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Sometimes Ricky Gervais is so busy being controversial as an awards host or comedian or social commentator that the public forgets how great his television series can be.
Obviously, The Office goes into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. And not enough people seem to know how much genius went into Extras, his follow-up collaboration with Stephen Merchant that was co-produced by the BBC and HBO.
Now comes HBO’s Life’s Too Short and what looks, after three episodes, to be another vein of gold for Gervais and Merchant. The faux documentary series centers on Britain’s “go-to dwarf,” Warwick Davis (the Harry Potter and Star Wars movies), who’s out of work, getting a divorce and owes back taxes.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see the Gervais/Merchant DNA in Too Short, which borrows from the formula they mastered with Office. The duo excels at wince-inducing comedy, and central to their conceit is someone (think the David Brent character from Office) whose self-importance is wonderfully blind to reality. The more their shortcomings are exposed to the camera, the more resistant they are to believing their lot in life — and pomposity, lies and misfortune generally follow. As does embarrassment.
Too Short is packed with such moments thanks to spot-on writing and Davis’ superb star turn. He willingly puts himself up for abuse (he was an Ewok in the Star Wars films) and, as head of a fictitious “Dwarves for Hire” acting business, is constantly undercutting clients with his own desperation for work.
The show’s running gag is that Warwick Davis — he constantly refers to himself in the third person — thinks everyone knows who he is, but they never do. In one scene, he takes a camera crew to meet Gervais and Merchant but can’t reach the keypad to be buzzed in. He asks someone on the street to do it, and the exchange is priceless: When Davis asserts that he was in Star Wars, he is met with skepticism. “I was an Ewok,” he explains. “Those little bears?” says the person. “They’re not little bears!” replies Davis.
Too Short already has been renewed in Britain, even though the series didn’t reach the ratings numbers of Office (how could it?) or Extras. Gervais might be an even more polarizing figure there for critics than in the States, and some U.K. reviews of Too Short seemed more intent to rip on him than to critique the show. Not unexpectedly, the series became controversial because of its frequent use of “dwarf” instead of “little people” — though the show makes clear that the real offense is “midget” — and the ridiculous suggestion that Too Short exploits Davis. As for the claim that he is merely a shorter David Brent, and thus Gervais and Merchant are mining familiar ground, the argument is just lazy. Hypocrisy, self-grandiosity and meanness to others in an attempt to elevate oneself are the stock-in-trade of Gervais and Merchant.
In any case, Too Short has a few other tricks up its sleeve, particularly in the area of stunt casting (which Extras did so brilliantly). Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Carell and Sting all appear.
Neeson is hilarious as himself, coming to Gervais and Merchant for help because he wants to do comedy (both of the latter men have perfected the sideways glance at the camera to indicate something is a very bad idea or about to go wrong).
Davis is doing great work here — his timing is impeccable, and his spirit can’t be defeated in the face of embarrassment, a key component of the Gervais/Merchant recipe.
Gervais hasn’t let the public’s divided opinion of him stop him from being funny (though it appeared to tame him during the Golden Globes in January). With Life’s Too Short, he again delivers.
Airdate 10:30 p.m. Feb. 19 (HBO)
Cast Warwick Davis, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant
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