Ricky Gervais has earned a well-deserved reputation for comedic fearlessness. Which makes the creative brick wall he and collaborator Stephen Merchant ran into on “Life’s Too Short,” their second live-action HBO series, all the more disappointing.
Unlike “The Office” and “Extras” before it — both comedic gems of slightly varying quality, which produced two fleeting seasons — “Life’s Too Short” aired just one before culminating with an hourlong wrap-up episode that will air this Friday on the pay service. The scheduling Friday of a holiday weekend suggests HBO doesn’t harbor much more enthusiasm for the hour than most of its viewers, but there’s been a strong relationship between the network and comic, which includes televising his animated podcast “The Ricky Gervais Show” and two of his stand-up specials.
Like this latest series, the first two shows reveled, often hilariously, in inappropriate laughs and uncomfortable moments. “Extras” and “Life’s Too Short” also shared a particularly jaundiced eye directed toward celebrity, not only skewering the famous and notorious but also often getting them to play along with the joke in fantastic ways.
But far from the spark associated with those earlier shows, “Life’s Too Short” is merely an “Extras” retread, built (down to the title) on a pun: The fact the action centers on Warwick Davis, the dwarf featured in such movies as “Willow” and “Return of the Jedi,” playing a twisted version of himself, struggling along as both a has-been actor and talent agent to other little people, under the heading Dwarves for Hire.
The obvious gag was that being short magnified all of Davis’ showbiz-centric problems, while giving Gervais, Merchant and the star (who shared in the created by credit) free rein to wallow in dwarf-inspired jokes and miscues. There were also plenty of celebrities willing to satirize their own carefully massaged images, including an especially crazed turn by Johnny Depp.
Still, this finale mostly underscores the extent to which the show misfired, and what little (everything sounds like a bad pun in this context) it got right.
Although there’s a rather sizable “Broadway Danny Rose”-type “B” plot, the main thrust of the finale involves Val Kilmer reuniting with Davis, bringing with him plans to produce a sequel to “Willow,” which was pretty much when Davis’ seen-usually-under-heavy-makeup career peaked. The recurring gag involves a puffy-looking Kilmer being reminded he’s the one guy who plays Batman that nobody remembers, which is amusing, so far as it goes.
Gervais and Merchant have clearly benefited from the British production model, where it’s possible with an effort like this (produced for HBO and BBC) to deliver a small number of episodes, then attempt to provide viewers a welcome sense of closure.
What’s missing this time is any significant payoff, which had been a hallmark of the prior shows (I’ve always been especially fond of the “Extras” finale). And while there’s a melancholy tone mixed with the zaniness, the series throughout has felt so conspicuously plucked from “Extras’” rib, with Davis approximating Gervais’ character, the shrinkage in entertainment value goes well beyond the obvious.
To be fair, Gervais and Merchant are hardly the only showrunners to follow up a great series or two with a disappointment, but the lack of inspiration on display runs particularly counter to Gervais’ nose-thumbing image. In essence, the comic is guilty of churning out the sort of derivative crap for which he gleefully ripped those in the audience during his Golden Globes hosting stint.
When it comes to watching a TV show like that, life really is, well, you know.