Ricky Gervais has expressed a desire to have a certain expected style, citing Woody Allen as a successful example of how this can be obtained. Of course, this is a recipe open for immense backlash, with a dwindling fanbase inevitably on the horizon. But the niche market is a place Gervais belongs, and within that he can thrive with the integrity his lead characters always struggle to have.
After two successful TV series (The Office and Extras), not to mention the record-setting podcast, Gervais and writing/directing partner Stephen Merchant have carved a corner of the industry reserved for such notables as the aforementioned Allen, Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling, Larry David, John Cleese, and so on. In short, it’s a respectable comedic television and film corner, destined to influence and amuse for generations, without the crutch of mainstream intentions and expectations.
Their latest series—their fourth fictional project together, following the underappreciated feature film Cemetery Junction—is Life’s Too Short, a meta-mockumentary starring Warwick Davis as a fictionalized version of himself. It’s a show completely designed to amuse Gervais and Merchant (who play versions of themselves in the show as well), and, by extension, Gervais/Merchant enthusiasts. Davis’s contribution can’t be ignored—he is accredited as co-creator, and his performance is what sends it into the realm of “great”.
The writing is brilliant—as all Merchant/Gervais writing is—but Davis really does wonders for the series. No, he’s not funny because he’s a little person; he’s funny because he’s a uniquely proportioned and brilliant performer. That combination could fool people into thinking the laughs are cheap, but they’re brilliantly executed and often hard earned. Davis dives head first into the degradation of his character, and having him as the lead is intrinsically refreshing. Since Davis’s character is so egotistical, it creates an interesting divide between the desire to feel sympathy due to his physical stature, and the knee-jerk judgments in reaction to his objectionable behavior. The balance creates that tension within the comedy that Gervais and Merchant are known for, with humanism and absurdity going head to head in the face of desperation. As is always the case with the Gervais name, the show contains true insights into the pathology of a fame-seeker.
The first seven episodes of the show—making up the complete first season—follows Davis as he documents his own climb back up the show business ladder. He’s getting a divorce, has a tax problem, struggles with his height, his waning popularity, is involved with Dwarves for Hire (a group that specializes in getting little people actors hired), but they’re doubting where the group falls in his list of priorities—basically each episode adds another problem to his litany. Of course, in typical Gervais/Merchant style, many of his problems are brought on by his own behavior, his own inability to see the flaws in his actions and come to grips with his true self. However, this inability makes him loveable too, since he’s delusional and oblivious, but not malicious. You laugh at him, but you do hope that at any given moment you’ll laugh with him.
Some have grown weary of the Gervais/Merchant projects, with Life’s Too Short being considered a retread. Though it does play as a combination of Extras and The Office, those two series combine for a total of fifteen hours. If those shows didn’t have such brief runs, I would understand the backlash, but under the circumstances, I’ve yet to tire of their style. Though the title is a little too on the nose, and the first season arc is fairly slight, it’s tremendously aided by a stellar lead performance, and the comedy sequences meet the high standards expected from the Gervais/Merchant brand. It’s also full of celebrity cameos that do genuinely add to the comedy and the intended realism, and despite the caliber of fame Davis is surrounded by, he shines just as brightly. Life’s Too Short is the show Davis needed to showcase his talents, and though it’s not necessarily the show Gervais and Merchant needed to make to prove their longevity, it’s a welcome addition to their growing list of auteured, niche-market programming.