Way back in 2009, Ricky Gervais announced that Extras was “simply no more.” Though that statement came true in the intended sense, an unofficial third series seems to have emerged under the pun-induced title Life’s Too Short (currently airing on BBC2 in the UK). Gervais covered his back when he branded his latest sitcom “a cross between The Office and Extras“, but whether he would admit that in its final product it is awkwardly and distractingly similar to Extras is anybody’s guess. What seems to have gone amiss during production is a realization to just how grating those similarities might prove to be.
Last night’s episode of Life’s Too Short (which guest-starred Helena Bonham-Carter) garnered the lowest viewing figures of the series so far: just 1.3 million people tuned in. That’s the lowest rated episode of the series, and a statistic that paints a fairly telling picture of how the British public have taken to the show. I know: ratings are never a sign of quality (Remember The Office?), but the critics have expressed their disappointment and concerns for Life’s Too Short too. Ricky Gervais operates a critics are scum policy and tends to hold them in utter contempt whenever they comment negatively on his work, so he’s unlikely to care, right? Deep down, he must care a little. Because British critics adored The Office and adored Extras. They’ve supported him from the very beginning.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Ricky Gervais. Even if he seems to have fully embodied that mock-egotist persona he’s always adopting in press junkets and stand-up gigs, he is truly unique in his field and a naturally gifted funnyman. An intelligent innovator, too, Gervais’ comic beats have had more influence on the world at large than we might ever know. He has helped set the tone for a new generation of performers, writers and actors, and even scored a spot on Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2010. It’s true that his career hasn’t gone by without the odd misfire (The Invention of Lying, anyone?), but the man has done so much good (and brought us so many laughs) that it’s hard to stay mad for long.
In fact, if anybody bad mouths Gervais, I feel an unstoppable sense of guilt and embarrassment, like overhearing a conversation about how your lovely uncle has been up to no good in the school playground. You’re automatically in defence mode, even if hard evidence suggests that he did try and lure that little girl into his car. It’s human nature to not want to believe bad things about people you admire and respect. Have I fully established I’m a Gervais fan yet? Good. (I read his blog, too)
Gervais’ third television series written with creative partner Stephen Merchant follows the exploits of showbiz dwarf Warwick Davis as he tries to capitalize on his acting roles in films such as Star Wars and Willow and various Harry Potter outings. The resulting show cannot be described more aptly than as the bastard child of previous Gervais/Merchant television projects (emphasis on bastard). It’s shot in mock-documentary style, Office-like, using clean, Apprentice-styled camerawork, and utilizes the behind-the-scenes set-up and twisted celebrity cameos of Extras. Who knew two healthy doses of good could make a serious bad?
The problem is that Life’s Too Short is a mess. It is aimless, indulgent, self-plagiarizing and cold. It’s biggest crime, though, and the one that would have alleviated so many of its other failings, is that it just isn’t that funny. Okay, it’s intermittently amusing, but where are the belly laughs? Where are the memorable quotes? Forgivable, even, if Gervais and Merchant intended it as some kind of comedy/drama, but Gervais publicly regards Life’s Too Short as “the funniest thing we’ve ever written.” Besides, we all know that it’s trying to make us laugh, so there’s no use making excuses.
Not one for throwing out buzzwords with no intention of backing them up, I’ve provided some explanations for each of the cutting criticisms I tossed out in the paragraph above. My intention is not to condemn the show like you would some prisoner on trial for horrific war crimes, but to highlight the aspects of Life’s Too Short that just aren’t gelling.
Gervais and Merchant proved themselves to be masterful storytellers with their previous shows: they didn’t just tie together amusing scenes with a loose story strand running through the middle (sound familiar?), but managed to craft deft, intricate narrative frames in which their comedic tendencies could run wild. And yet you didn’t even notice it all going to work. Extras made its celebrity cameos part of the storylines. The Office managed to build a believable narrative with footage that was supposed to have been cobbled together for a real documentary, and it still seemed natural and true to the medium it was sending up without breaking any of the realism.
Life’s Too Short doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept of narrative. Warwick Davis just seems to be milling about, doing odd jobs here and there, stopping for meetings with so-called friends Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (playing themselves), and bumping into celebrities who take the story on lengthy tangents that have no place within the overall piece. We learn nothing by the end of an episode. Not a single social comment has been pushed through that we haven’t heard before. Worst of all, three episodes down, and there’s been no real attempt to pin down Warwick’s real goals and ambitions.
The lack of context is alienating. Two minutes can go by and you suddenly realize you’ve stopped listening to Warwick’s ranting. Stopped listening? To a Gervais/Merchant script? These are two writers regarded for their consistently astute lines of dialogue: perfectly-realized moments of awkwardness, pathos, subtlety, and farce achieved through careful construction and timing in the scripts. So far, Life’s Too Short is collection of scenes thrown together in no relevant order, with an emphasis on all the wrong moments. Oh, and starring a celebrity dwarf.
