The Ricky Gervais Netflix comedy asks the tough questions
In the afterlife of normal life, I started watching After Life, a popular Netflix series whose fans are clamoring for a third season.
The show’s promotional blurb says it’s about a newspaper reporter who, after his wife’s death, “adopts a gruff new persona.” But to the audience, his persona is reassuringly familiar: the bearded guy muttering put-downs through a rictus of clenched teeth that is, in every venue foreign and domestic, Ricky Gervais.
In 2001, Gervais invented a cruel new brand of comedy, the British version of The Office, beneath which beat a heart of gold. It was the modern sitcom we didn’t know we needed, but we did, and for nine seasons its spinoff was probably the best show in America. Set among dowdy, middle-class people doing dreary jobs, it hit every emotional note, was endlessly hilarious, and created catchphrases and memes that will live forever; people cried when it ended. Next, Gervais created the series Extras (about the nobodies of movies and TV), among a multitude of other projects filmed a comedy special called Humanity, and insulted everyone in attendance at the 2020 Golden Globes. Back when we had no bigger problems, that was news.
Physically ordinary and dressed to blend in, Gervais functions as a public Everyman hacking through life’s tedium and bullshit. In After Life, he plays Tony Johnson, a newspaper reporter in an English village. For 25 years, Tony and his wife Lisa (played in flashback by Kerry Godliman) had a playful, loving marriage. The series begins after her death from cancer, when Tony–plunged into a surly depression–sees no point in going on. His job and everyone around him irritates him. Only the need to feed the dog thwarts his suicide attempt.
Each episode is 30 minutes of light comedy about the value (or lack thereof) of human existence. Tony is in the same mental space as Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day: looking ahead to an infinity of pointless days and ready to fling his life away with abandon. So Tony recklessly confronts muggers and experiments with hard drugs. If After Life took place in the Covid-19 era, he’d be the guy licking the doorknobs.
He’s also incredibly rude to others, as he no longer cares about the consequences of brutal honesty. Like Murray’s weatherman during his Übermensch phase, Tony is done playing nice. So he insults just about every person who crosses his path: his mild-mannered boss, his newsroom coworkers, the mailman, a caregiver at his father’s nursing home, a diner waitress. Most are patient with Tony, as they recognize he’s in despair. And he still has flashes of decency, like when he befriends a local prostitute, or, as she repeatedly corrects him, “sex worker.”
Though After Life may sound grim, it’s funny and even relaxing. While the show plays footsie with dark nihilism, especially when one character dies in a disturbing way, it also engages with themes of compassion, decency, and resilience. As in Groundhog Day, the lead character has no more use for fakery, going along to get along, or the countless social fictions most of us live by. He’s beyond all that, in some bright, sterile operating theater of the soul. Who is he really, when nothing matters anymore?
Despite his gruff persona and the terrible loss he’s suffered, it’s just possible Tony’s late wife is right when she tells him in a video message that, deep down, he’s “a lovely man.”