Life's Too Short
Still enamored by familiar, multi-camera set-up sitcoms with laugh tracks, Americans have been reluctant to drink too deep of the well that is black comedy – a genre that British television has steadily refined into an artform. They’re coming around though, and two men who can surely take principle credit for that – along with a certain Larry David – are Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, whose championing of the comedy of embarrassment has found something of a home away from home at HBO, a network with a justified reputation for going places other networks won’t.
Completing something of an informal trilogy, along with The Office and Extras, this mockumentary centers on the trials and tribulations of Warwick Davis – he of Star Wars and Harry Potter fame and self-described in the opening minutes as “Britain’s go-to dwarf” – playing a fictionalized version of himself. Estranged from his wife, wandering the wastelands of typecast career wilderness, and battling the IRS at every turn, Davis does a nice turn as a man grimly determined to see the glass half full, if only he could reach it.
While the trademark comic stylings of Gervais and Merchant are clearly identifiable in every scene, with set-ups ranging from uncomfortable to excruciating as well you might expect, Davis’ self-deprecating antics are not buffoonish in the David Brent sense. Rather, the most obvious point of reference is the comedy of Rob Brydon, with Davis happy to borrow one of his passive-aggressive, mildly deluded, nice guy personas, the kind who perennially piss into the wind while systematically avoiding self-awareness like the plague.
While an engaging and watchable presence on screen, you do get the sense that, much like the fictionalized caricature of himself he is playing, that Davis’ chief problem is that he appears to be trying just a little bit too hard. Perhaps understandably for someone who is not naturally a comedic actor, Davis comes over as not entirely comfortable in his own skin, with some lines coming off expertly delivered and yet others sounding rehearsed to within an inch of their life. This is most evident in the scenes that feature all three of the principles together, where Davis has to riff off of Gervais and Merchant, two men to whom comedy clearly does come very naturally.
Still, that’s not to say that the show isn’t funny. The BBC, who know great comedy when they see it, were impressed enough to commission a second season and that’s good enough for us. And with no shortage of star-names in Gervais’ rolodex to call upon – Liam Neeson manages to steal the pilot out from under everyone in just a few, short, cringe-inducing minutes – this one definitely has room to grow (sorry!).