As a sworn loyalist to the dying landscape of network television, I spend much of the year watching TV the old fashioned way- on the TV, one week at a time. So, when summer finally hits and the networks shut down their programming for a few months, I finally have the time to catch all the miniseries and anthologies and streaming bingeables I missed throughout the year (plus the ones that drop in the summer, because Netflix seems to drop all their best stuff in the summer). In this series I’ll run through some of the many binge-watch experiences of my Summer, 2019.
After Life– Netflix, March 8
Ricky Gervais is a complicated guy. Or maybe he’s a simple guy who brings out complicated feelings in a lot of people. Or maybe it’s that he brings out such polarized simplistic feelings in most people that anyone who finds themselves caught somewhere in between the vocal “love” and “hate” camps ends up feeling like their feelings are complicated in contrast but they’re actually just your basic nuanced human feelings. Hard to say. What I know is this: Ricky Gervais is often remarkably cruel. Ricky Gervais is fundamentally kind. Ricky Gervais is thoughtful and careless, mirthful and forlorn, brilliant and dim, obvious and subtle, fat and fatphobic, fundamentally principled and ambivalently anarchic. Perhaps more than any of his other myriad contradictions, the thing that defines Ricky Gervais for me is the impossible juxtaposition of his being quite possibly the most sarcastic figure in television history while also being totally and utterly sincere. His gloriously self-reflective half-hour Netflix dramedy After Life is the most Ricky Gervais thing Ricky Gervais has ever made and, at the end of it, I’m still not sure whether I like the guy. I think I do like him, but then sometimes I dislike that I like him.
Whatever, I liked After Life at least. Mostly.
In After Life, Gervais’ absurd contradictions and conflicting hypocrisy are examined through the character of Tony, a man who recently lost his beloved wife to cancer but is otherwise mostly indistinguishable from Gervais himself (aside from the minor insignificant detail of working for a janky local paper instead of being a globally celebrated, if polarizing, auteur). Obvious to anyone who has ever heard Gervais talk about his personal life (his old podcast/audio book series is a must-listen if you’ve never heard it), his relationship with his partner of nearly four decades Jane Fallon is quite obviously the basis for Tony’s relationship with his late wife Lisa (played in flashback and recordings by Kerry Godliman), though to the best of my knowledge Fallon is alive and well and hopefully not too freaked out by her fictional counterpart being dead before the series begins. Tony believes what Gervais believes (staunch atheism is a throughline in most of Gervais’ work), he talks how Gervais talks (the pilot episode is especially rife with signature brutally honest barbs), he treats people how Gervais treats people (if Tony Way’s dopey Lenny isn’t a dead ringer for Karl Pilkington I don’t know what’s true anymore). Tony has Gervais’ best qualities, and his worst, in a character portrait that’s as deeply critical as it is ultimately generous. The effect is an odd alternate universe hypothetical, like a weird It’s a Wonderful Life self-reflection exercise wherein the writer/director/star examines his life not without himself but without the person who makes his life worth living.
Though she’s gone before the series begins, Lisa is everything in After Life. Her death is the catalyst of the plot and the reality that overhangs every single thing that Tony does and feels. But more importantly, the recorded videos she left for Tony allow the audience to see and judge him not just by the behaviour playing out in front of us but by the reflection of him we see in her eyes. Godliman’s work in just a few short scenes is fabulous, grounding the show in the strength of its central relationship. One of After Life‘s greatest feats is allowing Tony to expound upon Lisa’s wonderfulness without the show’s larger narrative putting her on the same pedestal. As the grieving widower sadly recounts how his wife was the best person he ever knew and the only person he really liked, the show presents us with a quirky, average-looking, very real person. We meet Lisa in greyish webcam footage recorded from her hospital bed, not in hazily beautiful memory. By not over-romanticizing Lisa, After Life manages to paint a truly romantic portrait of two people who made sense with and of each other, saw the best in each other, and thus made each other better. She wasn’t perfect, she was just perfect for him. One of Lisa’s videos claims early on in the series that Tony is “a lovely man”, something the audience has to really give him the benefit of the doubt in order to see through all the bitterness. But it’s there, she’s not wrong, and it’s her faith in him that makes the audience care for Tony when he makes it hard to, a faith that is rewarded as the series moves on.
It’s actually rewarded perhaps a bit too heartily. The first five episodes of After Life are sublime- sharp and tragic and brutally funny, living completely in the middlespace between laughter and tears where real life actually lives. The season’s final episode says out loud all the lovely points the first five episodes worked so hard to subtly build towards, ending on a note far more simplistic than anything that came before in the series. But those first five episodes are really something special. After Life is a searing, contemplative character portrait that stares straight at a man in the worst time of his life and challenges the audience to exercise a level of empathy Tony is too consumed by his own tragedy to give to anyone else. Though hyper-focused on its complex antihero, After Life is fleshed out with a really great cast of memorable supporting characters (Penelope Wilton, Tim Plester, and Extras‘ Ashley Jensen all have fantastic parts) and a strong sense of place, the sunshine in his small town oppressively arguing with Tony’s gloom. It’s a tough watch, achingly sad for reasons that go far beyond the loss of Lisa, but it’s an emotionally rewarding little slice of storytelling that holds within it all the complications and frustrations of its polarizing creator.