In the endlessly bleak parade of human suffering presented by MTV’s True Life, there are few hours more depressing than the 2003 episode “I’m A Little Person.” One of the episode’s subjects, Terra Jolé, hopes to break into the entertainment business, but finds that her height closes more doors than it opens. My memories of the episode’s specifics are fuzzy, but I recall Jolé having designs on a career as a pop star—though, to make ends meet, she accepts less illustrious gigs as a glorified prop for comic conventions and rock concerts. Rather than work against the system, Jolé is now making the system work for her: She’s launched a successful career impersonating stars such as Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, and runs a revue for other celebrity tribute artists of short stature, Mini-Popstars. Jolé might not be reaching the same number of people as the pop divas whose acts she adapts, but hers is an inspiring story nonetheless. At the very least, it’s good to know that her prospects for stardom aren’t as dire as True Life made them look.
The premise of Life’s Too Short hinges on a premise similar to that of Jolé’s Mini-Popstars: Warwick Davis, having found a modicum of success as an actor of short stature, looks to lend a helping hand to other dwarves looking to break into showbiz. And while it’s very easy to make something uplifting from that setup, Life’s Too Short gives itself the difficult task of making comedy from it. And it goes about doing so with a protagonist who isn’t a magnetic personality: From what we’ve seen in the first three episodes, the series’ version of Warwick Davis is a narcissist who formed Dwarves For Hire not so much out of a sense of altruism but out of selfishness. He may have a full roster of wannabe actors looking for the type of break Warwick received from George Lucas, but they’re the ones sliding across greased-up ballroom floors while the boss works with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. But as it just so happens, those gigs turn out to be less dignified than playing the human bowling ball. It’s crucial for the show’s comedic sensibilities that show business be a never-ending three-ring circus that dishes out Warwick’s comeuppance at every turn.
The series’ third episode does a tremendous job of distributing karmic retribution, even if, like the episodes that precede it, it’s too busy for its own good. There’s a spectacular story in Warwick fielding complaints from his clients, bowing to their demands, then going over their heads to take a horrifically demeaning role opposite Helena Bonham Carter—but it’s watered down by a subplot about Warwick’s new website and some spotty detours to a meeting of the Society of People of Short Stature, the Backlash Production offices, and the local police station. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are well aware of the comedic value of piling on—but the early goings of Life’s Too Short illustrate that they would’ve been better off exhibiting some self-control this go-round.
Meanwhile, the performance from the series’ third co-creator—Davis—continues to be the show’s most consistently satisfying element. Even when it seems like he’s being puppeted by Gervais—the third episode features a few more one-sided, theoretical conversations straight out of the David Brent Playbook—Davis exhibits a commitment that suggests he should’ve tried his hand at comedy ages ago. There’s a lot of pressure on his character this week, and Davis responds with an admirable command of the self-aggrandizing and easily flappable sides of his fictionalized self. He captures this brilliantly in the episode’s final segment—where Warwick arrives on set to work with Helena Bonham Carter, only to find out he’s acting as stand-in for a child—even though it eventually requires him to work through a broad, slapstick setpiece.
Outside of that A-story, however, episode three of Life’s Too Short leaves me cold. The hurtful comments of an Internet troll are a way of puncturing Warwick’s ego that would benefit from additional screentime—squeezing the subplot into a few exchanges between Warwick and Cheryl doesn’t give enough of a sense of how the comments are affecting their target, nor do they provide him with the chance to throw up additional defenses. Of course, the punchline (spoiler alert: “Cyber Slayer” turns out to be a 16-year-old in a wheelchair) is so painfully telegraphed that it would only be more deflating if stretched across an entire half hour.
There are several lines at play throughout the third episode (between dignity and indignity; between talent and incompetence; between solidly constructed gags and the image of one of Warwick’s clients removing his pants before puking all over himself), and it flirts with and traverses them with more skill than either of the first two episodes. It helps that Warwick’s plight serves as the focus of the episode—and the launching pad for most of its laughs. It’s not that he’s so unlikeable that we need him to be knocked down a few pegs (or shoved in a garbage can with a face crudely sketched on its side), but we do get closer to figure the character out with each humiliating defeat. Like Terra Jolé in that True Life episode, we are meant to root for Warwick—it’s just that our support involves us wanting the character to get over himself.
- This episode features the shakiest justification yet for including Gervais and Merchant’s characters: Warwick wants a blurb from them for his website. However, in light of the nightmarish behavior exhibited throughout the episode, it’s nice to watch Ricky and Stephen palling around with Warwick in the post-credits sequence.
- Most of the “dwarves in famous movie scenes” bits fall flat, but I was tickled by the “This is not a good Friday” line from the actor playing the crucified Jesus.
- The footage of the BBC’s interview with Warwick and Anthony, the chairman of the Society of People of Short Stature, features some fantastically funny editing. After the chairman ends each of his answers, there’s a split second of Warwick opening his mouth before the camera cuts to the interviewer.