Like Ricky Gervais’ other shows, Life’s Too Short was pretty consistently funny. Unlike his other shows—The Office and Extras—there wasn’t really anyone to care about in Life’s Too Short: Warwick Davis, playing an asshole-ish version of himself, was great to laugh at but almost never sympathize with, and Gervais (along with Office co-creator Stephen Merchant) were basically just there to belittle (pun intended) the dwarf actor known best for Willow. At some point, the jokes provided diminishing returns, and Life’s Too Short, taken in its entirety—seven episodes and this finale special—just isn’t as good as either of the other Gervais/Merchant joints.
But you know what? It’s also far better than its critical reputation, and this finale episode—replacing a rumored second season, which is now kaput—took an interesting chance with its main character while still sticking with its well-worn formula. (And yes, all three of these shows have been remarkably similar; this one has plenty of parallels in particular with the Office special.) That chance: Taking the main character, whose main traits were an inflated sense of self-worth and selfishness, and turning him around completely.
Humbled by his financial, professional, and personal lives at the end of the main series, Davis as presented in the special is a dwarf redeemed by hitting rock bottom. He’s found a woman to love, and he’s more or less content to run his dwarf-only talent agency. The easy way out for the show would have been to dangle fame in front of the Willow star and have him jump back into his old egotistical ways. Instead, it dangles fame in front of him and he remains humble—and even sweetly optimistic.
Is that good for loads of laughs? Not really. The Life’s Too Short finale is surprisingly muted, serving more as a pleasant coda—again, like The Office special—than another episode. Davis has two shots at reviving his professional life here, one that seems promising and the other that is obviously doomed from the start. The latter comes in the form of Val Kilmer, who approaches Davis with the news that a Willow sequel has been green-lit, and that George Lucas and Ron Howard are attached. It’s obvious to everyone but Davis that Kilmer is deluded (a nice play on his supposed real-life persona), and that he’s just looking to scam a few bucks out of his old co-star. A recurring joke about Kilmer’s turn as Batman is his funniest moment—but it doesn’t come anywhere near the brazen cameos earlier in the series from Sting and Liam Neeson. (And god damn, that Neeson scene should be enough to forgive a lot of Life’s Too Short criticism.)
The other plot fell pretty flat for these American eyes: Davis attempts to revive the careers of three faded TV stars (Les Dennis, Keith Chegwin, and Shaun Williamson, who appeared in similar fashion in the other Merchant/Gervais series) in a traveling road show of pubs, with hacky jokes and nudity pleasing the yokels. When a TV producer shows up to tell them that they’re so terrible that he wants to give them a deal, you can feel Gervais enter the room, mockingly.
And he does that as well. Merchant and Gervais’ recurring role on Life’s Too Short basically consisted of them sitting across a desk from Davis, ridiculing him and refusing to give him money or work. They do it again here, though at a restaurant instead of in their office. They actually do him a favor this time, hipping him to the fact that Willow 2 probably isn’t a reality, and then once again they disappear.
Which is basically what Life’s Too Short has done. The show wasn’t a hit with audiences or critics, and it seems to be heading out with a whimper. That’s slightly unfortunate, because beyond some of its obvious problems, there was some great stuff. Unlike Erik Adams, who reviewed the series for us, I thought Davis’ assistant Cheryl—played by Rosamund Hanson—was absolutely incredible: I haven’t seen someone so obviously smart play someone so dumb with that level of perfection before, and I laughed pretty much every time she opened her mouth. And maybe it’s that type of character that Merchant and Gervais need to find for next time. They’ve had three swipes now at main characters who are ridiculously full of themselves for no good reason, and though they’ve explores different facets of that well—a nobody who thought he should be a star, a nobody who became the kind of star he didn’t want to, and a star who went back to being a nobody—maybe it’s time for something new. As for this one: I bet it’ll get a positive critical reappraisal in 10 years, when it has the benefit of greater distance from its older, more popular siblings.