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Ricky Gervais’ effective one-man-show After Life doesn’t change the formula in its second series for Netflix
In March 2019, After Life series 1 dropped on Netflix to massive global popularity, if not quite critical acclaim. Little over a year later and in a very different global context, series 2 has appeared in a similarly nonchalant fashion, and will no doubt follow a comparable course.
Its writer, director and star Ricky Gervais has for a long time now been a Marmite figure, initially conquering the comedy world with The Office and Extras. Meanwhile, his stand-up shows solidified his place as an A-list comedian, and his pioneering podcasts with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington have become cultural touchstones.
The man was invincible, beloved for making fun out of the sad facts of life and the ludicrousness of celebrity. The moment that his fortune shifted was 2011’s Life’s Too Short, as he lost sight of the subjects of his jokes, and left his audiences unsure what to laugh at. These issues prevailed in Derek, compounded by a mawkish sentimentality.
A string of poor feature films and scabrous gigs hosting the Golden Globes consolidated his ‘Ricky-vs-the world’ outlook, playing out daily on Twitter, puppet-mastering controversies for his own entertainment. Reader, I am a fan. Gervais is a fundamentally great comedian and generally I am happy to dig through his ego for the gag.
That said, he has cast himself as the villain of the entertainment world. The media overwhelmingly shakes a collective fist at his provocations, handwringing at his perceived tastelessness and lack of wokeness. Gervais’ comedy empire is built on his personality, which hasn’t really evolved with culture; it has simply dug in and responded to things changing around it.
This is the reason for his enduring appeal. In a world where people are hard-pressed to be bang up-to date with the infinite zeitgeist, in which any action can offend or be wilfully misinterpreted, Gervais’ comedy is a reassuring constant. A working-class man from Reading who made fun of life to a point of unbelievable success, without tempering his opinions or needily pursuing current trends.
Nonetheless, After Life series 1 was a blessed relief, offering the most universally human work of Gervais’ career. It followed Tony (Gervais), a recent widower in the idyllic fictional village of Tambury, as he came to terms with a life without his soulmate through the community of colleagues and friends that cared for him, despite his many faults.
Gervais’ total control underlaid the show’s strengths and weaknesses. It contained a deliciously sour yet moving portrait of a man’s route to repair, diving into a particularly privileged nihilism. However, the Gervais-show side-lined the high-class comedy talent in supporting roles, the direction was languid and one-note, and its total focus on Tony frustrated by wallowing in selfishness.
It’s also his most successful ever show, thank to Netflix’s global platform. Not surprising then, that series 2 doubles down on this formula – the strengths and weaknesses persist and intensify. Narratively, Tony’s one-step-forwards at the series 1 finale is met by a two-steps-back here, lapsing into familiar pessimism.
With more episodes, most shows expand their palate by bringing in new characters and plotlines. After Life largely negates this the point of repetitiveness, while neglecting superb support from Diane Morgan, Roisin Conaty and Ashley Jensen.
For all his rudeness and selfishness, Tony has a wonderful home, job and social network. He is surrounded by people who love him generously and support him unreservedly, while he offers almost nothing in return. Every meaningful conversation occurs for him to spin the focus back on himself. This is exasperating, even if you enjoyed the first series.
Yet, After Life is peppered with enough humanity to pull through to a satisfying finale. True to its creator, subtlety is not the order of the day – from the dialogue, no-frills direction and the manipulative score. After Life deals in death and compassion, in a way that is incredibly on-the-nose right now.
This is also what makes it captivating – the universality of these themes has never been clearer, and to examine them with warmth and humour is essential. That said, if you don’t like Gervais, you won’t like this.
After Life series 2 is available to stream now on Netflix for all you Gervais lovers out there.
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I write about and curate film, based in Birmingham. Programme Coordinator for World of Film International Festival, screening new independent world cinema in Glasgow and beyond. Equally devoted to the popular and the niche. Lover of live music, hardcore punk and festival season.