Most American viewers probably know British comedian Ricky Gervais as the co-creator, writer and star of the British television series “The Office” (originating the role that would bring Steve Carell acclaim after the series was imported to the United States), or as the sharp-tongued, acerbic host of the Hollywood Foreign Press Golden Globe award shows.
He has lacerated members of the Hollywood Foreign Press as a bunch of part-time showbiz reporters and, lo and behold, he was invited back four more times so that he could unleash more blistering but funny insults.
Whether you like him or not, Gervais is a talented comic, writer, actor and director. He is considered a maestro of “cringe comedy”— a kind of British version of Larry David. On HBO you might have seen him in the series “Extras.” Gervais’ irony-laced comedy can be seen in the Netflix series “After Life,” now in its second season.
He plays recently widowed Tony Johnson, a cynical reporter on a fictional British weekly, who has just lost his wife—the love of his life—to cancer. Billed as a comedy-drama, at first glance it doesn’t seem to be the kind of laugh-filled prescription that might lift anyone out of the depths of despair (particularly in these days as we all battle shutdown fatigue). But it’s a hit, with one reviewer noting: “‘After Life’ has its funny moments, but it is more drama than comedy, taking seriously its exploration of loss, depression and the resilience of optimism.”
“One of the most accurate descriptions of grief ever put on screen,” added another reviewer.
Recently, Gervais breezily chatted about his second season via a Zoom interview from his home office—flanked by shelves overflowing with an array of awards (Emmys, BAFTAs and Golden Globes)—in Hampstead, London.
“It’s a hit around the globe—and why not? I never doubted a comedy about a suicidal man could be anything other than hilarious,” Gervais wryly noted. “After the first season, people came up to me in the street and said the show resonated with them because they, too, were grieving. So in the new season, I incorporated much of the amazing emotional reaction from those who liked seeing grief portrayed in such a dark, comedic way. They see Tony going through a sliding scale of mental illness. After the death of his wife he decides he would rather live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes. He thinks of it as a superpower, not caring about himself—or anyone else.”
Much of the show’s appeal is helped by a diverse supporting cast of oddball characters, all of them struggling to stay afloat in one way or another. His late wife Lisa, played by Kerry Godliman, puts in frequent appearances, thanks mainly to a bunch of videos she has left for her grieving husband. Others in the strong cast include Ashley Jensen (Gervais’ “Extras” co-star) as a nurse he dates; Paul Kaye, playing a selfish shrink; David Bradley as Tony’s dementia-stricken father; and Roisin Conaty as a good-natured sex worker.
Said Gervais: “In the second season Tony wasn’t going to suddenly snap out of it. After the first season’s reaction, I realized that I had to treat it realistically and not suddenly say ‘I’m better’—although Tony is trying to be better.”
Life after death on screen, he noted, is often treated as a taboo subject: “Depression, suicide, drinking … that’s the real world and I don’t shy away from it. Viewers who told me they were grieving say they love the show because it doesn’t have to be a heavy drama. No harm comes from discussing taboo subjects—it’s how well you do it.
“I think it’s uplifting and optimistic, and it’s a show about grown-up people getting through bad stuff; a show about mundane things saving your lives … and what you miss because you can’t do it anymore."