In many ways, too many ways, HBO's new comedy "Life's Too Short" is "Extras" with a dwarf.
If that sounds harsh and potentially offensive, well, "Life's Too Short" is that too. It is also, at times, extremely funny.
A faux documentary starring the very talented Warwick Davis ("Willow," the "Harry Potter" series) as a down-market version of himself, "Life's Too Short" is another way for creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to look at the reeking underbelly of the entertainment industry. In "Extras," Gervais played Andy Millman, a self-obsessed struggling actor who was both a symbol of and peephole to the Olympian insanity involved in making movies and television. Not only was Gervais dead-eyed and dead-on as the perpetually envious Millman, a glistening flock of A-listers including Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller and Ian McKellen gleefully participated in their own skewering.
"Life's Too Short" has similar bones. Warwick is portrayed as being on the way down rather than on the way up (work is so scarce he now runs a talent agency called Dwarves for Hire), but he is a similar mix of self-delusion and arrogance. This is sometimes funny in itself, but more important, it gives Davis the character a rather convenient Teflon-coating — he is such a jerk that he appears to deserve what he gets — when he encounters the inevitably boorish behavior of such high-profile, self-parodying guest stars as Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
Unfortunately, what worked brilliantly in "Extras" seems odd and disconnected here. Unlike Millman, Davis faces a very real obstacle in his chosen career, one that has nothing to do with talent or drive. So many jokes seem specifically designed to make it clear that Davis' biggest obstacle is his ego rather than his stature that they wind up suggesting the opposite. (And the fact that no mention is made, at least not in the first three episodes, of Peter Dinklage's award-winning role on HBO's "Game of Thrones" just feels odd.)
More important, however, is the issue of structure; too often "Life's Too Short" feels like two shows stuck together with a bit of chewing gum. Warwick does his level best (and gets no favors from the writers who saddle him with, among other things, a moronic soon-to-be ex-wife and a brain-dead secretary), but things don't get funny until Davis is brought into contact with the celebrity guests. Who then, naturally, steal every scene they're in — including, and especially, Gervais and Merchant, playing themselves. Seen most often behind a desk in their clinically spare office, the two are "friends" of Davis, or rather former friends, now far too famous to be bothered with those they once knew. (Shaun Williamson, former "EastEnder" who also starred in "Extras," has become their errand boy.)
These scenes, though undeniably self-indulgent, allow Gervais to do what he does best — be deadpan, politically incorrect and hilarious ("thought we'd moved the buzzer high enough that time," he says when Davis finally figures out how to enter the building). In the first episode, Neeson shows up for advice on how to become a stand-up comic; in the second, Depp (who has hired Davis to show him how to be a dwarf for his upcoming role in Tim Burton's "Rumpelstiltskin") rips into Gervais for his less than complimentary comments about "The Tourist" at last year's Golden Globes.
Both of these scenes are comedic gold, suitable for framing or longtime YouTube ascendancy, but they are not enough to carry a show. If Gervais still wants to satirize his chosen field, he needs to figure out another way. It's not fair to expect Davis to do all the heavy lifting and then sit there and watch while the big guys run off with his show.