When Ricky Gervais comes out with a new project, the big question is: Which one of him made it? There’s Bad Ricky, the smirking cynic who revels in shock and insult and “Sorry, did I offend you?” And there’s Saint Ricky, the sentimentalist sad clown, who favors pathos and big emotional windups set to Cat Stevens.
“The Office,” a lacerating cringe comedy with a humane spirit, synthesized Gervais’s two sides into greatness. Since then, he’s intensified in both directions, but separately.
In his standup comedy and public appearances, he plays the anti-P.C. truth teller, saying what (he thinks) everyone thinks. In his TV series, he’s indulged his squishy side, a little in “Extras,” and a lot in the maudlin “Derek,” in which he played a beatific, childlike nursing-home worker.
The two Gervaises — the angel and devil sitting on his own shoulders — uneasily swap custody of “After Life,” which arrives on Netflix on Friday. The dark comedy’s six episodes, all of which Gervais wrote and directed, whiplash between vicious and mawkish. It’s the TV equivalent of making lemonade by alternating swigs of straight lemon juice and corn syrup.
Gervais plays Tony, a small-town journalist whose wife of 25 years has died of cancer. His grief curdled into misanthropy, he decides to use his weariness of life as a “superpower”: He’ll do whatever he wants and tell everyone exactly what he thinks, and when he gets tired of it all, he’ll kill himself.
“You can’t just go around being rude to people!” protests Matt (Tom Basden), his milquetoast boss and brother-in-law. “You can, though,” Tony answers. “That’s the beauty of it.”
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And boy, does he. “After Life” feels as though Gervais has filled up a notebook with annoyances, then engineered a character with a socially acceptable excuse for voicing them.
Tony meets a succession of people who deserve to be told off, and then he tells them: slovenly and batty co-workers; sanctimonious charity solicitors; unhelpful servers; a schoolyard bully; a parade of overweight characters (a favorite target of Gervais’ standup); his oafish therapist; the dim townspeople he profiles for the paper; a lazy postman; and lazy store clerks.
Dumb, dumb, dumb! Lazy, lazy, lazy! The world is a stupid, fat balloon, and Tony designates himself the pin.
Tony is essentially Bad Ricky protected by grief armor. He is, like Gervais, also an outspoken atheist, and he gets several chances to best believers in verbal combat. Gervais’s dialogue comes across as though he’s scripting arguments for his surrogate to win, like the Aaron Sorkin of being a jerk.
There is a transgressive thrill to how Tony punctures mindless niceties. A 93-year-old mugging victim, Tony says, can’t be “scarred for life”: “If she lives to be 100, she’s only been scarred for seven percent of her life.”
But you might also feel that Tony is being gratuitous, that there is a social value to well-meaning pieties and cutting people slack. “After Life” agrees with you about that, too, and that’s where Saint Ricky takes over.
Tony wasn’t always a bad sort, we learn through his late wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), who recorded a series of videos in her last days to help him move on without her.
Lisa, by all appearances, was amazing, so much so that she doesn’t quite seem real. Their marriage is described as a consuming joy, as if to underscore that Tony is not simply normal grieving, he’s super grieving.
“After Life” is full of thinly drawn figures who exist to repeatedly tell Tony and us what a good person he is: a sagacious widow, a wide-eyed new co-worker, a good-hearted hooker and a kindly nurse in Tony’s father’s eldercare home (Ashley Jensen of “Extras”) — a significant character who is nonetheless so underdeveloped she’s identified in the credits simply as “Nurse.”
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The best moments of “After Life” come when Bad Ricky and Saint Ricky work together. Tony’s visits to his father (David Bradley), lost in a senile reverie of filthy memories, are bawdy and tender, and Gervais does some of his best dramatic acting. But Tony’s redemptive arc builds to a Scrooge-on-Christmas-morn’ epiphany that’s too telegraphed to be spoilable and too sudden to feel genuine.
It’s a shame, because despite the formulaic turns, Gervais is trying something interesting — to interrogate the worldview that has become Bad Ricky’s public schtick. Gervais has retreated into the “Everybody’s so sensitive!” safe space of many established comics, declaring on “The View” last year that “just because you’re offended, it doesn’t mean you’re right.”
“After Life,” on the other hand, argues that just because you’re offensive, it doesn’t mean you’re right, either. The show makes a case for empathy, a thing that people often call “political correctness” when it cramps their style. As Matt asks Tony late in the series, “Is it genuinely a revelation to you that other people have problems?”
It shouldn’t be, but we can all use the reminder. And it is something to see, in “After Life,” Saint Ricky essentially debating Bad Ricky. Here’s hoping their next collaboration turns out better.
Streaming on Netflix
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