A note – as the show features a lot of actors playing a fictionalised version of themselves, I’ve referred to the characters in inverted commas. So, the actor Warwick Davis plays the character ‘Warwick Davis’, Ricky Gervais plays ‘Ricky Gervais’, Liam Neeson plays ‘Liam Neeson’, and so on.
A bit of background – in the weeks leading up to the show’s beginning, Ricky Gervais has gotten himself involved in a stupid bit of controversy. He’s returned to Twitter, and gotten involved in an incredibly annoying argument over the word ‘mong’. He’s been arguing that the word has lost it’s social stigma (an insulting word for a retarded person), and that it’s now only a word for idiot. He’s been refusing to back down or accept that, with language being an elastic concept that develops and changes over time, it could have a meaning for some people beyond what he understands it to have.
It’s been a very stupid argument that I’ve deliberately avoided hearing too much about. The two options are that Gervais is extremely overconfident of his opinion, or that he’s been deliberately causing a controversy to promote his new show. Pulling a Trump, in other words.
Also, the concept (Warwick Davis plays ‘Warwick Davis’ in a mockumentary about life as a dwarf actor) sounds a little like a spoof to me, closer to the show-within-a-show When the Whistle Blows in Extras. So, I wasn’t optimistic going in.
Life’s Too Short follows ‘Warwick Davis’ during his day to day activities, running a dwarf talent agency, visiting his ex-wife, at a scifi convention, and visiting ‘Gervais’ and ‘Merchant’.
He’s apparently playing the Gervais character, but doesn’t really seem suited. ‘Warwick Davis’ seems to be intended to be a David Brent type, filled with delusion and hints of nastiness, but with tenderness below. This is apparently a character who’s left his wife thinking he can do better. But the problem is that the way Warwick Davis plays the character, he doesn’t seem like the kind of nasty piece of work who’d do that. He’s kept his awful accountant on after 25 years, but will walk out on his wife for someone better in the vague sense, without having anyone lined up? It didn’t seem to fit the performance, and worse, the scene where his wife revealed that ‘Warwick’ walked out on her to the camera wasn’t really funny.
Another problem is that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant playing ‘Ricky Gervais’ and ‘Stephen Merchant’, in a script written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. It’s a setup that needs to work really well to be anything but self-congratulatory, their characters need to be more mocking – pathetic or monstrous in the same way as the celebrity cameos. In the first two episodes, ‘Ricky Gervais’ and ‘Stephen Merchant’ seem more like a self-tribute. The bits with ‘Barry from Eastenders’ work in making them look like bullies, but not well or often enough to blur the lines between the reality that most of the audience will be aware of and the fiction.
The celebrity cameos in the first two episodes do this really well – Jonny Depp’s cameo in episode two has me thinking about a bunch of offended a-listers backstage at the Golden Globes mocking Gervais, and Liam Neeson’s appearance….well, it’s best watched unspoilered.
The point is though, that the celebrity cameos blur the lines of the reality we’ve seen in interviews and awards ceremonies, and hinted at in gossip columns. Is Jonny Depp really unaware of how close he, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter seem? Is Liam Neeson really that dull? In both of these cases the answer is probably not, but the writing and performance blur the lines.
Also, the themes of celebrity and fame feel a bit stale and overdone, and there’s nothing in the first two episodes, the desperation for recognition, that doesn’t feel like a retread from Extras or the later episodes of The Office, after David Brent has became a minor reality TV star.
After the first two episodes, I don’t have a proper sense of who ‘Warwick Davis’ is – is he a jerk who’s good at acting the nice guy, a nice guy who’s the victim of prejudice, practical difficulties of being a dwarf, or a nice guy harshened a little by celebrity?
He fits with RedLetterMedia’s criticism of the characters in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – other than the factual descriptions of where they come from, their job, how they dress, it’s hard to describe who they are as a character. So far I feel the same way about ‘Warwick Davis’.
Also, the mockmentary set-up doesn’t feel real, and doesn’t really add anything. Surely if Warwick Davis were to have a documentary follow him, he’d be powerful and industry-wily enough to edit out the bits where his wife contradicts him?
However, in spite of it’s many flaws, the show has a pretty good amount of laughs, and Gervais and Merchant’s ability to create the awkward, ‘I-can-kind-of-see-where-you’re-coming-from-but-for-your-own-sake-please-stop-talking’ moments is still there. Judging by the first 2 episodes Life’s Too Short won’t be a classic, and may not be given a second series, but sections such as Liam Neeson’s cameo will make it worthwhile watching.
Watchable, with moments of genius
Life’s Too Short is available on BBC iPlayer, episode 3 is on BBC Two at 9:30 Thursday.