The Evolution of Ricky Gervais



Ricky Gervais has made six or seven series for television, depending on how you count them, including The [BBC] Office, Extras, Derek, and Life’s Too Short. His most recent is After Life, for Netflix, with one season (six episodes) in 2019, one season (six episodes) in 2020, and a third now contracted for an unknown release.

Gervais is known for sticking to his belief in “two seasons and done” (sometimes with an additional special), so the third season of After Life comes as a small surprise. He has also said he thinks it is his best work, and that it made him realize he could spend more time exploring characters. This could have been true from the start, of course; the US version of The Office, which ran for nine seasons, proves it.

Gervais described his work in general when he called Life’s Too Short “another naturalist observational comedy, dealing with everyday problems, human foibles and social faux pas.” After Life is recognizable as another of these, in which Gervais (again) plays a guy astonished by stupidity and perversion in a closed English community. It (again) employs actors from his other series, who are very good, especially Ashley Jensen, Gervais’ best friend in Extras.

But the evolution of Gervais’ series seems to be toward the serious. After Life poses the question: What would happen if you had invested everything you were in another person, and that person died? Here it is Gervais’ character’s wife, who has died of breast cancer. She haunts him, not just in memory but also in many videos from their relationship. To make things worse, his father is near the end in a nursing home, and the local newspaper he works for is about to go under.

Gervais’ character is not entirely likable, and not just because he wallows in self-pity that goes beyond his grief. In the videos he treasures, we see him acting like an immature jerk, constantly ruining his wife’s quiet moments with an air horn, or throwing water on her, as a joke. He would not dance with her when asked because he felt awkward.

Now, as he contemplates suicide, he aids in the suicide-by-overdose of a junkie who has become a kind of friend. (This is never dealt with in the series, which feels like avoidance, and makes him not just unlikeable but perhaps reprehensible, even criminal.) His anger at life—or at death, anyway—makes him mean to co-workers and strangers.

But over several episodes, his character begins to find his way, mostly with the help of others, who sometimes force him to correct his own internal narratives. His dog keeps him from suicide by barking at him. His brother-in-law, a nephew, a platonic sex worker, and a grieving widow he meets regularly on a bench at the graveyard all listen and give him feedback, which sometimes startles him. (He has threatened a child with a hammer, at one point, but has not seen the problem.) More importantly, he begins to take responsibility, maybe for the first time in his life. He helps those around him and—maybe—falls in love again.

After Life is fantasy, from the twee village Gervais lives in, to the neat-as-scripted vids his wife made secretly before she died. Viewers have complained of the therapist on the show, who is violent, sexist, and never listens to clients once. The newspaper Gervais works for seems to publish only perverse little human-interest stories, yet supports a staff of six or eight.

But then the comic worlds Gervais creates are always impossible. How long would David Brent of The Office last in real life, given his talent for saying the worst possible thing every single time? Could he even have lasted more than a couple of seasons in the BBC series, without being dismissed as flat? (In the US version, when the character became Michael Scott, he became more rounded, sometimes in fits and starts. My kids often point to scenes and say, dumb Michael!, or, wise Michael!)

After Life provides the answer to the question it asks—what happens when you have lost the person you were invested in completely?—by dramatizing how the other connections, which Gervais cannot bear, end up saving his life and giving it meaning. That is both sentimental and true.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.