Arts and Popular Culture

Ricky Gervais’ Netflix show ‘After Life’ falters on multiple levels

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Science editor, Robert Lea, reviews the first episode of After Life, Starring, directed and written Ricky Gervais. Can the new Netflix series rise above the reading comedian’s worst excesses?

I really wanted to like the first episode of Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix series Afterlife. I’ve been a fan of the Reading-born comedian since his early appearances on Channel 4 satire show the Eleven O’Clock Show way back in 1998 and I loyally followed his work right through to Derek.

That’s when my admiration for Gervais waned considerably. For me Derek revelled in Gervais’ worst excesses, it was over-schmaltzy at times with humour simply not sharp enough to cut through the haze of Gervais clumsy attempts to drag sympathy and emotion from his audience. But this wasn’t Derek’s greatest problem.

That honour goes to the title character himself and Gervais’ woefully tone-deaf performance as a man with undefined learning difficulties and a heart of gold.

Derek – just no

From early clips of After Life it was quite clear that Tony, our lead character played by Gervais would be a much different character than Derek. Different and much better, I’m happy to say. Gervais delivers a performance as a man consumed with grief well for the most part. Tony’s nihilism and cynicism at life after the loss of his wife is communicated to audience with a depth that may take Gervais’ harshest critics by surprise.

Unfortunately, it is when Tony is forced to interact with the rest of the cast and incidental characters that the cracks begin to appear. During the first episode, Gervais delivers many lines that will be familiar to fans of his provocative stand-up routines. The problem is, that when these quips are delivered to school children and old ladies, they cease to be an insightful provocation of an audience. An exercise in ‘things you simply don’t say’, funny because of their shock value, to simple cruelty.

Gervais’ Tony refers to child as “a fat ginger cunt”

This was particularly evident in a scene in which, Gervais, passing a school and nodding to his nephew, is called a ‘pedo’ by an obnoxious child. To which he responds: “If I was a pedo, I wouldn’t want you ’cause you’re fat, ginger-cunt.” This isn’t the mark of an acid-wit. It’s worryingly mean-spirited.

For me, it was all too reminiscent of the comment “I wouldn’t even rape you” sent to MP Jess Phillips by an internet troll that sparked a wave of abuse.

Likewise, the scene in which he encounters a homeless man tasked with delivering the local free-paper: “Off to buy drugs with that and dump the papers” Tony remarks to the man after watching wash his hair with drain water. It makes the character deeply unsympathetic and given that the show reflects Gervais’ own prejudices, of course, the homeless-man confirms Tony’s suspicions.

I also worried about the main character’s attitude towards suicide, making it abundantly clear to his brother-in-law , who has also lost his sister let’s not forget, that he was quite willing to end his life if it weren’t for the fact that his dog would go uncared for. Whilst I don’t believe the scene glorifies suicide, I think the portrayal of grief is one-dimensional, to say the least.

I suspect that this will be Tony’s arc through the rest of the season, that he learns to enjoy life again, but there is little evidence of that process beginning in the first episode.

In fact, the most jarring thing about the episode, in general, is that there is virtually no narrative. Tony moves from scene-to-scene encountering different residents of his village and treating them with mild disdain. The problem with this is, you could take these scenes and shuffle them at random like a deck of cards and the episode wouldn’t suffer much from it.

Actually, there are places in the show where a reshuffle might have actually improved the narrative. Take the opening two scenes for example. We see Tony in bed watching a farewell message from his wife, for not the first time we can tell. Then in the next scene after a short montage, we see Tony visit his wife’s grave.

It’s an example of Gervais forcing home his point. He needs to have faith that his audience ‘get’ what he is trying to tell them and faith that his storytelling his strong enough to get us there.

The supporting cast of After Life is strong but Gervais gives them little to do in this opening episode. The comedic talents of Diane Morgan, best known for her portrayal of the sublime and irrepressible Philomena Cunk, is almost completely wasted, as are Paul Kaye and Tony Way.

David Bradley and Gervais’ Extras co-star Ashley Jenson, pop-up as Tony’s dad and his nurse respectively, and add criminally little to proceedings. Mandeep Dhillion arrives at Tony’s office, where the village’s free local paper is produced, as a fresh-faced reporter and then disappears into proceedings.

It’s almost as if, Gervais introduces a new recruit to the office simply to facilitate exposition on who Tony is and what his story is. Ricky, there is an old adage that I’m sure you are aware of ‘show don’t tell’.

Hopefully, Gervais expands on the stellar and capable cast he has built in subsequent episodes. Based on what I’ve seen in the first, they deserve better and much, much more screen time.

One cast member who does get to shine is Kerry Godliman as Lisa, Tony’s now deceased wife. Her messages to Tony that bookend the episode are warm and funny, making us acutely feel Tony’s loss in a way that the rest of the episode simply can’t capitalise on.

In closing, I didn’t think After Life was at all terrible. This isn’t Derek. But sadly it’s not the Office either. I was left with the feeling that there is a fine comedy-drama waiting to blossom from the script but Gervais simply can’t tease it out.

As both a writer and director Gervais desperately needs someone to control his worst excesses. He needs to be told when he has done enough to get his audience where he wants them to be. 

After Life deals with topics that needed subtlety and a deftness of delivery that Gervais simply doesn’t seem to possess, instead he rams his point home like a can of dog food delievered to a brash thug’s nose.

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About

Robert is a member of the Association of British Science Writers and the Institute of Physics, qualified in Physics, Mathematics and Contemporary science. He contributes articles on topics as diverse as quantum physics, cosmology, medical science and the environment at Scisco media.

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