Last Sunday, an important TV milestone was reached. The Simpsons, the longest running American series, aired its 500th episode, but that wasn’t the only major achievement. Last Sunday, erstwhile Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais appeared on two TV shows on the same night, voicing a dolphin on Fox’s Family Guy and portraying himself on the premiere of HBO’s Life’s Too Short.
He certainly isn’t the first actor to star in two shows airing almost simultaneously but here in America, there was a time, not so incredibly long ago, when Gervais’s brand of cringe humor (or humour) was only celebrated by a niche group of anglophiles. I don’t want to call the sincerity of 2004 era Gervais fans into question (because I was one) but, at that time, it was kind of cool to like the UK version of The Office in the same way that it’s cool to like indie things – it was something that pseuds could get all pretentious about. But now Gervais is on our TV screens often. Twice-in-the-same-night often. Three-times-in-a-24-hour-period often, if you take The Science Channel’s Gervais-produced An Idiot Abroad into account. So, are we inching closer to the “all Gervais, all the time” programming utopia of our dreams? Or is Gervais becoming annoyingly ubiquitous? These are the questions that I struggle with, while watching Life’s Too Short.
When The Office was first released in the States, I was immediately engrossed. I devoured the DVDs, playing them on a loop. A friend of mine, equally enamored, downloaded “Handbags and Gladrags” – the theme song – we listened to it together, and that was somehow really exciting. That style of comedy – the excruciating awkwardness of it all – and Gervais as insufferable, incompetent, irredeemable David Brent were uncommon and refreshing. As you watched the show, you got this sense that the sitcom was being reinvented.
Gervais and his writing partner Stephen Merchant have been heralded as geniuses and since I tend to agree with that characterization of the duo, I’ve unreservedly looked forward to every Gervais-Merchant project over the past couple of years. This latest one, Life’s Too Short, seemed particularly promising because of its subject. The series, a mockumentary, follows 3’6” Willow star Warwick Davis to highlight the trials and tribulations of being a little person in show business. The format may not be novel but, for once, Gervais wasn’t going to be the focal point and I was curious to see how that would play out.
Life’s Too Short’s premiere successfully plumbed the depths of awkwardness and was just as solidly funny as anything on Gervais’s previous HBO series Extras, so there was no disappointment on that front. This good news is, however, undermined by the fact that Davis – here playing a fictionalized, boorish version of himself – seemed to be doing a Ricky Gervais impression for the entire episode. Early on, Davis, describing the “sorts” of little people that his “Dwarves for Hire” talent agency has to offer says, “whatever you want, I can pro-vide” and if I weren’t looking at the screen I would’ve have sworn that it was David Brent – the intonation, the hint of insincerity in his voice, all of it, totally Brent. It reminded me of all of those actors – people like Edward Norton, Jason Biggs, and Scarlett Johansson – who wind up mimicking Woody Allen’s neurotic mannerisms and stammer when cast in a Woody Allen film.
I don’t know, maybe Davis’s delivery is in line with the way that he ordinarily speaks. And maybe he and Gervais are friends because they have similar vocal cadences. But to me, it just felt as though Gervais’s influence was too apparent. Auteurism isn’t a bad thing but you can write an episode in a way that feels like it’s coming from a particular writer or writing team without that fact slapping you in the face scene after scene.
Gervais has this ability to overshadow everything that he is a part of whether that be this new series (because Gervais plays himself, his presence is both sensed and physical) the Golden Globes (which pre-ceremony were all about what he might say and then post-ceremony were about what he didn’t say), or his partnership with vastly underrated Merchant; and irrespective of his talent, this is off-putting.