For fans of Ricky Gervais’ brilliant HBO series “Extras,” “Life’s Too Short” feels like a rehash, with about half the laughs. Of course, there’s a pun there, as there is in the title, since the show focuses on Warwick Davis, the diminutive “Willow” star and one-time Ewok, whose adventures (and indignities) in showbiz essentially mirror Gervais’ character in the previous show, an extra with leading-man ambitions. The program still yields some irresistible humor by plumbing the depths of discomfort, mostly courtesy of its celebrity cameos. Still, the concept finally disappoints — feeling too precious and derivative for its own good.
As has become increasingly common, part of the gag hinges on Davis essentially playing a less-famous, presumably more idiotic and decidedly more desperate version of himself, an actor whose various challenges are magnified by being a dwarf. On top of that, Davis is also a part-time agent for other dwarfs, and conveniently keeps dropping in on his pals, series creators Gervais and Stephen Merchant, as themselves.
Mostly, those encounters provide an excuse to put Davis, and at times Gervais and Merchant, in contact with celebrities, who the producers have once again found to be inordinately game in willing to be depicted as megalomaniacs and loons.
So in the premiere, Liam Neeson comes in eager to do standup comedy, with a horrifying routine that keeps falling back on AIDS jokes. In a subsequent half-hour, Johnny Depp portrays the insane auteur — he wants to hang out with a dwarf, method-style, because Tim Burton has cast him as Rumpelstiltskin — and for good measure, seeks revenge against Gervais for his Golden Globe slights regarding “The Tourist.”
Thanks to the mock “celebreality” format, Davis keeps getting captured in awkward scenarios, mostly because — as he channels Gervais, down almost to his mannerisms — he’s utterly lacking in self-awareness, starved for approval and, not incidentally, in need of money. So a trip to a sci-fi convention descends into farcical disaster when he insists on charging a cancer-stricken kid $25 for an autograph, just like he does everyone else. And he can’t seem to figure out that his wife (Jo Enright) is really through with him.
Not surprisingly, the show produces some very funny moments, but the gags are hit-miss, and the poorer ones tend to drag on too long, frequently relying on someone’s stupidity, particularly when involving Davis’ daft assistant (Rosamund Hanson).
It’s also somewhat dispiriting, frankly, to see Gervais and Merchant repeating themselves in this fashion. Not to disparage Davis, but if they were going to return to this milieu, they might as well have done another round of “Extras” and skipped the middle man.
Still, almost every episode here yields at least a couple scenes worth savoring, which in the bigger picture is probably enough to justify the participation of HBO, whose relationship with Gervais has also included an animated version of his podcasts and standup specials.
Certainly, “Life’s Too Short” won’t do anything to diminish Gervais and Merchant’s reputation for comedic fearlessness, diving headlong into areas well beyond the boundaries of political correctness. That said, measured against the yardstick of their own lofty standards, the show comes up a little short.