If you’ve seen Seinfeld since Curb Your Enthusiasm shambled into the pantheon of great American comedy series, you may have found yourself thinking: Wait a second… George Costanza is just a short Larry David who lives with his parents.
A similar feeling overcame me as I watched Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s latest mockumentary series, Life’s Too Short, which debuts Sunday, February 19 at 10:30 p.m., following the third season premiere of Eastbound & Down. (Well played, HBO.) Going into it I’d expected our dwarf protagonist, Warwick Davis—of Harry Potter, Willow, and Return of the Jedi fame, as he is forced to remind the egregiously uninformed masses on the show—to play the straight man while celebrities and commonfolk alike patronized him to the point of terrible hilarity.
Instead (or, more accurately, in addition to) I was confronted with “a small actor with a big ego,” as the tagline puts it, and, as with post-Curb Seinfeld, had trouble separating the voice of the creator with that of his creation. Within minutes I had classified Davis—who is plagued by the same delusions of popularity and relentless, shameless self-promotion—as a shorter, more successful David Brent (Gervais’s Office protagonist and the basis for Steve Carell’s Michael Scott), one who actually hit it big and is now perpetually irked that no one recognizes him, even though his biggest film came out almost thirty years ago and his entire body was housed in an Ewok costume.
But if my inability to separate Davis’s character from his creator is a distraction, it is also a testament to the singularity of Gervais’s voice. People who rip the latest Wes Anderson trailer for being too Wes Andersony or Tarantino’s characters for all sounding the same (i.e., like Quentin Tarantino) bestow auteur status on these writer-directors, and in doing so pay them a hefty compliment, intended or not. Although hearing Gervais’s voice come out of Davis’s mouth—carrying the usual rush of jokes on rape, race, disability, etc.—bugged me, it isn’t rational or fair for me to complain about a Ricky Gervais show being recognizably Gervaisian because, it should go without saying, that’s what I signed up for.
One of Gervais’s strengths—and, after the tagline, the main reason it was silly to expect Davis to play the straight man for seven episodes—is that his characters are rarely one thing all the time. David Brent was a histrionic buffoon, but even he felt like he was taking crazy pills on occasion. (This scene, in which Brent tries in vain to appraise Keith’s performance, comes to mind.) Gervais’s cynical Extras protagonist, Andy Millman, was largely exhausted by the exhibitions of stupidity and weirdness going on around him, but sometimes found himself outdoing them all in his desperate quest for success, particularly in his butchered dream of a sitcom, When the Whistle Blows.
In Life’s Too Short, Davis is both Merchant’s incompetent agent from Extras—the phone never rings at Davis’s Dwarves for Hire office, and when it does, Davis leaps at the role himself instead of giving it to one of his clients—and, in scenes opposite his mathematically challenged, law school dropout accountant/lawyer (played with a kind of blind confidence by Steve Brody), Gervais’s exasperated Millman. Likewise, at times Davis is a little man navigating a world full of giant assholes, but just as often if not more so, he is the biggest asshole of all.
Two of the most prominent assholes in Davis’s world are Gervais and Merchant, playing cowardly, condescending versions of themselves who lob insults at Davis from behind their desk. They duck and rebuff Davis—who considers them good friends—at every turn, wondering aloud how he keeps reaching the doorbell at their London office. Not that Davis is blameless: he asks Gervais to autograph DVDs for charity, then sells them on the street for a quick buck.
In addition to Gervais and Merchant, Life’s Too Short rotates weekly cameos by celebrities of wildly fluctuating (in America, anyway) fame: another Extras parallel that is winkingly acknowledged onscreen as a crutch. The first four weeks it’s Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Steve Carell; the next two it’s Les Dennis and Cat Deeley, before a sanctimonious Sting swoops in to selflessly elevate the star power of the finale.
Of the guest stars, the severe, straight-faced Neeson, giving improv a shot opposite Gervais and returning over and over to an incredibly grim bit about contracting AIDS from an African prostitute (“I’m riddled with it,” he says), is easily the funniest.
Depp—in manic method mode while researching the role of Rumpelstiltskin for, what else, a Tim Burton film—follows Davis around with a tape recorder, barking orders at him and marveling at the way he sits in a chair (“That’s fantastic”)or, at Depp’s command, topples out of it. An angry Depp also confronts Gervais about his 2011 Golden Globe digs—roasting him with jokes written by Hollywood pals like Brangelina—but, having seen Depp and Gervais get chummy at the 2012 awards show just last month, the tension onscreen is diluted.
Bonham Carter is cruelest: filming a scene with Davis, who is standing in for a child actor, she is so repulsed by his size that she has him stuffed in a trashcan—at which point she gripes about his smell. (“You want to get paid, don’t you?” the director asks a reluctant Davis—a creepy line dwarves must hear a lot before getting shot out of a cannon or crammed into an oven.) She insults Davis as an actor and person before flat-out replacing him with the trashcan and having an off-camera crewmember read Davis’s lines. Everyone adores the crewmember’s performance, and the scene is wrapped before Davis can locate, let alone collect, his pride.
No, it’s not easy being Warwick Davis, especially when your wife is divorcing you (and demanding half as resolutely as Bernie Mac in Bad Santa) and the guy at the grocery store won’t let you use a broom to reach the top shelves unless you’re buying it: the kind of small, honest moment that isn’t just funny, but surprisingly poignant. Same goes for a clever visual bit in which Davis tries to make the necessary innovations to his front door’s eyehole, which—you might expect, but I’d never considered before the show—rests entirely too high for a dwarf.
We could use more of this absurd reality and fewer shots of Davis falling over, which he does with the frequency of a rom-com klutz. Likewise, a scene where Davis takes the I-can-do-it-myself mantra of the differently-abled to the extreme is more painfully clichéd than painfully funny. It evokes a wheelchair-bound David Cross sucking his own dick (“I can do it myself!”) in Scary Movie 2, which does not reflect well on Life’s Too Short as a show or me as a critic.
Though Gervais himself has a reputation as sort of a bastard, most of his primary characters are at least well-intentioned people: when push comes to shove, the smallness of their minds belies the robustness of their hearts. As Gervais put it in a recent Time essay on humor, “For me, humanity is king.”
As with The Office and Extras, we would never tolerate such unbearable awkwardness, such sublime ignorance, unless an emotional payoff was imminent. Here it arrives (among other places) in the closing shot of the series, as fitting a TV conclusion as I’ve seen in the past six months. To not give it away, I’ll just say that its cozy precision nearly wiped out all the nits I’d picked over the course of the season.
That, it should go without saying, is worth signing up for.
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.