Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
11 March 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 3:17pm

Ricky Gervais’s new show isn’t “offensive”, it’s relentlessly tedious

How many versions of the same joke can Ricky Gervais tell in one lifetime? 

By Rachel Cooke

How many versions of the same bloke – a vaguely Pooterish character that may, or may not, bear a powerful resemblance to himself – can Ricky Gervais play on TV in one lifetime? First, there was David Brent (The Office), awful but very funny. Then there was Andy Millman (Extras), slightly less awful, but slightly less funny, too. After this, there came the highly problematic Derek Noakes (Derek), who was kind and selfless (finally, a twist!) but not funny at all, unless you happen to think those with learning difficulties are intrinsically hilarious.

And now, here is Tony in After Life, on Netflix. Tony has lots in common with his predecessors. When he’s being rude, for instance, it comes to him easily, like water from a tap. But when he’s trying to be kind and sensitive, it seems learned, somehow: an ersatz niceness that’s about as convincing as the little bits of white plastic inside a market stall snow globe.

In After Life, a snow globe plays a small but key role. Tony, who works as a hack on a local free sheet, will eventually use one to make a colleague very happy – and if that sounds schmaltzy, well, it is. What’s weird about After Life isn’t the first five relentlessly tedious episodes, in which Tony is vile to everyone apart from his dog; it’s the final episode in which, as if he’d turned overnight into Jimmy Stewart, he takes it upon himself to do good turns for all those whose lives he previously made such a misery.

Am I giving too much away by telling you this? No. Having laid on the misanthropy with a mechanical digger from the start, no one could fail to realise that Tony will at some point experience some kind of epiphany. The only surprise is that, when this finally arrives, it is so sudden and so unearned: the equivalent, in narrative terms, of an articulated lorry doing a U-turn at speed on a motorway.

After Life is a variation on Gervais’s 2009 movie, The Invention of Lying, in which everyone tells the truth (he’s completely obsessed with so-called honesty). Depressed following the death of his wife, Tony decides that, henceforth, he will spare no one’s feelings. Why should he bother? No white lie will be told. No pleasantry exchanged for the sake of politeness. “Paedo!” a kid shouts at him, as he passes a school. To which he replies: “I’m not a paedo, and if I was, you’d be safe, you tubby, ginger cunt.” (The word “cunt” is an expletive on which Gervais somewhat over-relies in After Life: I counted six in the first episode.)

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Tony lives in a small town called Tambury, which is like Midsomer minus the character actors (until, that is, Penelope Wilton appears). I guess such a twee backdrop is supposed to make his loathing of everyone and everything seem all the more stark, but in truth, it only adds to the Febreze-like artificiality that wafts over this series. What is this place? Who are these people? By day, Tony writes sweet little human interest stories: the man who has found a stain that looks like Kenneth Branagh; the woman whose dustbin sounds like Chewbacca when dragged along the pavement. By night, he hangs out with a suicidal junkie (Tim Plester), and a sex worker (Roisin Conaty) he pays to help him clean. (Yes, a tart with a heart! Apparently, they still exist.)

Content from our partners
The cost-of-living crisis is hitting small businesses – Liz Truss must act
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs

At a certain point in After Life, all the other characters start telling Tony what a nice bloke he is. “You’re a lovely man,” they say. But since we’ve seen no evidence whatsoever of this, and the only thing that has happened to make him rethink his mean-spiritedness is finding that he fancies a nurse (Ashley Jensen) at his father’s care home, one’s throat remains noticeably lump-free as Tony lurches into saccharine magnanimity. Gervais is quite determined, I see from interviews, that he has broken various taboos with this show, which touches so ham-fistedly on suicide. “It’s not offensive!” he insists, hopefully. Personally, I think it’s fine, even helpful, to make jokes about death and depression. But for such gags to work, there has to be a certain veracity, an emotional truth that’s conspicuous by its absence here.