Ricky Gervais deserves credit for being able to take verbal abuse as well as he can dish it out. In this week’s visit to the Life’s Too Short Celebrity Corner, Johnny Depp trails Warwick to his regularly unscheduled meeting with Ricky and Stephen, and Johnny has a few choice words for the series’ co-writer and co-creator. Words that translate the emotions churning beneath Johnny’s immaculately stoned façade, stemming—as most things relating to the real-life Ricky Gervais do these days—from the 68th Golden Globe Awards. After dashing off a few Borscht Belt-worthy one-liners at Ricky’s expense, Johnny arrives at the true stinger in his iPhone-bound repertoire: “I hear that Ricky Gervais quit Twitter recently because it only has 140 characters. Well that’s a 139 more characters than he’s ever come up with.”
Johnny’s joke is a brilliant bit of self-deprecation on the part of Gervais and Merchant, but he isn’t allowed to receive the last laugh. That, of course, belongs to Ricky, who barely allows his guest to marinate in the afterglow of his revenge before getting in a dig at Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End. The world of Life’s Too Short looks a lot like our own, but it’s also one where the outcomes are all determined by Gervais and Merchant.
With regard to Life’s Too Short’s celebrity cameos, it’s a plus that Gervais and Merchant are pulling the strings. The two are unsparing in their depiction of celebrity culture, and their sharp satirical skills make short work of Hollywood’s overblown egos and mollycoddled personalities. It’s when they apply their perspective to characters who are on the outside looking in that Life’s Too Short starts to get wonky. (Which is a shame, seeing as they did so well doing exactly with The Office and Extras.) In the second episode’s brainstorming session between Warwick and Cheryl, the characters don’t talk like people formulating ideas for a struggling business—they talk like David Brent formulating ideas for a struggling business. Cheryl’s imagined exchange with a satisfied Dwarves For Hire customer relies on the rhythms Gervais put to hilarious ends in his talking-head segments of The Office—but it’s too distracting here to be funny. It’s one thing for the writers’ voices to define the shape, perspective, and humor of a TV series; it’s another for them to completely dominate the proceedings and not allow for the actors to bring anything new to the table. That’s a major drawback to working within the British TV model: One or two writers churning out the scripts for an entire series leads to a certain amount of cohesiveness—but those writers are also bound to repeat themselves more often without other people pitching in.
As such, “Whose show is it anyway?” is the big question hanging over the first two episodes of Life’s Too Short. The focus is on Warwick for most of episode two, but there’s still no real sense as to what differentiates him from other Gervais-Merchant protagonists. He’s self-centered (for every piece of Marvin The Paranoid Android memorabilia in Warwick’s comic-convention booth, there are four items bearing the actor’s face), aspirational, great at sticking his foot in his mouth—all things we’ve seen from the duo’s previous shows. Warwick Davis is a unique personality whose fascinating career offers rich source material (and a few easy-joke pitfalls). Unfortunately, all that’s good for in this second episode are set dressing and setups for discomfort humor staples like cancer patients and bad wedding toasts. Why does it matter that it’s Warwick Davis making inappropriate jokes at the wedding reception of two strangers, other than the fact that Davis is the only actor that could fit inside that ridiculous makeshift Ewok costume?
Aside from the fact that any number of TV misanthropes and blockheads could’ve made the same gaffes, that scene at the reception at least aligns the two spheres of Life’s Too Short: Warwick’s world and Ricky and Stephen’s world. Warwick wouldn’t be stopping by Ricky and Stephen’s office if he didn’t honestly admire their work; in comeback mode, he clearly fancies himself someone who can work behind the scenes and in front of the camera to same, successful ends as his professional acquaintances. At the slightest sign that the reception is about to become maudlin, Warwick switches into “entertainer” mode, doing what Gervais and Merchant would do—lightening the mood with joke and insults—and failing as hard as their fictional alter egos. It’s one moment where Warwick-as-Gervais-and-Merchant’s-puppet really soars, and the momentary feint toward a successful toast—before the character goes into a tailspin of misguided innuendo and unwitting humiliation—is a genuine surprise. At this juncture, there’s too much of the men behind the desk in Warwick for him to triumph—in the world of Life’s Too Short and our own. Here’s hoping the rest of the series works toward lowering the number in Johnny Depp’s final joke to 138.
- Cheryl isn’t one of those characters that grows on you the more time you spend with her, is she?
- Warwick loses his brief gig as Johnny Depp’s muse through no fault of his own, which is both a frustrating sign of the character’s lack of agency and of a piece with previous, star-crossed Gervais-Merchant creations.