When Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s showbiz satire “Extras” was coming to the end of its second and final season on HBO, Gervais told me that he felt he and Merchant had, between that show and the original “The Office,” done as much as they could with the notion of people who will do anything to be famous.
“We’re never going to do anything to do with media again,” he told me, explaining that they were probably going to be done with it after “The Office,” until they realized their newfound celebrity gave them a chance to do one more story on a higher level featuring cameos from their new pals. “It seemed right. We were fresh to it and we thought we had a fresh approach to it. We never would have done it if we couldn’t find a new angle. There’s no point in telling someone something twice. It’s worth exploring the same themes — relationships, wasting your life — all of those things are worth because they’re fundamental. It’s not like humans have moved on, you know, ‘We’re going to give up relationships.’ But we’ve pretty much, that’s our Picasso blue period — that’s our fame period.”
As it turned out, Gervais and Merchant weren’t quite done with their fame period, after all. That second season of “Extras” was followed by a Christmas special that repeated some of the satiric points they had made on in the regular episodes, albeit at greater length and with more of a dramatic bent. And now the two have created “Life’s Too Short,” yet another mockumentary about a man – little person actor Warwick Davis (the lead Ewok in “Return of the Jedi” and Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter films, among other roles), playing a debased version of himself – willing to suffer endless humiliation to hang onto his incredibly modest level of celebrity. (The first season already aired in the UK, and it debuts Sunday night at 10:30 on HBO.)
At the TV critics press tour last month, Merchant explained that they often declare they’re done with something forever “because we’re exhausted and we can’t think that we could ever go back to that subject.” And Gervais added that the pursuit of celebrity has become “much more aggressive” since they last dealt with the subject, and that as a result they had more to say.
The “Extras” special wound up being so strong that I was glad to see them revisit that territory. But three episodes of “Life’s Too Short” suggests that, while the nature of celebrity may have evolved, Gervais and Merchant’s take on it really hasn’t. It’s a mash-up of elements from the two previous series: the celebrity cameos (including regular appearances by Gervais and Merchant playing themselves) and relentless debasement of “Extras” mixed with Davis playing himself as David Brent, reeking of desperation and utterly lacking in self-awareness.
This version of Davis has all the real-life Davis’ screen credits – which he’ll gladly bring up in conversation to anyone skeptical about the idea that he was “a movie star” – but is in dire financial straits, thanks largely to the spectacular ineptitude of his accountant, who is to this show what Merchant’s clueless agent was to “Extras.” To pay off a massive tax bill, Davis not only agrees to star in a documentary about his life and career, but sets up a talent agency for his fellow actors of small stature, even though he bogarts the best (read: all) jobs for himself.
The show inevitably tells a lot of jokes about his size, from the title itself to Davis struggling to reach the buzzer at Gervais and Merchant’s office to Davis falling out of his Hummer while trying to climb out gracefully. But the most out-of-proportion element to the man is his oversized, delusional ego.
“Normally you see a dwarf on TV and he’s dancing, making a fool of himself,” Davis explains in one talking head interview. “I want them to see a sophisticated dwarf about town, who carries himself with dignity. I’m a role model. I’m a bit like Martin Luther King.”
It’s such a David Brent kind of monologue that it becomes distracting when Davis shares scenes with Gervais. (I kept waiting for Gervais to complain that Davis was stealing his bit.) But beyond that, it feels like there’s a diminishing level of returns for this character, in this style. Gervais and Merchant wisely only made 12 episodes of “The Office” U.K., plus a Christmas special, and the extreme cluelessness of Brent could have easily gotten tired after that. (The NBC remake wisely recognized that its boss couldn’t be quite so vile, and they got seven mostly-strong seasons out of the more human Michael Scott.)
Though there are some good jokes here and there about the humiliations a little person actor has to endure on your average movie set, for the most part, the biggest laughs have little to do with Davis and everything to do with the celebrity guests. In the second episode, Johnny Depp hires Davis to help research a role in a film about Rumpelstiltskin, and the actor gets to play a jittery, exaggerated version of what I think many of us imagine him to be like off-camera. (He could not be any more excited watching Davis just move.)
And there’s a five-minute scene near the end of Sunday’s premiere in which a bullying, absolutely humorless Liam Neeson asks Gervais to practice improv comedy with him that has put me in tears from laughing every time I’ve seen it. It’s also a scene that has virtually nothing to do with Warwick Davis, who just happens to be in the room where it’s taking place. It almost feels like a sketch Gervais and Merchant wanted to do that they had no other venue for, and so they stuck it in “Life’s Too Short” and gave Davis a couple of lines to vaguely justify its presence.
Between “The Office,” the second season of “Extras” and their podcast with pal/victim Karl Pilkington, Gervais and Merchant have earned a place at/near the top of the comedy pyramid. I always look forward to what they have to do next. In this case, I wish they had stuck to their initial impulse of four years ago and decided not to repeat themselves.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com