After spending the last few years bullying Karl Pilkington, making the odd movie and getting themselves blacklisted from American award ceremonies, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant return to British TV with their latest feverishly-anticipated mockumentary this evening. In places this opening episode is hilarious and wonderfully irreverent, but it also felt a little too familiar to have the same impact as their two previous creations.
The Office was lightning in a bottle when it first appeared on our screens a decade ago and Extras was a thoughtful evolution on the same themes of self-deprecation and comic observation. Ricky Gervais played the central character once again, but rather than being a deluded ignoramus, Andy Millman was a slightly subtler vehicle who had a host of celebrities to take the comic punches and the wherewithal to see the world around him.
Here Warwick Davis – playing himself – is the star of the show, but unlike in Extras, there isn’t really a fresh concept on offer. We have a main character struggling in showbiz and a queue of A-Listers willing to make idiots of themselves, yet these are characters we have definitely seen before. The ghost of David Brent has been on the edge of much of Gervais and Merchant’s previous work, but here it is unmistakable on a number of occasions. The scene where Davies nervously laughs off his wife’s tale of how he tried and failed to “trade her in for a better model” being the most vivid example. There’s even a feckless accountant (played by an Office veteran) who’s a copy-paste of Stephen Merchant’s rubbish agent in Extras.
In next week’s episode Johnny Depp suggests Gervais came off Twitter because it had 140 characters, “139 more than he ever managed to come up with.” It’s a cracking line which shows how the writers are as self-aware as ever and haven’t lost the ability to rib themselves, but it’s also rather close to their own bone. If you’re going to be a one-trick pony, I suppose it helps if that trick is the best in the business.
And speaking of tricks, it seems that Team Mervais have missed one here. Unlike in most episodes of Extras, there was no comical celebrity-based crescendo on offer in this opener. Maybe Merchant and Gervais wanted to move away from that and establish Davies as the star in this first episode, but despite some good writing around Liam Neeson’s scene, a ‘Ross Kemp’ money-shot was sadly absent. The Irish film star did a decent job of sending himself up as a rubbish stand-up. (“I got the part on Schindler’s List by telling Spielberg that I made a lot of lists. What’s funny?”) But his part was no show-stopper. Let’s hope we see more from Johnny Depp next week.
Despite the fact that the writers haven’t pushed themselves, Life’s Too Short is still a joy to behold in some respects, with Gervais and Merchant effortlessly proving that they remain masters of the stealth punchline. In Warwick Davis they have also tapped into a rich seam of physical comedy and the film star also shows a knack for timing that is crucial with this kind of material. What’s more those bewildered glances to camera (which were perfected by Martin Freeman in The Office) are back with a vengeance, which is no bad thing. From the pen of anyone else this sitcom would be a viewed as a monumental achievement, but when compared to their previous work it doesn’t have the same jaw-dropping freshness that we’re used to from this pair. Good but not great.