Spoilers up to S1E6 of Life’s Too Short.
As the show features Warwick Davis playing a fictionalised version of himself, I’ve referred to the character in inverted commas. So, the actor Warwick Davis plays the character ‘Warwick Davis’.
I discuss the use of Davis’ size, and it’s relevance to the plot, but I’m not totally sure what the correct term is, and what’s generally seen as slightly offensive. I’ve used the terms ‘dwarf’ and ‘short person’ – if either of these cause offence, I apologise.
Life’s Too Short aired in the UK in December, and I wrote a review, based on the first two episodes.
After the series finished, I had some thoughts based on the series as a whole that… well, that I didn’t up at the time, based either on being nice or lazy. Take your pick of those two. Having seen adverts for the American airing of the series currently taking place, I’ve decided it could be worth putting finally putting those thoughts down in writing.
You know – for journalistic integrity. Or something like that.
As I say, I’d written the previous blog after watching the first two episodes, and, though I had mixed feelings about the show, I was cautiously optimistic about the rest of the series. After all, this was Gervais and Merchant – maybe a little overhyped, but probably the best comedic pairing in Britain at the moment.
I don’t want to sound like the stereotypical entitled internet commenter, demanding the best from everything while giving nothing in return, and picking apart the flaws in a piece of creativity that’s superior to anything I’ve produced.
But I wrote the previous piece assuming things would come together over the course of the series, and flaws would be solved, whereas, to be honest, it didn’t. If anything, the show fell further apart, like a toy from a particularly cheap Chinese sweatshop that arrives with lead paint flaking off, then later reveals plutonium inside.
Okay, maybe that was a little harsh. I’m almost certain that watching Life’s Too Short won’t kill your kids and make your hair fall out.
I should also state in advance that I only saw six of the seven episodes when they were shown here in the UK – I missed the finale, and though finding it would have been pretty easy on BBC iPlayer, I wasn’t all that bothered about getting round to watching it.
I’m the kind of completionist that tends to watch shows long after they’ve past their best or failed to reach their original potential…just on the off chance that there’ll be an occaisonal episode that does reach those heights.
I’m saying this to point out that I may be a little uninformed, but also that the show didn’t grab me enough to make me care that much about what happened to these characters.
In many ways Life’s Too Short is a third series of Extras, in tone if not in continuity. It’s set in the showbiz world, with big name actors playing versions of themselves that are over the top, or surprising, or whatever else.
It has some good ideas – I like the idea of Gervais being rude to Steve Carrell about the part they’ve both played, for example.
But most of them didn’t come off – with the exceptions of the excellent cameo by Liam Neeson (as good as Patrick Stewart’s or Kate Winslett’s in Extras, in my opinion), or the very good cameo by Jonny Depp – who’s fascinated by the concept of being a dwarf, and bares a grudge against Ricky Gervais for his hosting of the Golden Globes.
But those cameos – in the first two episodes – are the only ones that struck me as worth the effort.
Probably the weakest cameo is by Cat Deeley – her character is hired by ‘Warwick Davis’ as a professional party guest. That’s something which I think showbiz types really do, and it’s a silly and really quite sad trend that’s ripe for mockery. Instead, ‘Warwick Davis’ pretends that the two of them are dating, which is really the most over the top and least believable way they could have gone with that idea.
Really, this is a subject where they should have gone for subtle satire, and chose OTT farce.
In another episode, Helena Bonham-Carter plays a version of herself that’s bigoted against little people, and, rather than blurring the line between reality and the private version of themselves, I was watching thinking ‘no, she’s not like that, I don’t buy that at all!’.
Obviously truth isn’t the aim here, but verisimilitude is – the appearance of truth.
(Ooh, look at me with my big words, I must be dead clever/or own a thesaurus.)
Patrick Stewart’s cameo made me wonder if, beneath all his charm and decency, there’s a slightly perverted man, and Liam Neeson’s made me think that maybe he’s a really unfunny man who desperately wants to be funny. They’re almost certainly not, but the scenes were so strong, in writing and acting, that the impressions they left stayed with me after I’d seen them.
Helena Bonham-Carter’s didn’t make that impression even while I was still watching it. Like Cat Deeley, it was just totally unbelievable the way it was written and played.
There were other ideas – like ‘Warwick Davis’ challenging for chairmanship of the dwarf rights group he attends, and desperately trying to get in on a televised interview, that felt unrealistic and contrived – to me they didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what had been shown of the character.
It wasn’t funny, and was awkward in the wrong kind of way.
If the character is such a pathetic person that he feels the need to wrestle what is apparently (in the world of the show) the UK’s leading dwarf rights group away from a more talented leader, should we really care about him? Honestly, this is a rich celebrity trampling over a group set up to help people with physical and social barriers in their way. I know Gervais and Merchant like to push the barriers of likeability in their characters, but this isn’t David Brent being oblivious to one or two people in an office, whose experiences he finds hard to empathise with. It’s a deeper form of lack of empathy, that makes it look like ‘Warwick’ does understand how important the group is, and just doesn’t care.
