There's something sour and awful about Ricky Gervais' comedy these days. He used to be a sly, cheeky observer of human behavior, but his current status as a smug, self-absorbed blowhard finds its clearest expression in his new HBO show, "Life's Too Short" (premieres Sun., Feb. 19, 10:30 p.m. EST).
In the two episodes I watched, there was exactly one funny scene: If you must sample the show, fast-forward through the first episode to get to the scene of Liam Neeson demanding to do improv with Gervais and his writing partner, Stephen Merchant. Neeson's terrible comedy instincts are not just hilarious but endearing in their innocence; "Life's Too Short's" version of the actor really wants to do comedy but has no idea how.
Gervais used to know how to be funny on a consistent basis, way back when he and Merchant created the original British version of "The Office" more than a decade ago. That much-copied show begat the current craze for the "mockumentary" comedy format, in which vast arenas of awkwardness and cluelessness are mined for laughs. There is awkwardness and idiocy on display in "Life's Too Short," which stars actor Warwick Davis as a hopefully inaccurate version of himself, but almost none of it is funny, much of it is off-putting and all of it is pointless.
In their previous series, "Extras," Merchant and Gervais explored a series of ideas about fame and what people will do to have it or be near it. That's also the theme of "Life's Too Short," but the new show merely makes Davis, a little person who has appeared in "Willow," the "Star Wars" movies and the Harry Potter films, the mouthpiece for Gervais' threadbare, self-serving ideas about celebrity. In "Extras," Gervais played a man so desperate to become an actor that he was willing to spend weeks as a bored background performer; Davis plays an actor past his prime who is willing to trade on his status as a semi-famous actor and his stature to hustle all manner of undignified gigs.
There are a lot of things that are off-putting about "Life's Too Short," starting with the fact that the Davis character does not resemble a real person; he's just a mishmash of traits that haphazardly change based on the needs of the show (i.e., Davis is smart in one scene, stupid in the next; he's secure in one moment and then desperately insecure in the next; he's kind one moment and cruel seconds later, etc). But the most unpleasant thing about the show is that one gets the sense that Gervais and Merchant made Davis the star because it would be easier to garner sympathy for the character based on his size.
In a scene set at a sci-fi convention, for instance, Davis is interviewed by a moronic journalist who has no idea who he is and who asks that Davis stand on a chair to make the interview easier to film. Davis is uncomfortable, understandably; the reporter is so rude that it's impossible not to have sympathy for the actor. Yet moments earlier, Davis spent several minutes berating the mother of a sick kid who wanted a free autograph for her son.
The whole convention sequence was unfunny and predictable (news flash: Nerds can't get girls!), but it was hard not to feel, in the scene with the reporter and elsewhere, that the show was regularly attempting to manipulate the audience into having sympathy for a character who is selfish and petulant most of the time.
David Brent, the spectacularly clueless lead character of the U.K. "Office," was something of an oddity when he first arrived on the TV scene, but by this point, the comedy dynamics of characters who have no self-awareness or social skills are well established. The rhythms of "a nice statement followed by a clueless/mean statement" are every bit as predictable as the setup-punchline rhythms of a traditional, three-camera sitcom. Because these kinds of tin-eared comedy types are everywhere now, execution is everything; the comedy has to be fresh and inventive and the characters have to have a few redeeming traits for the jokes to work.
Nothing about "Life's Too Short" feels fresh; the entire enterprise feels like yet another excuse for Gervais to go through his Rolodex and appear on screen with the famous people he likes to "mock." When Davis and other celebrities appear in Gervais' office for no real reason, it feels forced, and when Davis makes a statement about how his wife had to diet to fit into her wedding dress, you just know it's going to be followed by a crack about how she didn't lose as much weight as he would have liked.
The fact is, Ricky Gervais' TV shows and attempts at stand-up comedy keep repeating the same ideas over and over again, with increasingly unfunny and predictable returns. As was the case with "The Office" and "Extras," "Life's Too Short" features an alternately cruel and clueless character who has a particularly dumb sidekick (Davis has an assistant whose main contributions are blank, vacant looks), and whatever Gervais and Merchant try to do with their characters these days, their tiresome arrogance is all that is really memorable.
You could watch the second episode to see Johnny Depp's guest turn, but it just reinforces a concept that Gervais has promoted in his Golden Globes appearances and self-congratulatory interviews: The idea is that he has the upper hand over celebrities because he dares to ruffle their giant egos. The fact that Gervais' quips are often hacky and cliched apparently never occurs to him, and the idea that his characters have no other purpose than to act as his smarmy mouthpieces must not bother him.
In "Life's Too Short," Depp is made to seem like a thin-skinned crazy person (he humiliates Davis' character by making him dance and having him get into a toilet), and the smirk on Gervais' face when Depp rants about those Golden Globes gibes tells you everything you need to know about Gervais' priorities. He wants the famous people to notice him and to tacitly acknowledge that he's not just "edgy" and "daring" but more powerful than they are, because they're willing to come on his show and act silly for the cameras. If that's what passes for artistic courage, it's weak sauce.
A couple of minutes from the end of the second installment, I turned the episode off. I just could not take the show's sloppy inconsistencies any more. Davis' character had agreed to make an appearance at a fan's wedding (for a price, of course), and as soon as a member of the wedding party made a speech about a much-loved older relative who had died, I was sure Davis would take the microphone and say tasteless things about the dead woman.
He did exactly that, and then, for good measure, Davis added a foul joke about the bride, whom he'd barely met. Not only was the "joke" unfunny, Davis' behavior just made no sense. There's no way a character who is moderately intelligent in other contexts -- and who is, by the way, desperate for money -- would have insulted people he barely knew on their wedding day, before getting paid. But it would seem his characters' humanity, consistency and reality don't matter in the slightest to Gervais. It's both shocking and sad that a man who helped create "The Office's" Tim and Dawn -- characters who became iconic for their depth and humanity -- has essentially created, as Newsweek/The Daily Beast's Jace Lacob accurately wrote, "a little-person minstrel show."
I loved the U.K. "Office" and I think certain episodes of Season 2 of "Extras" are very funny, but this new program goes a long way toward proving that Gervais has turned into David Brent. The writer/comedian/Golden Globes host's bullying tendencies and abrasive self-regard are increasingly off-putting, and he displays none of Brent's skewed naivete or desire to be liked.
Gervais may think he's bold, but at this stage, he's just a bore.
Note: Ryan McGee and I talk about "Life's Too Short," "Parks and Recreation," "The Walking Dead" and "Cougar Town" in this week's Talking TV podcast, which you can find here and and on iTunes. The podcast's RSS feed is here.