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Dwarfs on TV; two very different representations
PA Archive.Press Association Images and Sky
Life's Too Short's Warwick Davis and Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage
Jace Lacob talks about the TV view from America
Peter Dinklage, best known until now as the star of The Station Agent, was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that causes dwarfism.
He currently stars as Tyrion Lannister on the HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones (based on the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin), and has so far won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the cunning, ruthless, and charismatic schemer.
Dwarfs on TV
Dinklage's win is all the more important given the audience's very limited exposure to dwarfs in the media. While the Munchkins of The Wizard of Oz, the Oompa-Loompas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantasy Island's Tattoo (the late Hervé Villechaize) all exist as cultural touchstones, most audience encounters with dwarfs are limited to seeing them as mythical creatures in science-fiction/fantasy films or in reality television.
"there are very few three-dimensional depictions of dwarfs"
The latter category includes Amy and Matt Roloff and their family on TLC's Little People, Big World. Also Seinfeld, which featured Danny Woodburn's dwarf character Mickey Abbott in several episodes, and HBO's Carnivàle boasting Michael J. Anderson as a series regular.
In fact, there are very few three-dimensional depictions of dwarfs, with Dinklage's turns as The Station Agent's Finbar McBride and Tyrion Lannister being notable exceptions for the fact that neither was a mythological creature and both had deep inner lives that resonated on the screen.
Game of Thrones returns in April for its second season, in which Dinklage's character - who suffers the unflattering sobriquet of The Imp - will be front and centre. Tyrion tends to be underestimated by the majority of people he encounters, many of whom mistake his physical stature for weakness, but in fact he's one of the most compelling and strong characters in the entire series. ("A very small man," as we're told in Season 2, "can cast a very large shadow.")
Which makes it all the more surprising that in America, HBO - which created Game of Thrones - also airs Life's Too Short.
Life's Too Short - two leaps backward
This is the latest Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant comedy series first shown in the UK on BBC2. It follows the adventures of semi well-known dwarf actor Warwick Davis (Willow, Star Wars), who plays an unflattering fictionalised version of himself.
Where Game of Thrones succeeds at subverting the audience's expectations of Tyrion Lannister - allowing his physical dimensions not to dictate his stature as a man - Life's Too Short seems to take two leaps backward.
"The effect isn't humorous, but instead cringe-inducing"
It portrays "Warwick" as a short-statured egomaniac and loser who too often is literally shoved into a garbage can or a toilet (to name two instances from the first few episodes) or is portrayed as falling out of his giant SUV or attempting to squeeze through a dog flap.
The effect isn't humorous, but instead cringe-inducing, and not in the way that we've come to expect from the emotionally complex and uncomfortable comedy of Gervais and Merchant, as demonstrated in both The Office and Extras.
Here, Davis appears to be mimicking Gervais as The Office's David Brent, boorish and unable to read social cues or exhibit any sense of empathy. He's a Napoleon Complex - afflicted creep who profits from his business, a casting agency for dwarfs (the real-life Davis owns a similar business), whom he belittles and objectifies - that is, when he's not stealing their gigs.
It's the objectification that's the most troubling. In one instance on the show, "Warwick" has to deal with an unhappy client involved in a dwarf-bowling gig.
In another, Helena Bonham Carter refuses to look at "Warwick" while she's shooting a scene in which he's standing in for a child actor. At first, she demands that he crouch behind a garbage can painted with a monstrous visage, before the director, at Bonham Carter's insistence, forces him to climb in.
He's later left in the refuse bin when he's abandoned by the crew. It's unclear whether we're meant to laugh at the un-PC situation, at "Warwick" in the garbage can, at the hysteria of Bonham Carter, or all three. The comedy within Life's Too Short is meant to be subversive, but the fact remains that we're not laughing at all, not least of all because it's not funny.
A tale of two TV dwarfs
At the Television Critics Association's Winter Press Tour last month, Gervais was asked about uncomfortable topics, such as a scene with Liam Neeson in which Neeson, playing himself, keeps making AIDS jokes in Life's Too Short.
"I deal in taboo subjects, particularly in stand-up, because I want to take the audience to a place they haven't been before," Gervais said.
"And no harm can come of taboo subjects. And when people say it's sort of outrageous or sick or pushing the boundaries, I don't see that it is. I think some people confuse the target of a joke with the subject of a joke. You can have jokes about race without being racist, etcetera, which we've always done. And I think sometimes people flinch too soon. And very often, the target is people's prejudices or the character's stupidity."
"Warwick" is designed to be intensely unlikable and unsympathetic, rather than engaging. As a result, any small triumphs he might encounter feel entirely hollow.
"Davis himself reportedly came up with the idea for Life's Too Short"
It doesn't help that Davis himself reportedly came up with the idea for Life's Too Short and is credited as co-creator with Gervais and Merchant; it feels a bit like the equivalent of a little-person minstrel hour.
Rather than empower "Warwick," the show seems to relish knocking him down a peg or three, diminishing him further still.
Both "Warwick" and Dinklage's Tyrion are meant to be manipulative conspirators, but it's the latter who casts off society's expectations to emerge the untrammeled victor, while "Warwick" is metaphorically dancing for coins.
"There's just nothing he won't do. We can dress him up, throw him around, make him climb bookshelves. I was shoving him down a toilet; that's a good day's work," Gervais told the TCA press.
Merchant believes, however, that because Davis's character is hoist by his own petard, it explains away the innate unpleasantness that follows. "He shouldn't have been in a giant car that he has to fall out of," Merchant said at the same press conference. "It was his own fault because of his ego he's bought this great big SUV. He doesn't need to get something from a high shelf; he can ask. But because he's got this chip on his shoulder, he needs to climb it to make a point."
But is it Warwick's ego that forces him to be put in a toilet or a garbage can?
Gervais and Merchant have a tendency to write horrible characters who do horrible things, granting viewers the ability to laugh at their misfortunes without feeling guilty. But where is the line? Is seeing Warwick in a garbage can servicing the character, or is it done because, from Gervais and Merchant's perspective, it's funny to see a dwarf put in a garbage can?
The answer is decidedly unclear. But what's apparent is that the effort to wring jokes out of Life's Too Short is very much at the expense of the dignity of all involved, not least of all Warwick Davis. And it's impossible not to wonder what Peter Dinklage will make of Life's Too Short.
- This is an abridged version. Please visit The Daily Beast to read the article in full.
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TVWeek, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be foundon Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.
The views in this article/blog are those of the author alone and not MSN/Microsoft.
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