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.)
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.)
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.