Life’s Too Short is troll TV. It’s either an incredibly cruel and misguided attempt at extreme cringe comedy or it’s an attempt to make us question why we like shows like The Office or Extras. More importantly, it simply isn’t funny enough to justify its cynicism.
Ricky Gervais doesn’t play the lead in his third TV series collaboration with Stephen Merchant, and that’s crucial. Instead of Gervais playing an awkward and unlikable asshole in his own creation, that role is filled by Warwick Davis, the British dwarf actor who has appeared in various Star Wars movies and played the lead in the infamous fantasy film Willow and the Leprechaun series. Davis plays an awful version of himself that’s as unwittingly callous and shamelessly self-involved as any of Gervais’s characters.
Meanwhile Gervais and Merchant play themselves in minor roles, two rich, successful and famous writers and actors who big stars like Liam Neeson and Johnny Depp hope to work with. They pop up once an episode, usually in a scene that’s both the half-hour’s funniest but that also has very little to do with that week’s story. So they’re successful and sane whereas Davis is the clueless butt of almost every joke.
Last week’s episode ended with Davis wearing a filthy teddy bear suit and embarrassing himself at a stranger’s Star Wars-themed wedding. That’s after sitting through a humiliating sci-fi convention signing and a painful (if legitimately funny) interview with a local TV newsman who clearly had no idea who Davis was.
Davis’ only ray of hope last week was a lucrative job as the model for Johnny Depp’s role in Tim Burton’s Rumpelstiltskin. Depp, the consummate method actor, offered Davis a thousand pounds a day to just follow him around. That eventually lead to a meeting with Gervais and Merchant, where Depp zinged Gervais with some of the biting jokes he, Angelina Jolie and their Hollywood friends wrote about Gervais after his Golden Globe hosting stints. This material was genuinely funny and showed Gervais has no problem ripping on his public persona and performance limitations on his own show. Of course it’s the big movie star who gets one-up on Gervais, and not the star of this show, who’s too busy running through one embarrassing scenario after another.
Tonight’s episode was no better. Davis shamelessly tries to steal the spotlight during a BBC News interview with the chairman of the Society for People of Short Stature, a dwarf rights group for whom Davis serves as vice-chairman. All of Davis’ comments are cut from the TV piece, of course, but the chairman speaks so eloquently about dwarf rights that Davis’s clients at his dwarf casting agency angrily demand better representation. They think Davis is holding them back by booking them in dwarf tossing nights at bars and keeping the best roles for himself. Of course the joke isn’t just that Davis does keep the best jobs for himself; it’s that his clients really can’t act at all, based on the comically bad show reel Davis makes. The dwarves do scenes from Gladiator, Passion of the Christ, and Brokeback Mountain, of which the latter two are actually kind of funny.
Meanwhile, Davis’ brand new website is also getting trolled. A commenter named Cyber Slayer regularly posts bullying replies to all of Davis’ posts. Davis is able to track the commenter down and confronts him in real life. Even when he’s defending himself Davis has to be thoroughly embarrassed, though. The commenter is a teenager at a posh private school. Davis visits the classrom and reads the comments aloud before the entire class, theorizing that the student must be a gay dwarf fetishist. Of course the student is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair. The other students start bullying for being gay, and the disabled student cries silently as Davis awkwardly walks away.
The indignities don’t stop there, though. Davis’ casting agency gets a good offer. A dwarf is needed for a Helena Bonham Carter film and Davis takes the job for himself. He gets to the set and realizes he’s just a stand-in for a child actor. And then Carter, who never once acknowledges Davis as a person, tells the director she can’t recite her lines to Davis because of “how it looks.” They paint a face on a trashcan and have Davis read his lines from behind it. Carter becomes nervous about Davis’ scurrying about behind the trashcan because she can’t see what he’s doing. The director decides to stick Davis in the partially full trashcan. Carter still can’t work opposite Davis, so they have a crew member come recite his lines, not bothering to pull Davis out of the trash. By this point Carter is too upset to continue; the crew breaks and all walk away, leaving Davis in the trash.
I like a lot of so-called cringe comedies. Life’s Too Short is so thoroughly mean-spirited towards its lead, though. Unlike The Office or Extras, where Gervais played unlikable misanthropes who were as arrogant as they were insecure, the butt of Life’s Too Short’s jokes is a likable guy born with a medical condition that has historically and inaccurately considered a disability. It’s hard to laugh at Davis’s misfortune, even though he’s written to be a huge asshole, especially when the writers of the show regularly pop up as the successful voices of reason.
So is Life’s Too Short an unintentional misfire, or are Gervais and Merchant purposefully taking their brand of awkward comedy to its logical extreme? Are they trying to make viewers feel like hypocrites or point out how patronizing we can be by not laughing at an asshole who just happens to be a dwarf? Would I even be asking these questions if this show was actually funny?