this down. [B]
“Life’s Too Short” airs tonight on HBO at 10 PM.