Life’s Too Short debuts tonight on HBO at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.
The funniest scene in the first episode of Life’s Too Short, the latest television project from the team of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, is also its most troubling. Gervais and Merchant (playing fictionalized versions of themselves, henceforth referred to as “Ricky” and “Stephen”) are taking an unscheduled meeting with the co-creator and ostensible star of Life’s Too Short, Warwick Davis (also playing a fictionalized version of himself, whom we’ll call “Warwick”), when who should arrive but Liam Neeson. Seems Neeson, having successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most bankable action stars, now wants to try his hand at comedy. He’s made a list (according to Neeson, his prolific list-making is what bagged him the role of Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List) of the various avenues of yuk-yuks he’s interested in pursuing: “Improv. Stand-up comedy. Funny monologues. Crazy characters. Sketches. Slapstick. Anecdotes. Parody.” It’s a wonderfully dry read from Neeson, and the improv scene he initiates with Gervais—with a suggestion from Davis—is a wonder of discomfort humor, where Neeson, so used to playing with life-or-death stakes and scenarios of tremendous import, attempts to inject varying degrees of tragedy (largely AIDS-related) into character-based exchanges with Gervais. Davis, meanwhile, sits to Neeson’s left, entirely bemused.
If Life’s Too Short were a sketch-comedy series, Neeson’s appearance would be the bit that puts the series première over the the top. But that’s not the case: Life’s Too Short is a mockumentary detailing Warwick’s showbiz comeback, a search for dignity within an industry that would rather treat Davis and other actors with dwarfism with as much indignity as possible. This is material that’s ripe for Gervais and Merchant’s picking, presenting them with a number of taboos they can nod toward before breaking them as many times as 30 minutes of television will allow. It also gives them the chance to cut that high-minded satire with shots of Davis falling down. And that’s what’s so bothersome about Neeson’s cameo: It’s in line with the Life’s Too Short version of Warwick’s ongoing personal renaissance—in addition to his acting career, he’s started a talent agency catering to little people—but it’s also an absurdly long diversion from that plot.
Of course, it’s not as if producers and directors are the only ones giving Warwick the brush-off. In true Gervais-Merchant fashion, the protagonist’s entire world is falling apart, something he refuses to acknowledge while the cameras are rolling. Even without interjections from the likes of Neeson, there are competing narratives occurring within Life’s Too Short. That’s one of the main advantages of the mockumentary format: It can draw laughs from the disparity between the way the subject presents himself and the objective truth captured by the unseen “documentarians.” Early in the first episode, Warwick returns to the gorgeous home he shares with his wife Sue and his dog, Chewbacca (just one of the character’s not-so-subtle reminders that he played Wicket in Return Of The Jedi). When Chewie rushes by Warwick to greet Sue, it’s played off as the dog being “camera shy”—until Sue enters the scene to explain that she and Warwick are in the middle of a divorce. If there’s any indication that this version of Warwick is descended from The Office’s David Brent (and a perfect Sunday-night companion for Kenny Powers), it’s here, as Davis pastes on a rictus grin to cheerily contradict Sue’s account of the marriage’s dissolution. Like Brent, Warwick is deeply disappointed in the cards life has dealt him—but he’s also happy to gloss over those details with affectations of self-fulfillment and a poorly timed joke. It’s left him petty and deluded—and thus the perfect agent of chaos for interrupting the lives of other, more down-to-earth characters.
In that light, this first installment of Life’s Too Short frequently comes off as a hybrid of The Office and Gervais and Merchant’s previous BBC-HBO co-production, Extras. There are frequent, Office-like embarrassments for Warwick (the buzzer for Ricky and Stephen’s office is too high for him to reach; no other character is willing to acknowledge his celebrity status), and the showbiz world is portrayed just as it is in Extras: a bloodthirsty industry run by manipulative twits cowing to the demands of temperamental stars like Neeson. (In an additional similarity to Extras, Life’s Too Short looks to include at least one “twisted” version of a real-life celebrity per episode—Johnny Depp appears in the second episode, with Helena Bonham Carter popping up in the third.) It’s not uncommon for a television series to fail to assert its own voice in its first episode, but in the case of Life’s Too Short, whatever perspective Davis brought to the proceedings is drowned out by the more-confident vision Gervais and Merchant have applied elsewhere.
Of course, for all it shares with those previous series, the initial outing of Life’s Too Short also lacks the emotional hook of something like the Tim-Dawn romance on The Office or the friendship between Andy and Maggie on Extras. That could be the purpose of the divocrce subplot, but Warwick doesn’t show any legitimate signs of wanting to reunite with Sue; if anything, she’s just a way of indicating how isolated Warwick is. Other players in Warwick’s life are introduced—we meet his bumbling accountant/friend Eric (Steve Brody), as well as his new assistant, Cheryl (Rosamund Hanson)—only to serve a similar purpose. Eric at least manages to establish a secondary plot for the first season: Warwick owes $250,000 in back taxes—though, given how poorly Eric has managed the numbers, the amount could be significantly higher.
With its universe so sketchily drawn at this point, it’s easy to see why Merchant and Gervais opted to pad the first episode’s running time with the Neeson interlude. And as previously stated, it does garner the biggest laughs of the episode (though a brief moment of Warwick dressing down a pair of clients for their potentially offensive Paul McCartney-Stevie Wonder act comes close). As Warwick’s world opens up in future episodes, there’s potential for Life’s Too Short to find its own identity—it just needs to get out of the shadow of its creators’ previous work. And tap into the rich vein of discomfort humor that doesn’t involve Liam Neeson playing a hypochondriac riddled with “full-blown AIDS.”