‘Warwick Davis’ is meant to be, I’m pretty sure, a delusional egomaniac in the same vein as David Brent. The problem is that Warwick Davis isn’t as good as playing that kind of nasty character as Ricky Gervais.
I like the idea of a sitcom set around life as a dwarf, and apparently the series began as a series of real life incidents Davis had been through or heard about, and pitched to Gervais and Merchant.
And I feel a little mean saying that the character as intended is beyond Davis’ acting ability. I do like the idea of including a wider range of actors and characters in mainstream sitcoms, but just as being short doesn’t mean he can’t act, it also doesn’t mean he has an infinite acting ability and can play any part.
The problem with his acting is that Davis is too nice a person, and that comes across even when he’s playing a character who, based on words and actions, we should detest.
It’s not so much a criticism of Davis himself, more of Gervais and Merchant. As writers and producers, they will have had a lot of power over the making of the show, and with their past experience should really have realised what did and didn’t work.
Life’s Too Short could have done with a Tim and Dawn figure, or at least an Andy Millman – someone who’s ‘ordinary’ in the midst of the madness, who the audience can sympathise with. I don’t think ‘Warwick Davis’ was meant to fill this gap (although he doesn’t really succeed as a Brent style monster either, so I can’t be totally sure).
A show where, for instance, the dwarf protagonist is a nice guy bending over backwards to be polite in the face of the nastiness of the industry, or perhaps is a businessman entering the showbiz industry as an outsider setting up a talent agency, could have worked the same material better in my opinion.
There are some moments of humour and pathos, but they are too few and far between. For example, ‘Warwick’ argues with a builder hired to work on his new home, who didn’t think to fit the door handles lower, and doesn’t seem to understand why he’d want them so low. A bit basic perhaps, but the delivery made me laugh, and it strikes me as a realistic and practical problem that short people must encounter.
In one episode ‘Warwick’ gets obsessed with an abusive commenter on his website, and chases down this person in real life. The moment the commenter’s identity is revealed is a single moment of sharp pathos, strong enough to fit in the David Bowie episode of Extras. Honestly, that moment of empathy for a slightly mean character is better than anything the show generated for it’s protagonist.
There’s also the problem of Gervais and Merchant. In the show they play versions of themselves. For this to work, the characters would need to be either nasty or idiots. Instead most of the humour surrounding their characters rests on them being bothered by others – silly Jonny Depp can’t tell that the Golden Globes routine was only a bunch of jokes, and C-list celebs like Keith Chegwin want to be written into their next series to get a Les Dennis-like comeback.
Both of these were funny in themselves, but it felt like Gervais and Merchant weren’t willing to subject themselves to the same treatment they put other stars through.
Yes, they do boss ‘Barry from Eastenders’ around, but this didn’t go far enough, to me.
Life’s Too Short generally isn’t all that funny, isn’t believably awkward in the way Gervais and Merchant’s previous work is, and has characters I didn’t care about all that much.
In fact, it’s main positive role, aside from the genuinely excellent Liam Neeson cameo in the first episode and a pretty good one from Jonny Depp in the second, is as a reminder of how good Extras was.
I want to temper my criticism by saying that MetaCritic, the television equivelant of Rotten Tomatoes which compiles average ratings from across multiple reviews, has given it a decent rating overall, and that the Huffington Post thought that it almost over-reached but succeeded, whereas I thought the opposite was the problem, that Gervais and Merchant went back to the character archetypes they knew and had used before, even when they didn’t work.
However, The Guardian and The Independent both broadly agreed with what I thought, and The Metro thought that the finale, the one episode I didn’t see, was the best of the lot.
Life’s Too Short aired in the UK back to back with a lesser known but in my view far superior sitcom, Rev.
Rev. follows an Anglican priest in a inner city parish, and stars Tom Hollander as Reverend Adam Smallbone, Olivia Coleman as his wife Alex, and Miles Jupp as his assistant Nigel. The tone is colourful but realistic – similar in fact to The Office. (Not quite as good, but probably the closest currently airing on British TV.)
Adam is a very flawed and weak man in a position where he feels he should be a community leader, whose desire to be kind and patient is tested by some of his more demanding parishoners.
His flaws and challenges are much more compelling than those of ‘Warwick Davis’, and has generates some of the ‘I want to like you, but what the **** are you doing?’ empathy Brent generated.
Showing them back to back highlighted Life’s Too Short‘s shortcomings.
As I say, there are other, better shows on the air at the moment, comedies that use a deadpan, realistic tone, along with comic events that are over the top in a way that could realistically happen.
Rev.; The Big C – Laura Linney and Oliver Platt’s cancer comedy; apparently Nurse Jackie, going by it’s reputation – are all doing the kind of thing that made Gervais and Merchant’s name, to a much higher standard than they curently are.