Tony McKenna reviews After Life, the new black comedy-drama written by Ricky Gervais for Netflix
Ricky Gervais has two seminal qualities which make him a wonderful writer. One, he has a capacity for cruelty, a hangover from his background as comedian, for good comedy is often cruel. Gervais does not suffer fools lightly and often raises up the stupidities of others in terms of the most lacerating satire and critique. The other is a great capacity for humanism; to see how, at their depths, even people who appear on the surface to be arrogant and toxic, are often just bumbling along, ineptly, hopefully and without any real malice. These two moments – a lacerating cruelty and a more fallible humanity – reached a perfect comic fusion with Gervais' most iconic creation, the office manager David Brent.
Brent was, for all intents and purposes, a complete arsehole. He was the type of man who was capable of saying things like 'What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It's the people, investment in people' – with a straight face. He was this horrific whirlwind of mangled motivational soundbite along with the type of cod philosophy haphazardly snatched from the most ghastly and saccharine self-help manual. He would subject the people under him to his god-awful comedy routines, labouring under the delusion that he was witty and charismatic, and bolstered by a sense that, as their boss, the subordinates in the office were compelled to listen to him – quite literally a captive audience.
And yet, the most remarkable thing about Brent was that you, the viewer, could never really despise him. You winced, as he embarrassed himself, as his often rather sleazy attempts to ingratiate himself with others crashed and burned, and you squirmed as he lurched between platitude and prejudice – but you could never really hate him because there was nothing of cruelty in what he was. Just the opposite in fact. Underneath all the twattish management twaddle, there lurked a confused but fundamentally well-intentioned personality desperately seeking some kind of connection with others.
Creating a character so finally finessed between the ghastly and the generous exhibited the scalpel-like fineness of Gervais' writing and was one of the reasons why I was looking forward to his new Netflix series After Life. But here, however, Gervais is unable to walk that same fine line; for his protagonist is much more ghastly but far less generous. Tony is a middle-aged man who has just lost his wife to cancer. In the aftermath of that event, he is plunged into abject hopelessness and this takes the form of a comic nihilism whereby he abandons any politeness or pretence and says to others – both close friends and strangers – exactly what he thinks all of the time.
The idea is that although Tony is impossibly cruel, sarcastic and hurtful to virtually everyone who comes into his orbit, this is because he is because he is so grief-stricken and devastated – that behind the irate anger at the world lives a fundamentally kind and generous soul. It's a good premise, but it doesn't work because Gervais is never able to evoke any genuine sense of kindness or generosity on Tony's part. He assures us that Tony does have these qualities, over and over in fact. Tony spends some of his time watching videos his wife recorded for him before she passed away. Every now and then she will describe him with a stoical chuckle as a 'fat twat' thus allowing the writer to state in very bald terms that these scenes are earthy and real rather than trite and sentimental. But once that is got out the way, she harps on ad infinitum about what a truly remarkable, special, good person he is and how she knew it from the very first moment she laid eyes on him, how much he has to offer the world, and so on. She is quite literally on her deathbed, so you wouldn't reasonably expect her to start ragging maliciously on her beloved, but what you get from these snippets is almost nothing about her character, who she was, and very little about the actual details and events of the relationship between them. Rather she simply reveres him. She becomes little more than a prop for his grief, a device to throw into relief just how worthy he is and how much he is suffering.
Edgy or unkind?
And the same is true with every other character. They all, every single one of them, spend time riffing on how great, how kind, how funny and how good the Gervais lead is while remaining largely indifferent to the sheer cruelty of what he says and does. He treats his co-worker, the photographer Lenny, with visceral contempt, harping on about how physically repulsive he is, encouraging others to ridicule the disgusting image of him consuming food, pinching the fat at the back of his neck, publically interrogating Lenny's partner as to what she could possibly see in someone so ridiculous, lacking and ugly. This kind of stuff is, I guess, supposed to be edgy, but really it just comes across as unkind. Lenny does not just absorb the insults Tony heaps upon him with muted bemusement, he also looks at Tony with wide-eyed and gormless adoration for he too understands how privileged he is to be in the same space as this remarkable yet damaged human being.
Tony's elderly father is perhaps the most depressing of all the props. He is suffering from dementia and is living in a care home. Tony comes to visit him. The comedy is derived from the fact that Tony's ailing dad, being old and demented, is extremely 'politically incorrect'. So he will suddenly say something racist or inappropriately sexual, and a good laugh will be had by all. Tony's father's entire raison d'être seems to consist in this alone. And the fact that he provides the prop by which the crotchety Gervais is able to get to know the hardworking, stoical but warm-hearted Emma, a carer at the home.
Here the stage is set for the Gervais character to emerge from his winter hibernation of despair and disillusion, warmed by the benevolent and giving nature of Emma, the inevitable romantic foil, for she too senses the almost infinite hidden depths which lie behind the brusque exterior. Despite all the loss and suffering she has come into contact with in her job, Tony himself is the 'saddest man' she has ever seen.
Part of the problem with Tony's character, I think, is that he is a product of Gervais' own wish-fulfilment. Tony is a bitter rebuke to the world, a rebuke addressed to all the asinine morons out there wandering about in their fog of stupidity having not yet arrived at Gervais' astute political and cultural values. So, for instance, yet another one-dimensional character is another of Tony's colleagues, Kath. She is particularly gormless, empty-headed and spaced out, given to mull aimlessly and endlessly over the most trivial and vapid of subjects.
And she also happens to be religious. Which sets the stage for the Gervais character to provide a contemptuous and 'incisive' critique of her beliefs, which essentially comes down to Tony squealing, 'yeah, well if God made everything right, then who made him, eh?' A practical and commonsensical retort for sure, and one which perfectly expresses the crude literalism of the kind of 'New Atheism' which Gervais has so relentlessly campaigned for – a critique which remains oblivious to the profound philosophical and cosmological themes which infuse great religions and which make them resonate with so many millions of people. And while the whole 'well who made him' charge provides a significant and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to the theorisation of any deity, those of us who are atheist proponents of the Big Bang theory (the current writer included) are ourselves subject to a similar and no less thorny dilemma (if the Big Bang created the universe what caused it?)
Character or caricature?
Kath is yet another foil, an empty and asinine caricature which exists only to be pounded by Gervais' rather vulgar anti-religious fervour. Yet more secondary characters are called into being to perform the same banal function. Tony is walking down the street, only to be accosted by a couple of would-be muggers. The two teenage boys are leery, belligerent and aggressive, their accents are almost a caricature of the sneering, mindless and hate-filled 'chav'. Cue the Gervais character, to take action. He does not cower before them, and with fearless abandonment he strikes one and berates the other in a soft, calm voice which leads them to understand that here is a man who is little concerned for his own safety and will not be intimidated.
Disorientated and ashamed, they shrink from him. In another lifetime perhaps Gervais might have been tempted to derive some humour from the scene, but apart from the idea of the skanky 'chavs' getting their just deserts, the exchange is humourless. It's rather odd too, because the whole tone has more in common with something like Death Wish, the humane and humanistic middle-aged, middle-class individual with his back to the wall, finally pushed into action by the dark protean forces stirring in the impoverished mob – the chaos and menace of the streets offering up a deadly threat to the civilised and respectable nostrums of law and order.
The scene Gervais has created here verges on the ridiculous, but it also provides us a glimpse into what Tony really represents, i.e. he becomes the means by which Gervais is able to exorcise his frustrations. Tony provides an almost Nietzschean-like riposte to the social ills of the modern world, very much from the elevated perspective of a middle-class man who is now unfettered by the niceties of bourgeois respectability, and can unleash the full force of his superiority and contempt against the trudging imbeciles, non-entities and miscreants of the herd.
The only character who is impoverished and at the bottom, who is painted sympathetically rather than with derision – a character who doesn't feel the full force of Tony's loathing and disdain – is the figure of Daphne (aka Roxy), a sex-worker. She is intriguing, witty, damaged, brash and thoughtful. It is a shame she doesn't have a little more screen time. Alas, like all the women in the piece she is afflicted by a severe condition of 'Tony worship,' understanding just how remarkable he is and how much he has to give. So as he goes off to take his first tentative steps into the dating world, she pines away wistfully on just what a lucky woman his prospective date is.
After Life is not unwatchable, the dialogue is often lively and the scenes are occasionally funny. A writer of Gervais' calibre is incapable of producing something utterly boring or utterly bad. But in After Life he has created a fundamentally synthetic world – a rather flimsy, clichéd set of secondary characters who remain underdeveloped, and who float around the protagonist like rubber balloons, drawn by the gravity of his egoism. They are empty props which exist only to validate Tony's wit, virtue and travails, lacking any real character or content in their own right. When the time comes, as it inevitably must, for Tony to realise that his hatred at the world is misplaced and it is really rather a jolly place after all, the shift occurs not as result of a genuine engagement with the people around him on equal terms but rather from a hastily contrived moral epiphany, a saccharine speech on the joys and wonders of the colleagues and 'friends' whom he has spent all the other episodes pitilessly humiliating. The tone of the piece thus shifts, moving from sour and unpleasant to gushing and sentimental in its conclusion. Given the character dynamic Gervais has created, this has the feel of inevitability.
Tony McKenna is a writer, his latest book is 'Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives' (Zero Books).