On the face of it, After Life is exactly the kind of show no one wants to watch right now. Netflix's latest miniseries, which arrives as a socially conscious reckoning continues to sweep pop culture, is about an entitled white guy who tells it like it is and doesn't care what people think. More ominous still, it's the brainchild of Ricky Gervais, who has spent the last decade or so on an apparent mission to squander all the goodwill earned from his early brilliance by rebranding as a guy who tells it like it is and doesn't care what people think.
For even the most forgiving Gervaisophile, recent years have thrown up some tough viewing. There was the inane unoriginality of Life’s Too Short, the muddled mawkishness of Derek and, most dispiritingly of all, the self-defacing mediocrity that was David Brent: Life on the Road. Mainly, though, there has been Gervais himself, who seemed destined to become that most soul-sapping of clichés: the middle-aged man intent on sticking it to the bloody PC brigade. So when, in episode one of his new show, his character introduces himself as "an arsehole who does and says what the fuck I want", it’s only right to close your eyes, strap in and fear the worst.
Fear not. After Life is a minor triumph: bleak, bitter, cynical and, in the end, sincerely uplifting. A six-parter about a spiteful local journalist who pledges to stop being nice to people following the death of his wife, it's a show about grief and desperation which at no stage feels despairing, and is played with understated skill by Gervais and his small cast of co-stars. (It's a show of simple pleasures, too: Gervais is a supremely gifted swearer, and a particular treat here is the carte blanche Netflix has given him on language.)
After Life at least partially disproves the long-simmering theory that Gervais's good work only ever came in partnership with Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office and a longtime collaborator with whom he hasn't worked for almost a decade. Just as importantly, After Life – which is a long way from the PC-baiting free-for-all its premise threatens – shows some much-needed self-awareness from a man who chose the wrong time to reinvent himself as a tough-talking truth-teller.
Over the past three years or so, the escalation of identity politics has got everyone thinking twice before laughing along with the well-to-do white bloke taking the world to rights. No person or show has been immune from having its perceived faults held up for public inspection. Cultural cornerstones like The Simpsons and Sex and the City have come under a previously non-existent spotlight; the ball-scratching Judd Apatow figure has been supplanted as comedy royalty by the urgency of Donald Glover, Jordan Peele and Amy Schumer; even cows as sacred as Larry David have found themselves subject to the odd ultra-enlightened reappraisal. Then came the revelations about Louis CK, whose sordid alter-ego was supposedly a satire of social privilege: grim proof that even the people who say all the right things can lever their power to do all the wrong ones.
When old footage surfaced of Gervais and CK dropping the N-word in a comedians' roundtable with Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, the ensuing outrage said less about the pair's look-at-us edginess than about how much the culture had shifted; the incident passed without comment back in 2011.
At a time when power and privilege became the vital topics of interrogation, Gervais took more glee than ever in punching down. In 2016, he caused a stir when he opened his Golden Globes gig by poking fun at trans activist Caitlin Jenner; the next year, in his standup special Humanity, he doubled down on those jibes, explained why anyone who objected simply didn’t understand comedy, and devoted untold stage time to recounting squabbles he’d had with strangers on Twitter (spoiler: he wins them all, emphatically and hilariously). It was Gervais at his boorish worst, blundering across the line that separates misanthropy and vanity. "People are idiots" is a sentiment we can all get behind. "People are idiots compared to me," not so much.
So it’s a relief that After Life wears its misanthropy lightly, its protagonist’s foul-mouthed nihilism providing the show’s material but not its message. "What do you want me to say?" asks Gervais at one point. "That I’m sorry and I’ll buck my ideas up? Because I won’t." But by the end of the show, he has.
Coincidentally, After Life arrives a week after another screen success authored by a Wernham Hogg alumnus. Stephen Merchant's Fighting With My Family is an against-the-odds Hollywood heart-warmer about an angsty teenage girl’s attempts to make it as a WWE fighter, with a cameo from exec producer Dwayne Johnson, which last weekend went straight into the box-office charts at number one.
Merchant was never likely to be damned by pop culture’s new wokeness. His persona is that of a nice guy with a self-deprecating streak, and just as Gervais tends towards the capital-E Edgy, he tends towards the capital-L Light. He too has spent the last decade dabbling in standup and self-scripted prestige TV projects (in his case, the forgettable Hello Ladies for HBO), but while Gervais’ low-key comedy of despair is tailor-made for the small screen, Merchant looks to have found a natural home in popcorn-peddling romps.
The partners who cut their teeth together in the lo-fi worlds of digital radio and microbudget sitcoms have arrived, two decades later, in the most glamorous territory imaginable – albeit of two very different types: Gervais in the auteur's playground of the TV miniseries, making adult dramas about bereavement and existential misery; Merchant in the director’s chair in Tinseltown, rattling out feel-good sports biopics with the planet's most bankable movie star.
On the one hand, two more different projects are hard to imagine. But look a bit closer and the central similarities remain: both are about the terror of unrealised dreams, the tragicomedy of trying to be liked and the soul-crushing crapness of Britain’s bleaker provinces. Which, from the guys who dreamed up The Office, should probably be no surprise at all.
Most notably, though, both Gervais and Merchant’s latest efforts also mark a return to the core success of their debut, which was really a triumph of poignancy.
"A good idea is a good idea, forever," said its shabby-suited protagonist – but 18 years later, a fast-changing culture has shown that wisdom to be false. One idea unlikely to go out of fashion, though, is the one his creators are still abiding by: that the best comedy has sympathy at its heart.