Like a lot of people who think and write about television for a living, I’ve had the voice of David Simon in the back of my head for the last couple of days. And as dispiriting as it is to have that voice discount a major component of my line of work—episodic reviews—Simon made several salient points in his New York Times interview and his follow-up chat with Alan Sepinwall. The process of reviewing a television show on a week-by-week basis doesn’t make sense for every show on television; when a series is assembled in the novelistic style Simon applied to The Wire, it might be wiser to review a season as a whole, rather than devoting 1,000-plus words per week to individual chapters. Until there’s a fundamental shift in the way television shows are delivered, however, that’s going to be the most effective way of beginning and fostering the discussion about those shows.
Which leads me to Life’s Too Short, a series that, on the surface, has little in common with The Wire aside from the conduit that brought both into American living rooms: HBO. But thanks to The Wire (and its counterparts in the “holy trinity” of HBO dramas, The Sopranos and Deadwood), nearly every series presented by the network carries with it an expectation for long-form storytelling. This doesn’t end at dramas: Sports documentary series like 24/7 seek to capture their subjects with a breadth and depth missing from sports coverage on commercial networks; the first season of Enlightened, an HBO series that deftly straddles the lines between comedy and drama, satire and social commentary, slowly developed themes and characters that felt lacking in the early episodes, only to bring them all together into a fascinating whole by the season finale. The first seven episodes of Life’s Too Short all aired after Eastbound & Down, an outrageous comedy that presents its episodes as chapters in the tell-all book about Kenny Powers’ professional comeback. As such, viewers shouldn’t have expected all of Life’s Too Short’s pieces to be in place when the show made its Stateside debut in February. The show was building toward something larger than seven individual misadventures in the life of Warwick Davis. It should’ve been obvious it was shaping an arc for its protagonist: a steep personal decline with countless embarrassing bumps along they way.
In hindsight, I was too rough on the show’s first episodes. But I didn’t have any idea about the larger story of Life’s Too Short; all I had to go on were those early chapters, and as standalone stories, they’re flimsy and overloaded. They attempted to build the world in which the rest of the season would be set—the professional and personal circles occupied by Warwick Davis—but felt exhausting as a result. As the season proceeded, the show pared itself down: Detours with celebrity guests fell away, and a tighter focus formed around Warwick’s growing debt and looming divorce settlement. Eventually, a comedic perspective and flow was fixed: Let Warwick build himself up, then watch as the world knocks him down—or leaves him hanging from a bookshelf.
The winningest element of the seventh and final episode of that first season is how the show has whittled away its bulkier, busier elements. There are no lengthy, inessential detours with showbiz acquaintances in this half-hour; there are no inexplicable digressions into matters of faith or painfully obvious digs at Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s critics, either. Instead, there’s just Warwick, finally at the bottom of the hill with no one to support him but his incompetent accountant/lawyer and his terminally disinterested assistant. He scotches his final Hail Mary attempt at restoring his fame—appearing at a charity gala held by Sting—and is reduced to sleeping in a dresser drawer in the spare room at Cheryl’s mom’s place. In terms of putting a capper on the tragicomic arc of the first season, the episode’s a success. Even the cameo by Sting manages to duck the cheap “Look who it is!” nature of previous guest appearances by giving the character a clear, organic connection to Warwick. The gala isn’t some shoddily thought-out excuse to stick a familiar face into Warwick’s undoing—it’s an agent of that undoing.
Unfortunately, as an individual episode, the finale is still lacking. In a regrettable consequence of the series’ narrowed focus, it’s easy to feel pinned in by the seventh episode—the world of Life’s Too Short is so small now that Ricky and Stephen are the only feasible people to whom Warwick can turn in his moment of financial need. There isn’t a whole lot going on outside of the frame on Life’s Too Short, a huge shortcoming considering the bristling, lively environments in which Gervais and Merchant have set their previous television efforts.
Sting’s charity gala aside, there’s also a shortage of memorable comedic setpieces and character moments in tonight’s episode. There’s a callback to Eric’s frighteningly detailed suicide fantasies from two weeks ago, but the majority of his scenes service the plot of the season, not the episode at hand. Warwick’s bottoming out is more about tying up loose ends than finding new ways to humiliate the character. Sure, it doesn’t get much worse than being told by your landlord that you can’t sleep in your office, but that defeat doesn’t need to be punctuated by another unnecessary pratfall.
The finale’s happy coda—after days of attempting to reconnect with Amy, a woman Warwick seemingly embarrassed out of his life, Warwick finally receives a return call—leaves the door open for a second season, but that ending isn’t earned. It and the last-minute solution to Warwick’s debt are tacked-on bright spots that the character doesn’t deserve. In its humor and its trajectory, this first season was all about humbling Warwick—so why let him find the plateau of that humbling so easily? Especially when he hasn’t shown any signs of working toward being a better person? Just before his debt is waved away by the terms of his divorce from Sue, Warwick has his biggest, most puffed-up moment of the season, strutting around a conference room with a false confidence instilled by Eric’s misreading of an attorney-conduct manual. It’s funny to watch someone popping the character’s bubble one last time—but there’s no satisfaction in it if he lands on his feet.
Of course, in light of David Simon’s comments and the news that the BBC has commissioned a second round of Life’s Too Short, these opinions are still opinions about an unfinished work. One of the many wonderful things about television is its capacity for reinvention. Every TV series is an unfinished work until it ends of its makers’ volition or the network stops writing checks. We can talk about the individual episodes of Life’s Too Short or its entire first season, but there’s a whole other part of this character study that remains in the planning stages. Like the down-and-out man at its core, there’s a chance that things can get better for Life’s Too Short. And it’ll take more than one episode to make that assessment.
Episode grade: C-
Season grade: C
- The most surprisingly pleasant aspect of the episode comes from Cheryl, an aggravating character for most of the season who shows a brief display of warmth and humanity at Warwick’s lowest point. With her boss facing homelessness, she invites him to take up the spare room at her mother’s house. Previously portrayed as irredeemably dumb and small-minded, the invitation reveals there’s a legitimate, sweet innocence to the character. Unlike Warwick, she hasn’t been hurtful out of spite or self-interest; she means well, she just doesn’t know any better. This doesn’t make the character’s schtick any funnier, but it does prove her worth to the series.