Where is the good in being good? It is a question many have attempted to answer, but in the words of Ricky Gervais, one of comedy’s least treacly voices, the quandary feels less philosophical and more immediately prickly. After Life is a Netflix miniseries about a widower who has lost the will to be decent—he would have killed himself after his beloved wife died if he didn’t have to feed the dog—and Gervais takes on boorishness with both swear words and sentimentality.
His character, Tony, says he would rather go through life being awful and then—when it really gets too much—he can kill himself. He doesn’t care what people think, and makes no time for tact. Instead, he goes out of his way to point out how inexact we can be. When told a 93-year-old woman has been robbed and is “scarred for life", he explains that can’t be accurate since most of her life is now over. “If she lives to be a hundred, she’s only been scarred for 7% of her life."
Everything raises his hackles, from loud eaters to postmen with unfortunate first names, and it’s immediately compelling to watch Gervais play a man without empathy. Widely applauded (and then reviled) for bringing mean-spiritedness to the Golden Globe Awards as a roast-ready host, the comedian is frequently accused of stand-up comedy that punches down, of politically inappropriate humour, of insensitivity towards transvestites and the overweight, and of the sort of entitled pomp that accompanies stadium-filling comedians who didn’t start out by climbing the stand-up ladder a few minutes at a time.
What Gervais did instead was change the face of comedy. The Office—the 2001 BBC series he co-created with Stephen Merchant—is a peerless series whose scripts should be taught in film schools. A masterpiece in cringe-comedy, the show chose a mockumentary format to capture a nondescript paper company. Allowing characters to acknowledge the camera (and roll their eyes at it) amplified irony, and the format captured their mortification more candidly. Coming to us at a time when cameras were just starting to become ubiquitous, The Office affected all television that came after, modern single-camera comedy benefiting hugely from the acute, close-up embarrassment mined by Gervais, who played unforgettable general manager David Brent. Like The Sopranos and The Wire, this show changed everything.
After Life is about how being a misanthrope isn’t easy—even though it may seem like it. Tony calls his lack of stakes a superpower, but what do you do after having declared your intent not to care? Tony writes for a newspaper that can’t realistically exist, a local paper that covers wall stains that look like Sir Kenneth Branagh, and he has made it his day job to wallow. He goes about being ill-mannered and inappropriate, yet still needs to feed his dog and smile at his nephew. At one point, he threatens a child with a hammer. At another, he decides to sponsor an overdose. This tremendously dark decision illustrates the desperation with which Tony is trying to find his limits. And ours.
After Life is, on the surface, a straightforward comic drama. The miniseries format allows Gervais simplistic character arcs, with easily appreciable (and by-the-numbers predictable) conclusions to each narrative track. Gervais still loves making fat jokes, though by making himself the target in some of those, he may have found fat-joke immunity. Still, his pedigree for subversion convinces me there is more to this emotive, basic, sentimental show: If it all seems too easy and lazy, that’s too easy and lazy a conclusion. I posit Gervais is using sincerity as a tool, trying to illustrate how easily, how effortlessly, even the most cynical of us can find something or someone to smile at. It isn’t hard. The casting isn’t accidental. If Ricky bloody Gervais can be melted by kindness, there’s hope for us yet.
One of Tony’s co-workers, Kath, sells advertising in a newspaper nobody reads—except the people in it. She’s understandably far from busy in the middle of her day, and, played by the hilarious Diane Morgan, comes across as the best kind of daft: a Kevin Hart fan utterly oblivious to her co-workers, hunting for an acknowledgement from them but too afraid to open herself up to them. Everything she says is misinformed, and the snow-globe on her desk is empty.
Back in the day, David Brent changed the world. What Gervais seems to be telling us now is that, in the interminably slow stretch of a weekday afternoon, finding Kevin Hart inside a snow-globe can change it as well.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen