Ars Longa, Vita Brevis? (Life’s Too Short, BBC2)
You’re Ricky Gervais. You’ve created one of the best and most-loved entertainments since John Logie Baird first stuck his finger in a cathode ray tube. You’ve endured the Difficult Second Sitcom (not a classic, but not a disaster either), performed hugely successful stand-up and podcasts, written somewhat less successful films, made fun of the rich and famous at awards ceremonies, become quite rich and famous yourself, and duly made fun of yourself for it. What do you do now?
The answer, apparently, is to do it all again. There’s been quite a bit of comment on how Life’s Too Short, the new Gervais/Merchant sitcom, recapitulates many of his trademarks: the faux-documentary format, awkward situations, edgy humour, celebrity walk-ons. The scenes with Gervais and Merchant even feel like a televised podcast. The series co-writers sit on one side of a table in their office, joshing with Warwick Davis, vertically challenged star of the show, sometimes with a celebrity guest in tow. All we’re missing is Karl Pilkington to make Gervais crease with strangely un-infectious laughter.
All of which does raise the question: what is the point of these scenes, given the already animated existence of The Ricky Gervais Show? More generally, what is the point of this show? Not, I hasten to add, that’s it’s rubbish. Davis is a strong lead, though a little too close to Gervais/Brent in manner and outlook. He particularly excels at the sideways worried glance that a show built from awkward encounters gives him plenty of chances to deploy. The supporting cast, including Rosamund Hanson as Davis’ assistant drone and Jo Enright as his estranged wife, is pitch-perfect for the strained naturalism the format requires. A couple of scenes in the first episode were brilliant: Davis caught by his wife attempting a unorthodox return to his house, and the scene with Liam Neeson. His cameo, demanding to learn the secrets of comic improvisation from Gervais and Merchant, is a masterpiece of earnest bafflement with an undertow of unhinged menace. The writing was crisp (though I could have done without the references to Schindler’s List – they felt too jokey), but Neeson took it beyond anything else seen thus far.
The reason for this is telling. Apart from Neeson’s performance, the exchanges felt like they had a point; that they revealed something about his character, in a way that wasn’t merely contrived to produce uncomfortable silences (though it produced plenty of those). In contrast, much of the show feels aimless, comedy awkwardness for its own sake. The point isn’t that awkwardness is passé, or that Gervais and Merchant are recycling the same tropes. It’s that proper awkward comedy demands attention to plot and character. Precisely because no-one is allowed to crack wise every twenty seconds, the humour has to come from telling details of characterisation and motivation; it has to make sense for the characters to get into these situations, to realise what’s happened, and to react as they do. Curb Your Enthusiasm does this season after season (the most recent series is arguably the best yet). The Office was a superb example of how to build this kind of comedy out of everyday non-events.
In contrast, Life’s Too Short is far too episodic and short on plot (no pun intended).[i] Worse, it’s short on milieu. Davis floats in a sitcom nowhere, not quite the media, not quite entertainment, not quite office life or domesticity. It all feels frictionless, lacking the undertows of frustration or resentment that might result in consistent comedy. We’re left with a collection of individual scenes – some very good, some featuring Johnny Depp, and some with Gervais and Merchant that will make you think of other shows you have seen them in. You hope they won’t end up wondering where the time went.