Allow me to put on my stylishly distressed Johnny Depp hat for a second: Why are Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant always sitting down during in Life’s Too Short scenes? Because it’s hard for two men to stand up when they share a massive set of balls.
Johnny Depp hat off: Since roughly his first time hosting the Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais has lived with his middle finger perpetually erect. As he presents himself—through subsequent Globes gigs, through his Twitter feed, and now through Life’s Too Short—it’s clear that Gervais (and, by association, Merchant) could give half a fuck about what anyone thinks of his work. He and Merchant are doing comedy their way, and if it happens to offend anyone, so be it. Comedy isn’t pretty, making humor out of hypocrisy is not for the weak of stomach, and if you’re going to get hung up on the opinions of other people, funny business is not the business for you.
The duo’s fearlessness is admirable—but channeled through the fourth episode of Life’s Too Short, that fearlessness curdles into condescension. As declared in three separate scenes, Gervais and Merchant could care less that some viewers took Extras to be a series based around celebrities stopping by to play variations on themselves. (In my opinion, that’s an exaggerated criticism, but Life’s Too Short is nothing if not a comedy of exaggeration.) If you didn’t like that aspect of Extras, you’re surely going to hate how it carries over to Life’s Too Short. And if that’s the case, the initial meeting with Sue’s lawyer (played by Matthew Holness, star of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), the Skype conversation with Steve Carell, and Right Said Fred’s command appearance for the Society of People of Short Stature each contain a twist on the same, simple punchline: “If you don’t like it, fuck you.”
If Gervais and Merchant limited the thumbing of their noses to one throwaway gag in episode four, there’d be no reason to mention it in such great detail. I’d limit it to a stray observation (“Nicely self-aware dig at the co-creators in that solictor’s meeting, huh?”), and move on to talking about the character relationships (still poorly defined) or that scene where Warwick climbs the bookshelf (gutsy physical comedy with a solid payoff there). But the smug self-awareness of the Extras jokes dominates this half hour. And it’s not a particularly pleasant tone to strike for that long—even for a comedy that’s intended to cause discomfort.
Ostensibly, the fourth episode advances a pair of plots established in previous episodes: Warwick’s divorce proceedings and his desire for a more prominent position within the Society of People of Short Stature. Warwick’s divorce is the most emotionally rich of the series’ many spinning plates (let’s not forget that he’s managing a talent agency and climbing out of a sinkhole of debt), and it serves as the platform for the most satisfying scenes of this episode. Even though the flat-hunting sequence is ultimately a showcase for the depths of Cheryl’s ignorance, it turns up a few genuine laughs—particularly when the bathroom with high doorknob is introduced. I could’ve done without a pants-less Warwick splashing down into yet another toilet, but it’s worth it to see Cheryl thoughtlessly shutting him in the bathroom a second time.
Of course, the divorce plot also introduces the episode’s “Ain’t we stinkers?” throughline during the meeting between the divorcing couple and their individual counsels (Warwick’s “counsel” being his incompetent CPA). Here’s another thing about that joke: For a while, it works as a perfectly feasible parallel to Warwick’s personal albatross: his first starring vehicle, Willow. Just as Extras doesn’t fare well in comparison to The Office, the fluffy, cutishly adored fantasy vehicle Willow is no Return Of The Jedi—and Warwick only invites confused looks and utterances when he touts the film as a major credit. Exaggerated accounts of the film’s lackluster box-office performance and forgettability are a running gag for Life’s Too Short, but the series has yet to take tremendous pains to force detractors of the George Lucas-Ron Howard joint to eat the shit they’ve flung at the film.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the script does with its self-aware Extras material. It gives these gags the same level of priority as the divorce and SPSA stories, forcing the plots to compete with the cheeky criticisms of Extras’ critics. It’s clever, yeah, and there’s an undeniable humor to Warwick trying to buy votes with his tenuous connection to Right Said Fred—but it’s only a further, frustrating illustration of the emptiness of such celebrity cameos.
There’s also the faint sound of Gervais and Merchant singing “Nyah nyah, we’re the ones with the cameras” when Warwick poses the rhetorical question “Who knows who’s going to show up next week?” The climactic scene of tonight’s episode stinks of an unappealing disinterest in filling out the framework around “pop-ins” by the likes of Carell and Right Said Fred. It’s cynical and insulting—or, in another word, which doesn’t always have to be a positive: ballsy.
- Warwick climbing the bookcase is one of the cheapest laughs of the series so far—but in a nice trick that shows this episode isn’t all bad, it’s also a telling character moment. Warwick is so isolated and so persuaded he can get by on his own, he takes it upon himself to scale a structure that’s roughly three times his height. That pride is so strong, he won’t even let Sue or Ian hand him the object of his desire (an award for his performances as siamese twins in the too-dire-to-be-real horror film Weredwarf); instead, they place it on a shelf within his reach. I wish Life’s Too Short operated on that character-based level more often. Additional visual allusions to Harold Lloyd films wouldn’t hurt, either.
- The accountant’s fantasy of driving a big rig through a chicken coop was another nice, character-based moment from the episode—one sold by its bizarre specificity.
- In light of Carell’s via videochat appearance, I’d like to think this episode was the co-creators’ way of saying “Hey, sorry we’re leaning too hard on the cameos. It’s ridiculous, right?” But being an edgy, button-pushing comedy team means never apologizing.