Ricky Gervais's career is beginning to feel a lot like the plot of a Ricky Gervais show. A decade ago, he created the The Office, that epic poem of comic discomfort and humanist insight that launched a thousand single-camera sitcoms. But since then, on the smug Extras and in his tittering appearances on the Golden Globes, Gervais's humor has become increasingly cheap as his pompous self-regard skyrockets. The culmination of this trajectory is the comedian's new HBO series Life's Too Short, a condescending, exploitative, and grimly unfunny genre exercise convinced that it's pushing boundaries when, to paraphrase Taylor Swift, all it will ever be is mean.
Life's Too Short is a mockumentary about the day-to-day life of Warwick Davis, the dwarf actor famous from Harry Potter, the Star Wars films, and Willow, as he struggles to find acting gigs for himself and other actors of short stature through the talent agency he runs. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, the series follows the basic contours of Davis's actual life, though most of the other characters are played by actors. The twist is that the Warwick Davis on the show, apparently quite unlike the one in real life, is an egomaniacal, deluded, misogynist prick. He berates a cancer-ridden teenage fan at a sci-fi convention, he attempts to deceive the documentary crew into thinking he's happily married to his estranged wife, and he compares his talent agency to Martin Luther King's struggle for civil rights. Davis, for his part, seems to be enjoying playing a monstrous version of himself, and it's very clear that, from his malapropisms to the manner with which he delivers them, he's yet another in a line of Gervaisian boobs stretching back to David Brent. Or, at the very least, he's a differently sized Larry David.
The difference, however, is that those men were making fun of themselves. David Brent on The Office, Andy Millman on Extras, Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, even Louis C.K. on Louie—the characterizations on these shows get away with being so vicious, so merciless, at least partly, because they're self-directed. The observations those shows make about their characters are embarrassing precisely because they reveal something hidden and true. In contrast, the skewering of Davis on Life's Too Short—a show he has no hand in writing—feels false, frivolous, and opportunistic. There's no real reason for Davis to be the bastard that he is, and so the whole series has an air of rote bullying about it.
This aesthetic is all the more pronounced because of how much of the show is devoted not to striking down Davis for his character's dickery, but to very simply and bluntly mocking his size. In the first three episodes alone, Davis is shown falling out of his SUV, trying unsuccessfully to ring a buzzer, being forced to stand on a table to conduct an interview, standing in a toilet, and getting stuck in a doggie door. It's as if Gervais and writing partner Stephen Merchant have never seen a dwarf before. It's easy to think that, because Life's Too Short is made by acclaimed writers and broadcast on HBO, there's something highbrow going on here. But there's also a very strong chance this show is very simply about brutally making fun of a little person.
The rest of Life's Too Short is occupied with nonsensical and barely developed sketch ideas as well as Extras-style celebrity cameos, Gervais and Merchant among them. One of the funnier bits involves Liam Neeson trying to do improv comedy and only being capable of thinking up solemn sketches involving a man dying of AIDS. It's absurdist and self-deprecating and at least gives us a break from the exhausting deconstruction of Davis. (It's worth noting, though, that there are a bizarre number of AIDS jokes on this show.) Neeson's comic problem on the show, however, is very similar to the general problem of Life's Too Short. No matter what anybody tells him, he refuses to let go of his idea. He thinks it's edgy and moving, but it's really just shooting for the easiest possible reaction. As Gervais will be the first to point out, there are perils to taking yourself too seriously.