Available on Netflix
I’m not exactly sure when I stopped finding Ricky Gervais funny, but I have a fair idea. It certainly wasn’t during The Office. I’ve never been a fan of ‘cringe comedy’, but you genuinely must be lacking a funny bone not to have found at least parts of it hilarious. Ditto Extras, with its array of celebrities sending themselves up (“They’re good people on Family Affairs…” “It’s too late – I’ve seen everything”).
But by the time of his podcast with Karl Pilkington, an unpleasant note was beginning to creep into the comedy. It was starting to becoming bullying. Gervais was laughing at people, rather than with people.
His film, The Invention of Lying, wasn’t bad but by the time of his stand-up tours, his Twitter bullying and the return of his Office character David Brent in Life on the Road, I wasn’t even bothering to watch any more. Who needs Gervais’ brand of mean-spiritedness in their lives?
Now we have After Life in which Gervais plays a man who’s lost the will to live so decides to not give two f*cks about anyone else. The question I had going into this was: would Gervais have to act at all and how much would I hate After Life?
After After Life
I didn’t hate After Life. I didn’t laugh much, sure, and parts of it often deathly dull. But although there are certain trademarks of Gervais’ brand of comedy to it, After Life is something of a departure for him, in what is arguably his most mature and thoughtful work to date.
In real life, Gervais has, of course, become one of those annoying activist atheists (cf Richard Dawkins) who spend all their time trying to discredit other atheists by aggressively arguing with theists and generally implying – or even outright stating – they’re as thick as two short planks. That’ll win them over, right?
After Life feels very much like one of those arguments come to life and wrapped into a six part dark comedy drama. Why, posits the theist, do you atheists bother living if there’s no point to it all? Gervais replies by basically lumping on his own character’s shoulders all the woes of the world in a Book of Job stylee in order to answer that question.
Here he plays a small-town journalist working in an equally small-town local newspaper. His vicar wife (Kerry Godliman) recently died of breast cancer and Gervais is now struggling to find a reason to live, now that his only reason for living has died. So he takes his pain out on everyone else, including Godliman’s brother and the newspaper’s editor (Tom Basden), his psychiatrist (Paul Kaye), Christian co-worker Diane Morgan, cub reporter Mandeep Dhillon, his dementing dad (David Bradley), his dad’s nurse (Ashley Jensen), his postman (Joe Wilkinson), the newspaper delivery guy (Tony Way) and local sex worker (Roisin Conaty).
Gervais is a git from the outset so when he suddenly decides not to bother with pleasantries any more, there’s no noticeable difference – it’s just a question of how far he’ll go and how quickly, as he tries taking heroin and even threatens to murder a child at his nephew’s school with a hammer.
Are we having fun yet? And that is After Life‘s big question.
Life? Don’t talk to me about life
After Life is probably the first thing I’ve seen of Gervais that hints that he has real empathy and can write about deep emotions. There are even scenes that are genuinely affecting. For example, he confesses to Dhillon after several episodes of rubbishing the local paper for which he works that he never tried to do anything with his life, never worked late, never put himself forward for things because he only ever wanted to rush home to spend as much time as possible with his wife because he loved being with her so much. You can’t imagine any character in any of Gervais’ previous works ever saying something so moving or insightful.
To the show’s credit, there is a lot of that. Gervais dwells on pain, the misery of being widowed, the struggle to find meaning in life, carry on and even start again. And by the end of six episodes, he’s come to a credible conclusion: to make the world as nice a place as possible, even at just a local level, for other people, rather than yourself. Improbably, Gervais becomes nice and thoughtful and kind to others and that’s the message he wants you to take home.
All the same, he puts all that work into his own character – it’s only really he who gets that level of characterisation, while everyone else gets off lightly. Morgan is deploying her most Philomena Cunk traits as the token Christian – Immanuel Kant she is not. But for the most part, every character in After Life is either a variant of one of Gervais’s previous characters or are simply an extension of Gervais himself. Jensen, in particular, is largely just a prize for Gervais at the end of his journey, and you do wonder after he’s been such a dick for six episodes, why she would even think for a second about going out with him.
Similarly, there’s not that much research going on. If Gervais has read a local paper, it’s probably not been in the past 10 years or so, judging by After Life‘s depiction of the kind of stories that go into it. The staffing level that the show offers would probably be enough for six local papers now, although how Gervais imagines they get laid out these days, I don’t know, since there’s not an InDesign (or even a QuarkXPress) in sight, let alone a designer.
It’s not clear Gervais is even sure how journalism works. The show’s few laughs come not from Gervais’ bad behaviour, which feels more like a cry for help than actual comedy, but from when he turns up at various locals’ homes and listens to their banal stories. Then bewilderingly, they tell him some humdinger of a follow-up that should be the lead story of the paper and probably an award-winning investigation. He leaves, laughs at how they didn’t mention that humdinger first… then proceeds to write up the “this stain on my wall looks like Kenneth Branagh” angle.
At first, I thought it was a sign that Gervais’ character has lost his will to live and can’t spot good leads any more. But by the end of the final episode, he’s firmly arguing that local papers need to be about Branagh stains, rather than “the police won’t chase after young thieves on motorbikes because they’re scared of being sued in case one of them gets hurt” stories. It’s a little baffling. Thematically it fits in, but if you want to argue for the relevancy of local newspapers, you’d normally go for “highlighting local issues of concern to residents” as the one.
Don’t go into After Life expecting to laugh. Don’t go into After Life expecting deep characterisations, or realistic portrayals of small town life or local newspapers.
But do go in expecting a good argument, and the surprise of Ricky Gervais moving us and telling us to be kind to one another.