Ricky Gervais is a very successful man. As I write this, the second series of his smash-hit show After Life is the number one trending program on Netflix in the UK – for the second week running.
His deal with Netflix last year to commission two stand-up specials was estimated at a monumental $40 million. He’s rich and has enough credibility from the genre-defining The Office and Extras to last him a lifetime. With all this considered, he doesn’t care what I think; he doesn’t care what most people think. And that’s a shame. Because After Life is lazy.
Picking up where series one left off
Tony (played by Ricky Gervais), is a bereaved journalist, still coming to terms with the loss of his wife. He lives and works in a leafy town called Tanbury, which, most of the time, is Hampstead Heath. He moans relentlessly during the day and drinks too much in the evenings, watching videos of his wife Lisa (portrayed by Kerry Godliman).
After Life, like most of Gervais’ work, balances comedy and drama into tightly-packed half an hour episodes. But the problem is, Gervais is not a skilled enough actor to pull off the level of pathos required to address hefty themes like depression or grief, or does he write scenes funny enough to balance the show away from these darker themes.
One gag involves Tony’s colleague Lenny bringing his large step-son into the office for work experience. The step-son is obsessed with eating and is often mocked by Tony in the office for this. That is the joke. Another gag involves an old woman in a care home referring to everyone as a ‘cunt’. These comedic moments, which are interludes to some of the darker scenes in the show, are vulgar and ultimately lazy attempts to get laughs with no real relation to the show’s wider themes.
A gag that does work, however, is Paul Kaye’s alpha performance as a psychiatrist, who we see therapizing Tony’s boss Matt, who similarly faces the prospect of also losing his wife. His vulgar stories of ‘getting twatted’ on wild nights out with ‘ratty’ and the ‘nonce’, paired with his general disregard for Matt’s emotions is both sad and funny. We sympathise for Matt as his feelings are routinely ignored, (‘just move on’) but are able to laugh at the absurdity of the psychiatrists’ stories (‘Do you want fries with that?’). For me, this is a rare moment where the show’s comedy has some observational impact, with the psychiatrist’s male bravado effectively poking fun at and showing the emotional pitfalls of toxic masculinity. For all the show’s failings, this is a moment where Gervais nails the balance between comedy and drama.
Another issue with the show are the moments of drama – which are not well enough written or performed to effectively address these issues. In much of series two, we spend time with Tony sitting on a grave-yard bench with Penelope Wilton’s character Anne. He grieves and (sometimes) movingly cries, but more often than not his performance seems contrived. We are forced to sit through a lot of repetitive conversations, some cliché one-liners (‘Everyone’s screwed up in some way. This is mine’). Gervais’ crying also becomes repetitive, all too often we see him, either in a coffee shop or at the office, staring into space, holding his eyes open long enough until a single tear falls down his cheek.
For all Gervais’ success, in his past career and with this show, it’s surprising how lazy After Life really is. As a big fan, it’s a far-cry from anything he achieved in The Office or Extras, and the widespread love for it is something that bemuses me. But as the show has just been renewed for a third series, it is clear that my opinion won’t change a thing.