Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant didn’t create cringe comedy, but with the original Office they might have perfected it. The two return to America with Life’s Too Short, their third live action series and second to be co-produced by HBO. Like Extras, it’s a show business mockumentary starring a middle-aged actor struggling in both his personal and professional lives. Gervais cedes the spotlight to another actor this time, though, and that’s where the show gets its punny title. Warwick Davis, the British dwarf actor best known for costumed roles in various Star Wars films, the horror franchise Leprechaun and the lead of the ill-fated fantasy bomb Willow, plays a fictionalized (and extremely pathetic) version of himself. Davis is game, but if you’re hoping for another Office (or even Extras) you’ll probably be disappointed.
Davis essentially fills the Gervais role in Life’s Too Short. He’s arrogant but insecure, with self-loathing occasionally oozing through a confident front. Davis lies repeatedly, and is almost always called on those lies as awkwardly as possible. He casually insults the appearance of his wife, who we quickly learn is filing for divorce. He’s basically portrayed as a show-biz hanger-on whose chief skill is being very short and whose career exists almost entirely because of George Lucas. Davis does a fine job, but it’ll be difficult for him to emerge from the shadow of Gervais, who is preternaturally good at playing clueless, talentless egomaniacs.
Gervais and Merchant play themselves in a couple of scenes. When Davis calls on them to drum up work, they’re openly rude to him. Even though Davis is pathetically hanging on to past glories and is kind of a dick to his (soon to be ex-) wife, he isn’t as clearly and immediately unlikable as The Office’s David Brent. Gervais and Merchant’s open hostility doesn’t seem warranted. It makes you feel sorry for Davis even though the rest of the episode wants you to laugh at him.
You can trace the show’s tone to The Office, but Life’s Too Short mostly feels like warmed-over scraps from Extras. In his one scene Davis’s moronic accountant essentially fills the role of Merchant’s incompetent agent from Extras. There’s even a blatant call-back to Extras, with a brief cameo from that show’s Shaun Williamson, aka Barry from EastEnders.
The biggest laughs come from Liam Neeson, playing himself in a meeting with Gervais and Merchant where he asks for ideas for a live comedy show. Neeson’s inability to grasp the concept of improvisation is hilarious, but this long scene is completely tangential to the rest of the episode. Davis temporarily becomes a spectator in his own show as the “real” stars run through a comedy sketch. It solidifies my impression of this first episode – it’s funny but lazy and maybe even unnecessary.