November 25, 2011 10:42 pm

David wins battle of TV comedy giants

Ingredients such as bad taste and serial misfortune could be made compatible with craftsmanship

The title of Ricky Gervais’s latest series is an indication of its sensibility. Life’s Too Short (BBC2 Thursdays) marks a departure from the plain-speaking titles of his previous collaborations with Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) and his stand-up shows (Animals, Politics, Fame). Instead of a location or theme or subject, we have a quasi-joke, at once witless and incompetent.

The saying is used not to register an emphasis on mortality, or a seize-the-day philosophy, but because the protagonist is a dwarf. The programme, which takes the form of a documentary, follows Warwick Davis, an actor who appeared in two Star Wars films and all eight Harry Potter movies, and who plays himself here as an egocentric loser struggling to pay a hefty tax bill. In a contrivance typical of the programme’s approach to plot and structure, Davis repeatedly turns up at the office of Gervais and Merchant, with whom he worked (briefly) on Extras; sometimes a celebrity turns up at the same time. (The programme lost a million viewers, almost half its audience, between the first and second instalments.)

The spectacle of a character ridiculous to everyone but himself is one familiar from Gervais’s work. And of all the humiliations visited on Davis throughout the series – among them being placed in a lavatory by Johnny Depp and in a rubbish bin at the request of Helena Bonham Carter – perhaps the worst is that he has been required to do an impersonation of David Brent, 10 years on. Davis talks himself into corners, plays out imaginary dialogue scenes, fails to realise when he’s unwelcome or unliked. But Brent’s pathos has gone – Davis’s monologues are too transparently ridiculous, his embarrassments too obviously rigged, and the atmosphere is one of sadism.

The programme draws on two comic modes, mockumentary and satire, that make an implicit claim on reality while operating in a realm of its own. In terms of depicting Davis’s treatment by his collaborators, for example – this is surely the first time he has been placed in a lavatory or a rubbish bin for a role. The programme is perpetrating the behaviour that it pretends to expose.

A similar remoteness from real circumstances is evident in the programme’s lamentable celebrity cameos. When Helena Bonham Carter, who appeared in this week’s episode, referred to Davis as “it” and laughed at him and said he smelled, this constituted no honesty or bravery on her part. (Indeed, nothing insulates a celebrity better than to appear sporting.) The frisson provided by the character being addressed as “Helena” was purely illusory.

Life’s Too Short is at once a chapter in a sad story – the artistic decline of Ricky Gervais – and a symptom of a widespread malaise, our love of fame, sensation, and short-term pleasures. Gervais’s use of celebrity cameos is a product of an age when the YouTube clip is treated as an autonomous construction. Viewed out of context, the cameos in Gervais’s last series, Extras, lose nothing; each forms a two- or three-minute sketch with no meaningful context from which to be torn. They are occasionally amusing in their incongruity (Ian McKellen giving a rudimentary acting lesson – “I pretend”), but often arbitrary, as in the case of David Bowie presenting himself as a callous bully.

Larry David has had recourse to the same strategies as Gervais during the eighth series of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which ended on Sunday (More 4), but with different results. The celebrity cameos, altogether closer to the bone, functioned as a tool of his patient, farce-like plotting. In the sixth episode (of 10 in all), he cast Gervais as a recognisable version of his preening self, while in every episode David plays a version of himself that makes much of his intransigence. The battle between David and Gervais, which took place over four encounters, provided the structure for an episode concerned with the etiquette of gift-giving.

In this week’s season closer, David had a series of run-ins with Michael J Fox, one of his neighbours during a stay in New York. When Fox appeared to be shaking his head, David asked his date: “Pissed or Parkinson’s?” The line established the episode’s running question, and it played on knowledge of David’s status as a man cantankerous and paranoid in some situations, put-upon and wronged in others. It was impossible for the viewer to determine whether, say, a soda bottle that sprayed liquid all over David was intentionally shaken up. Whenever Fox was accused of foul play, he appeared innocent and, shrugging, said: “Parkinson’s.” David, for his part, felt that “Mr Parkinson would be appalled if he knew how Mr Fox was behaving.”

It would be easy, in contrasting the Fox episode of Curb with the Bonham Carter episode of Life’s Too Short, to exaggerate Larry David’s achievement. He wasn’t pushing the boundaries of comedy, or even extending his own well-worked formula. But the episode managed to demonstrate that such ingredients as bad taste, celebrity, ironic autobiography, serial misfortune, could be made compatible with, even harnessed to the ends of, craftsmanship, that undervalued property on which all good comedy relies.

small.screen@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts