After Life: A Bitter Disappointment
As an avid fan of comedy, I have a lot of respect for Ricky Gervais. I think anyone who knows anything about comedy should share this respect for Gervais. The Office is undoubtedly one of the greatest TV comedies of modern times, and equally Extras is a brilliant watch. In both of these projects, we as viewers not only take pleasure in the well written gags, the carefully designed characters and the engaging plot lines, but we also enjoy the moments of tenderness at the ends of these series, which are nicely juxtaposed against a backdrop of consistent comedy. With this in mind, I was intrigued by Gervais’ new project, Afterlife, which from the outset seemed to be a shift in focus for Gervais, since in prior projects the core has been the comedy, whereas this project seemed to be very much centered around an emotional message. However, as much as I admire Gervais for trying something different, I hate to say that I was bitterly disappointed.
The concept for the show on paper is not necessarily a bad one. Tony, played by Ricky Gervais, is consumed with grief for the loss of his partner Lisa, and the show depicts how Tony copes with this grief, and how it affects his relationship with the world around him, often manifesting itself with theoretically humorous yet outrageous outbursts. This exploration of mourning and mortality is an engaging and important theme, while the guise of comedy makes the discussion attractive and accessible for a wider audience; the comedy aspect of this project effectively acts as a trojan horse, whereby the audience opens itself up for a comical experience, and is met with an emotional and poignant discussion. In addition, the title for this project is apt. On the one hand, the project expresses the idea that we are witnessing Tony’s life after the death of his wife, and the effect that her mortality has on him, which has a rather existential quality. On the other hand, we also explore Lisa’s afterlife on Earth, in the sense that she is immortalised by the old videos of her Tony watches, and I have no doubt that when Tony eventually deletes these videos, the point will be that she is immortalised in his memory; in his heart. In theory, this is a nice idea. In practice, this is poorly executed. And I mean really poorly executed.
The first really frustrating thing about this project is that Gervais has failed to stick to his two season rule. Both The Office and Extras are only two seasons long, and this is a decision that he has adamantly defended over the years. Gervais has consistently cited Fawlty Towers as the inspiration for this decision, for, if Fawlty Towers could achieve everything it needed to in just two seasons, then why should he do any different? This is a rule that I very much admire; it shows an appreciation for concision and an understanding that less can be more. However, After Life has been commissioned for a third season. And this is really frustrating for a number of reasons; it’s not just that I’m upset that he’s broken an unspoken rule that he has imposed on himself. I’m not just being bitter. No, the main cause for my irritation is the fact that the whole show, in pretty much every area, is painfully unsubtle.
When we look at the main plotline of this project, this is undoubtedly a tragic subject. A man is so desperately depressed at having lost the most important thing in the world that he is permanently on the brink of suicide. This is a really intense pain, the sort of pain that would not be out of place in a Racinian tragedy. Yet while I was watching this series, I found myself surprisingly unmoved and bizarrely indifferent to the tragedy. And there’s two key reasons for this. Firstly, Ricky Gervais’ performance is unconvincing. Everything he does is really surface level stuff, like he’s read an acting book somewhere which said “if you cry and look grumpy, it shows you’re sad.” This is a major fault of the project I feel, since if the principal performance is actually distractingly poor, then there is no chance of an emotional connection. In fact many of the performances are lacking in this department, in particular Tom Basden as Matt and unfortunately Ashley Jensen as Emma the nurse. The second reason is the dialogue itself is very much average, and really lacking in nuance. Especially in this most recent season, there is an overt stress on the characters just saying exactly how they feel; Anne, played by the great Penelope Wilton, an actress I have tremendous respect for, is a character whose only purpose is to allow Tony to describe his sadness; a sadness which Gervais should be able to express without needing to resort to this rather lazy tactic. Great writing doesn’t do this. Great writing has subtlety; it allows for the audience to reach these conclusions unaided; it allows for great performances. Breaking Bad never features Walter White explaining every single emotion he’s feeling in every single episode. This isn’t even something that Gervais does in The Office or Extras. In these shows there’s nuance in the writing which allows for interpretation, whereas here, it’s distractingly on the nose. This is potentially the cause for the poor performances, since this renders many of the characters just hosts for the dialogue, thereby subtracting from the human quality it’s trying to convey. With such a poignant and important subject matter, I feel this is a fatal flaw for the series itself.
But maybe I could forgive this on account of the humour? Maybe, the comedic aspect of the show is distraction enough to make this still an enjoyable viewing experience? Maybe this is the saving grace? No. No I’m afraid not. This show is painfully unfunny. I counted all the times I actually made an audible expression resembling laughter. This happened once. And it was more a brief exhalation of air than an actual laugh, like the mild surprise of winning £10 on a scratch card. For the rest of the show I was bored by the humour. It was all just a bit lazy. Tony making fun of Kath’s (played by Diane Morgan) superstitions is the same joke Gervais has been making about religion for years. The “hilarious gag” when Tony is refused a child’s portion at a restaurant is exactly the same joke that Donald Glover makes in Atlanta, only Gervais fails to really add anything to this. I found a lot of these jokes were merely observations about things, rather than developed ideas. If you translate a lot of these jokes into a stand-up routine, it’s more like a plain Michael Mcintyre routine, rather than carefully crafted Stewart Lee performance. The use of language also is unimaginative. Many people have complained about the excessive swearing in Gervais’ work, to which Gervais would respond “people appreciate it when you don’t patronise them.” And I totally agree with him here. Swearing is an essential part of comedy, and without it comedy would lose all its power. So I have no problem with the amount of swearing in the show. My problem lies in the fact that there is nothing clever about the way it’s used. The swearing in this show is so lifeless, employed as if for the sake of it. It’s all just very careless. When I watch a series like The Thick of It, the “vulgar language” is so carefully written and delivered, thus adding life and real texture to the performance. After Life doesn’t do this. In After Life the swearing serves no real purpose; it merely exists. What’s funny about that?
However, none of this is necessarily that bad. I’ve certainly seen worse than this in terms of both comedy and tragedy. Nothing of what I have mentioned is really criminal, and I could understand that this show maybe works better for a wider, less critical audience which isn’t obsessing over the details of the project. But there is one element which, for me, is utterly deplorable. This element is so infuriating that I left it to the very end to discuss. It is the character of the terrible psychologist (terrible in every sense), played by Paul Kaye. I’ve tried to think of comedic characters that I’ve hated more than this, but honestly I’m struggling. Everything about this character is dreadful. The language he uses is so unsubtle and over the top that it destroys any chance of being funny. The performance is so exaggerated and outright vulgar that it’s difficult to watch without cringing into the centre of the Earth. And what this character represents is just not helpful. By having a psychologist who’s deliberately terrible and totally implausible, the implication is that therapy is just not helpful. And it isn’t always. Many people find it very difficult to relate to therapists. And that’s fine. But by presenting this character as such an awful person, it serves to insult a profession, the main goal of which is to help people. I know that’s not the point, and that Gervais is trying to explain how therapy can be frustrating when trying to tackle an unfathomable and personal tragedy, but this message gets lost in this character. Instead it’s just deeply unpleasant to watch, and excruciatingly unfunny.
And so, as we await the third season of this rather lackluster project, I wonder whether it can be salvaged. Whether it’ll suddenly be funny and emotionally engaging as it reaches its conclusion (that is, if this next season is to be the final season). But I have little optimism for this. I fear it’ll just be more of the same. More of the same unsubtle drivel. And we’ll be told to like it, because the great Ricky Gervais wrote it. Well, it’ll take more to convince me than that I’m afraid.