If you begin to imagine that the documentary being made in this mockumentary isn’t being controlled and directed by some guys at ITV or Channel 4, but by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, it begins to make a lot more sense. That explains why the focus is on lengthy sequences with Liam Neeson instead of the social pressures of being a dwarf.
The big question, of course, is why are Gervais and Merchant even in this in the first place? Other than to satisfy some repressed fantasy about playing themselves (I’ve got a feeling this is more Gervais than Merchant), there’s really no reason for the comic duo to have such large parts. Especially since they show such disdain for Warwick, why do they keep meeting with him and letting a camera crew into their throne room to film? I refer to it as a throne room because that’s exactly what it is. Gervais and Merchant sit at a huge desk facing outwards, just like they did on An Idiot Aboard: are we supposed to believe they write like that?
I feel sorry for Warwick Davis. Contained to fluffy suits and piled extensively with make-up for most of his career, who knew he could be such a natural comic performer? It’s just a tragic shame that he seems to have been possessed by the spirit of Slough’s worst office manager. In one of the show’s ultimate missteps, Davis has simply been cast as the dwarf’s answer to David Brent. He’s the nightmare boss through and through, down to the tiniest detail: pompous, egotistical, rude, misguided and deluded. You could take out most of Warwick’s lines and have Gervais read them to unleash an instantly recognizable Brent. What’s the matter with that, you ask? It’s horribly distracting. Like almost every negative trait attached to Life’s Too Short, we’ve seen it done better before.
From The Office, we’ve imported Brent. From Extras: where to begin? The celebrity cameos, though funny, would have found themselves improved and more at home had this been a third series of that show. Here, they take the attention off of Warwick and emphasise the show’s failings: the cameos are the funniest parts, and they’re not even directly related to the narrative or central character. To talk of recent comparisons, Helena Bonham-Carter’s cameo in episode three was a rehash of a scene in the Extras Christmas Special with Clive Owen. It worked brilliantly there, and simply dragged here. A joke is never as funny the second time around. Surely Gervais and Merchant know that?
Then there’s the recycled Extras characters. If Warwick is David Brent on loan, then his assistant Cheryl is another take on the dim-but-lovable Maggie Jacobs (Cheryl is the only character who really works, surprisingly). Isn’t Warwick’s accountant the bumbling desk-bound buffoon that Stephen Merchant played as Andy’s agent in Extras? The comparisons are overwhelming in a way that can only divert your attention back to the shows of the past that employed these elements far more successfully. Here it is self-imitation to the point of embarrassment.
Heartfelt stories and human moments are Gervais and Merchant’s specialty. They crafted arguably the greatest romantic story of the 21st century as Tim and Dawn struggled to admit their feelings for one another in The Office. Life’s Too Short is emotionally clinical. Of course, it’s supposed to be an imitation of documentaries with celebrities trying to make a quick buck, but even those kinds of exploitative shows manage to be human in unexpected, revealing ways. Chances are that Gervais and Merchant are going for all-out comedy here, but it’s not striking a chord because nobody is particular likeable. Warwick oozes a natural charm and likeability even though he’s playing the fool, but there aren’t any stories to root for or characters to identify with. Everybody is either in it for themselves, snarky, egotistical or using other people to get what they want.
We live in a world in which those who create products of entertainment are constantly pressured to top themselves and their work, time after time. The problem there is that audiences naturally (and instinctively) set the bar too high and set themselves up for huge disappointments. I’m not from that school of thought, and believe firmly that we should be thankful for great works, regardless of their chronological order. But is that really the issue here? Extras was never deemed greater than The Office, but it was great nonetheless. It helped its creators escape the immense shadow of their previous work and earned rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. Nobody said it was a better show but nobody cared: that’s because Extras was a product of quality.
But there is knowing when to move on. Because Life’s Too Short is lazy. Not lazy because it was written in a couple of hours on a vodka binge, but lazy in its conceit. I’m sure that Gervais and Merchant piled just as much effort into this show as they did any other, it’s just that they haven’t got Extras out of their system. Like so many of us, they can’t seem to get away from the smart, self-aware comedy shows that Curb Your Enthusiasm paved the way for in the early 2000s: celebrities playing themselves and self-referential meta-jokes around every corner. Don’t the comic duo realize that they already did that to perfection?
To call Life’s Too Short a complete failure would be obtuse. To fail completely it would have to have not a single redeeming quality, and only those with a sheer grudge against Gervais and Merchant could agree to that. With three episodes down, four remain in this series. More than anything, I want to eat my words. I want to look back at this article in four weeks and feel ashamed at how ill-judging a critique this was. I want to find out that my uncle was innocent after all, and to apologize for not having enough faith in him when he needed it most.