Ricky Gervais is either very clever, or very stupid. After Life, which he writes, directs and stars in for Netflix, is an extension of this, and if it’s recently released second series is treated as just another series of a run-of-the-mill sitcom, he’s probably the latter. Whilst being funny and enjoyable, it’s nothing to write home about, and far from his best work. But I really hope there’s something more that I’m missing as I can’t believe Ricky Gervais has really fallen this far.
The case for his cleverness is obvious. Having grown up giggling at the Flanimals, in later life I had the pleasure of discovering The Office and Extras. They are still, by far, two of the best British sitcoms of all time. The Office was revolutionary: by turns cringey and realistic, it deservedly made Gervais into a star. Extras is, perhaps, more of an acquired taste, but I love it. It’s funnier than The Office, as it’s less self-consciously innovative, and it features the best song that David Bowie wrote after c. 1983. But since then? I can’t say anything Gervais has done has really stood out. Neither Life’s Too Short nor Derek are really my cup of tea, and Special Correspondents was dire. Whilst his occasional monologues at awards’ ceremonies are good value, they don’t make up for him not having produced a decent sitcom since Gordon Brown was PM.
After Life was thus something of a revelation when it came out last year. Both bittersweet and charming, it was like Pixar’s Up without the balloons and filmed in the posher bits of Hemel Hempstead. Tony (Gervais), a reporter on a local paper, is grieving for his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) who has recently died of cancer. Switching between a series of videos Lisa made before she died and Tony’s attempts to get through life in the present, it is a melancholy reflection on living on after losing someone you love. Not only did the first series make for a refreshingly realistic portrayal of mental illness, but it was genuinely funny. The cast Gervais had assembled – including Extras’ alumni Ashley Jensen, Doctor Who’s Penelope Wilton and David Bradley, and erstwhile comediennes Roisin Conaty and Diane Morgan – was great, and the sum of the six episodes traced Tony’s believable journey out of the depths of his depression. As someone who suffers from depression myself, seeing a show like this acknowledge so poignantly just how gut-wrenchingly awful it can be was very moving.
But despite (or maybe because of) the quality of the first series, I’m not sure a second series was really needed. I’m sure the Netflix big-wigs pinned Gervais down long enough to force another one out of him, but that doesn’t mean they were right to. What was the best thing about the first series was that it showed one short instance in an ordinary man’s life. Leaving aside Gervais’ unusually big house, or habitual attachment to putting a swear word in place of a joke, the first series succeeded by showing that what happened to Tony could happen to anyone, and that he was dealing with a pain we could all face and hope to move on from. By leaving Tony starting to improve, the narrative arc was complete. Hope sprang internal. So the second series immediately had to justify its existence. Unfortunately, I don’t think it does.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not bad, and some moments, like Tony’s postman using his bath, are as funny as The Office or Extras at their best. But for so much of the series it’s just a case of going through the motions. The kibosh is put on Tony’s romance with a nurse, so he can go back to being where he was at the start of the first series. Tony still drinks too much, is still an arsehole and still draws the same “maybe life ain’t so bad after all” message at the end of every half an hour. By the end of the series, the story had progressed little beyond the first series. It was a lovingly produced, reasonably funny exercise in treading water. Gervais seems to have responded to having his first success in a decade by simply churning out what worked last time. It’s a shame: he could have done so much better.
But maybe that’s why he’s so clever. If the first series showed us that everyone can find life hopeless at times, maybe the message of the second is that recovery is never a straight line. Rather than giving Tony the happy ending he seemed destined for at the end of series one, he hasn’t been able to reach it because the hurt of losing his wife is still so deep. Sometimes life isn’t that easy. As he argued in his most recent Golden Globes’ speech, Hollywood gets it wrong. So maybe After Life’s second series really is the most accurate portrait of struggling with mental health on modern television, even if it isn’t a particularly exciting comedy.
So Gervais has either run out of ideas, or he’s a genius. Who can tell? Either way, I wish he hadn’t stopped writing Flanimals. Instead, we’ve another attempt for him to move on from David Brent, and another puzzled reviewer working out if he ever really can.