The Office was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's early peak, spawning worldwide remakes and re-popularizing the "mockumentary" in general; Extras was a worthy follow-up, which some prefer because it's less toe-curling and pokes fun at celebrities; Cemetery Junction was the duo's move into celluloid, but for various reasons audiences weren't interested in a coming-of-age comedy-drama set in the '70s—despite it being a bold decision to avoid another spoof and relegate Gervais to a minor role. Since then, between solo projects, they've been content with making an unlikely cult hero of mutual pal Karl Pilkington, with an animated version of their award-winning podcasts and a comedy travelogue called An Idiot Abroad.
So it's interesting that their latest project for the BBC, Life's Too Short, is basically a mixture of everything that's worked for them on the small screen. It's a fake documentary like The Office, it's set in the showbusiness world like Extras, and a large part of the comedy comes from watching Gervais and Merchant torment another of their pals, renowned dwarf actor Warwick Davis. Warwick plays "himself"; a struggling actor who runs a talent agency for small people called "Dwarves For Hire", separated from his normal-sized wife (Joe Enright). In real life, Warwick doesn't run an agency and is happily married with a (literally) small family, so the similarities really only extend to name and profession.
The premise of Life's Too Short is that Warwick's agreed for a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew to follow his every move, so viewers can get an insight into the life of a dwarf actor/businessman trying to make a living in the modern world--a good quarter-century past his '80s heyday as an Ewok in The Return Of The Jedi and the eponymous hero of Willow. I was relieved to see the comedy wasn't entirely based around making fun of dwarves, although admittedly Warwick's three funniest moments involved such an angle (falling out of a car, being unable to reach an door intercom, getting stuck in a cat flap). No, by far the biggest issue was that Warwick's character is noticeably very Gervais-y—which seems to show that Gervais and Merchant, as writers, can't help falling back on a certain type of character for shows like this. I never once felt that this was Warwick Davis, more Warwick Davis behaving like The Office's David Brent.
But that's not really a criticism of Warwick himself, who was surprisingly enjoyable to watch toddling around showing the cameras his daily routines and getting frustrated with the idiots who share his day. He has a definitely presence, confidence and charm that I wasn't expecting, perhaps because you tend to think dwarf "actors" are just dwarves who learn the basics of a craft that's prone to putting them in fantasy or sci-fi projects as trolls, leprechauns and tiny robots. (Which, to be fair, is largely the case, and Warwick's certainly no stranger to the make-up chair for quirky roles like that.) Not everyone can be Game Of Thrones' Peter Dinklage, but he's above Verne Troyer in the talent stakes—although, as one scene amusingly made clear, Troyer's a bigger star these days because his hits are more recent. Oh, and he made a sex tape, which is the 21st-century shortcut to global fame these days—as approved by Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
Another problem with this comedy is that, to be honest, it only really became laugh-out-loud funny whenever Gervais and Merchant appeared—as themselves, perched behind the same glass desk they ridicule Karl Pilkington from before he flies across the world to swim with sharks and experience a Turkish sauna. Like them or loathe them, Gervais and Merchant were like a shot in the arm whenever they appeared here. But this is a very odd situation: a sitcom where the funniest moments don't involve your lead actor much, if at all.
The standout scene in this premiere was Liam Neeson's attempt at improv comedy with Gervais, trying to play a doctor and then a greengrocer without coming across as too serious and depressing, but utterly failing ("I've contracted AIDS from an African prostitute.") It was a brilliantly funny moment that was very evocative of Extras at its best, but it required absolutely no input from Warwick—who instead just sat and watched. Hopefully Warwick will be more central going forward, because right now this is a good but unremarkable spoof documentary about "small man syndrome", but Gervais and Merchant have egoistically ensured all the funniest moments fall to them. Why are they even in this show, when you think about it. It's as if they weren't convinced people would watch otherwise.
Still, I kind of admire the meta-meta universe that's being created. Shaun Williamson (aka Barry from EastEnders) makes a fun appearance, as it was revealed he's exactly like the foolish version of himself he played in Extras. Yet he isn't that character. He's playing a version of himself who played a version of himself in a sitcom written by two writers, who are now also appearing as versions of themselves in their latest sitcom. I've gone cross-eyed.
Overall, I'd be very surprised if Life's Too Short develops into anything approaching the achievement of Extras, let alone The Office. The concept's too thin, despite Warwick's splendid efforts. It's given a boost by involving Gervais, Merchant and a star-of-the-week (Sting, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sophie Ellis Bextor... um, Keith Chegwin and Les Dennis), but that suggests a lack of faith that viewers would be prepared to watch a wholly Warwick Davis-led spoof.
I've already noticed that deadpan Neeson's hilarious scene is doing the rounds online ("I'm always making lists. In fact, that's probably why Steven Spielberg cast me as Oscar Schindler in Schindler's List") That's to be expected, of course, but it again speaks to the problem here that Life's Too Short needs to prove that Warwick's the star and YouTube clips of his antics can be just as popular. Otherwise, why not just make a third series of Extras set in America, if self-parodying celebrities are all we're really after.
- Did anyone else feel that Warwick's hopeless accountant Eric would have been played by Stephen Merchant, had this been an episode of Extras?