Ricky Gervais was once hailed as an innovator of comedy. Series like The Office and Extras sealed his reputation as a man who had changed the landscape of TV comedy forever. The Office became so popular it spawned a genre and a popular American remake. Sadly, the style that was once Gervais’ hallmark seems to have become something of a curse. At least based on his new Netflix series After Life.
The series follows Gervais as Tony who works for the local free newspaper The Tambury Gazette edited by his brother in law Matt, (played by Tom Basden). Tony has recently lost his wife to cancer and his hatred of everything around him leads him to be rude to people and generally fail to do anything but lash out. This may seem reductionist but that’s basically what the series is – a collection of vignettes with Tony attempting to rebuild his life whilst also annoying those he encounters. This is one of the great flaws of the programme – rather than telling a convincing and powerful story about death and the meaning of life, the show feels more like a mixture between subpar Brentian stand up and some genuinely profound moments.
Tony is a hard person to empathise with. At various times, he is described as being a nice guy prior to his wife Lisa)’s death. The issue is that it is hard to imagine Gervais – whether as Tony or another character as being a “nice guy”. His great talent is to portray characters that are social outcasts because of their behaviour; characters that are in some way damaged because of their own toxicity. It makes the impact of the drama less effective if it is impossible to imagine that the character who is acting in an anti-social way wasn’t always like this. If there isn’t any demonstration of a defined change – and the programme’s attempt to do this with video flashbacks isn’t effective because Gervais’ character appears to be the same – then how can we understand and sympathise with his crude behaviour? If he was always like this, has his wife’s death truly affected him at all?
It would be remiss of me to say that the series has no redeeming features. For instance, the opening of the first episode is skilfully done and feels genuinely emotionally wrenching as Tony watches part of the last message recorded for him by his wife. This feels like what the series should have been about – getting over loss and grief. Instead, it is only partly about that. For example, most scenes in Tony’s place of work are basically bits of The Office but with different people. Similarly, the series will often pause so that Gervais can rift on a particular aspect of modern life to no great effect. We don’t learn much more about the character or the story through this – we simply learn that Ricky Gervais thinks blocking people on Twitter is a bit naff etc etc.
Whilst the story and central character aren’t particularly compelling, the supporting cast is surprisingly good. They are, alongside some of the moments of genuine pathos, the only things of worth in the series. Penelope Wilton who plays Ann, a woman who visits her husband who is buried next to Lisa, plays both her serious scenes and those which are more light-hearted to perfection. Wilton is an incredibly accomplished actor, both in the spheres of comedy and drama and her performance lifts the series. Similarly, Ashley Jenson who plays Emma, a nurse that works at Tony’s father (David Bradley)’s nursing home. Jenson is, like Wilton, an accomplished actor and she makes Emma not only seem like a real person but a likeable one at that.
One point that should be raised is the series depiction of suicide. Given that the producers/distributors of this series, Netflix, have previously courted controversy with the visceral scenes of suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why it seems risky to say the least to include the subject matter here. Gervais’ character attempts to kill himself twice though he doesn’t succeed and the sight of him sitting in a bath with a razor held next to his wrist is uncomfortable to say the least. Perhaps the worst demonstration of this, however, appears at the end of Episode Four when Tony’s friend Julian (Tim Plester), a heroin addict, kills himself by having an overdose. The fact that Gervais’ character gives him the money to do this specifically is both sickening and deeply troubling to think that a company that has already had its fair share of problems with this subject matter would allow a scene like that to be released on their platform.
After Life isn’t a good show, that much you’ve probably already guessed. The tragedy of it is that it had the potential to be a good show – it could have been deeply profound and had a positive effect. Instead, it basks in Gervais’ own self-congratulation and makes for nauseating viewing at best.
Contributed by Will Barber-Taylor
After Life is now streaming on Netflix Worldwide