Sunday, February 19, 2012

HBO: It's not TV. It's really, really uncomfortable TV

If there's any genre of TV about which I'm especially picky and critical, it's the squirmcom. You know what I'm referring to: that particular brand of comedy that finds its humor in horrifically awkward situations created by characters who have a staggering lack of awareness, both of themselves and the world they live in.
The two giants of this form of comedy are, of course Ricky Gervais -- who created the incredibly squirmy series "The Office" and "Extras" -- and HBO -- which aired "Extras," Larry David's masterpiece of squirm "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the one-season squirmfest "The Comeback."
Tonight at 10:30, HBO will debut its latest partnership with Gervais, the mockumentary "Life's Too Short," featuring Warwick Davis, the dwarf actor best known for his work in movies like "Willow," the "Harry Potter" films and "Return of the Jedi" (he played an Ewok, a fact that's referenced endlessly in the three episodes I watched). At 10 p.m. HBO will also premiere the third season of its extremely squirmy "Eastbound and Down," which has become something of a cult hit, likely due to Danny McBride's impressively committed performance as boorish ballplayer Kenny Powers.
Both "Eastbound" and "Short" feature obnoxious characters who don't understand why the world doesn't bow at their feet. In "Short," Davis plays a particularly boorish version of himself. He steals all the best roles requiring a dwarf for himself, even though he's running a talent agency for other short-statured actors. He dumped his wife because he thought he could do better (and soon realizes that he can't, and repeatedly breaks into his ex's house). He insults fans and generally behaves like a jerk. I guess this is supposed to be funny, but Gervais and his producing partner Stephen Merchant have gone to this well once too often, and to better effect. Yes, the lead characters of "The Office" and "Extras" were jerks, but, in both cases, there were sympathetic supporting characters who balanced the shows and gave them a sense of realism. Here, all the supporting characters -- including heightened versions of Gervais and Merchant -- are just as annoying as Davis. In fact, a lot of people who pop up here are actually cruel to Davis, mocking his height and lowered celebrity profile. I guess we're supposed to enjoy people taking this pompous actor down a peg, but it just kind of made me sad. Slurs against someone's height, weight, race, gender or the like don't become funny simply because the person being slurred isn't likable. And that's what these are -- slurs. Calling a dwarf "it" isn't a joke that could be funny with the right delivery. It's an insult.
Yes, there are parts of "Short" that are funny -- mainly the cameos by such celebrities as Liam Neeson and Johnny Depp. And Davis is a good sport with a decent sense of timing. But, on balance, "Short" is a lot of discomfort with very little payoff.
However, I have become a fan of "Eastbound and Down," even though that show is incredibly uncomfortable, and lacks the veneer of sophistication that adorns the Gervais shows. I'm not sure why I like it, other than I simply find it funny. McBride, whether he has a career beyond this show or not, is amazingly willing to behave like a complete jerk. Kenny Powers isn't simply unsympathetic. He's reprehensible. This season features him trying to raise his baby son, and it's the rare time when I feel a TV baby is actually in danger. There are also various strange subplots, including a jaw-dropping one involving Will Ferrell's return as demented car salesman Ashley Schaeffer. The season that debuts tonight is supposed to be the show's final one, and that's probably for the best. I'm not sure the show could keep up this level of insanity much longer.

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