I knew this was a bad idea. Ricky Gervais is simply impenetrable, every word of this article may as well be one rung down the ladder when it comes to how valuable my opinion will be in the future; he is a national treasure and I am already aware that I am treading on eggshells here, especially with a show as emotionally raw as After Life. But since season 2 has recently been released on Netflix, I just have a couple of things to throw out there.
A very important preface to this is that I actually loved this show. It’s true in many senses of the word: the stubbornness of grief that sticks to Tony (played by Gervais himself) like a stain on his happiness, the profound wisdom that can be gleaned from people we would usually consider banal (a nihilistic heroin addict, an endlessly kind sex worker, and a hopelessly obtuse postman with the tenacity of an ox), the little things that keep human lives afloat like a knock on the door or a dog that needs feeding.
After all this time, comedic genres cannot let go of the ‘pairing-off’ tradition between characters, situations are resolved when characters prance off into the sunset with the love of their life where all will be happily ever after. Even nowadays, we don’t often get a vision of the ‘after ever after’ where tragedy still strikes when it shouldn’t and when characters have their happily ever after taken away from them in this way. I greatly appreciate that Gervais is bringing laughter and light to some of the darkest aspects of life that we can imagine. Sadly, season 2 dabbles in the prospect coupling off the characters to conclude the series compared to the first season’s peace with tranquil solitude, but at least it isn’t treated as the key to all of the characters’ conflicts. All that being said…
At times, a scene would leave a strange feeling with me, like it didn’t quite fit into the wider landscape of the episode. Where did that dialogue come from? Why did that scene have to happen, and what was it trying to achieve? Suddenly I realised: the show can be too Gervais. Don’t get me wrong, the show is definitely funny, but what made After Life so funny was the hypercasual tedium of everyone around Tony; what made me laugh the most were the ways in which hell really was other people. An impossible conversation, a rude person who is unbelievably oblivious, or a provocateur needlessly provoking a colleague. But this was met with the cacophony of rehearsed standup routines, written by a live comedian in a naturalistic program, therein lies the biggest problem with After Life.
A young man makes the news by playing the recorder through his nostrils, why do we need a longwinded explanation of the ridiculous feats young people will attempt for short-lived notoriety? We just saw it. This is one example of what is sprawled across the first season like a dog at a cat party. What gives After Life its authenticity and its bleak edge is the realistic mundanity of it, in which things are shown to us and not told, except for when Gervais whips out what feels like old material at the bottom of a drawer that hasn’t yet seen daylight being crowbarred into a comedy that is too ‘real’ for rhetorical soliloquies on what we had already seen. Season 2 has drastically improved in this sense, but it still lingers from time to time.
I understand that Tony’s character is that of a grumpy man who cannot escape his anger towards people who just can’t be as perfect as his late wife, but this would have been perfectly portrayed if it weren’t for the misplaced standup routines. To round off this lukewarm take to an otherwise excellent show: I would rather dedicate the rest of my life to proving that any God exists than sit through another one of Gervais’s glib atheistic monologues targetted at innocent people, always unprovoked and never deserved.
Both series of After Life is available to watch on Netflix.