Something occurred to me as I was watching season 2 of Ricky Gervais’ Netflix dramedy series “After Life.” Gervais is at his best when he’s satirizing the mundanity of everyday life in a way that infuses a sense of empathy for more down to earth people.
It’s the thing that both “The Office” and “After Life” have in common. I’m still not sure those two belong in the same sentence, but they’re both clearly the best things I’ve seen Gervais do. And they may have more in common, at least initially, than you’d think.
To be fair, I say, the best things, “I’ve seen,” because admittedly I haven’t seen “Derek,” “Life’s Too Short,” or “Extras.” But if I’m comparing “The Office” and “After Life” with Gervais’ Netflix movie “Special Correspondents,” it seems clear that his style is over-the-top enough that he needs a more down to earth setting and premise to balance things out.
But good news for him, it’s those more down to earth settings and premises that I (and I’d wager almost everyone else) love about “The Office” and “After Life.”
Both take place in relatively smaller towns and feature casts of people who look like people you’d meet at work rather than glamorous movie stars. According to Andy Greene’s new book, “The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History,” there was a conscious effort to keep the show grounded in the early seasons. One way they achieved that was in the casting process. “After Life” utilizes a similar strategy and it helps add a bit more “groundedness” to the show. The people in these shows look like people you might meet every day, not like models who walked out of a magazine onto a Hollywood movie set.
Both “The Office” and “After Life” feature people bored out of their minds at their mundane jobs too. And both workplaces are ever on the verge of being closed down.
Where “The Office” takes place at a paper company, “After Life” takes place at a small town newspaper that’s forced to cover the uninspiring things people in the local community do. Both shows force the central characters to reckon with the trivialities of everyday life and boring jobs.
While “The Office” was about stifled ambitions, “After Life” is about loss and living with grief.
But where these two shows really diverge is in the characters played by Ricky Gervais. Tony would have hated David Brent. They are about as polar opposite as they come. In fact, Tony can’t stand the kind of insecure person who is always seeking attention. That’s Brent in a nutshell.
Tony is the indie movie sad sack, but Gervais grants him a lot more nuance than maybe most would assume from that description. We may have thought Tony had learned his lesson and snapped out of his depression by the end of the first season. But then again, that’s not really how things work is it?
Season 2 has Tony, despite the growth he made in the first season (that’s still very much present in Season 2 Tony), still struggling to find purpose and happiness after the loss of his wife. He’s a little less suicidal this season, but still struggling regardless.
This season asks some heavy questions like, can you move on to new relationships without feeling like you’re cheating on the soul mate you lost? Can your new relationship really build to anything meaningful if you’re still missing your wife who died?
That new relationship is with the nurse who cares for his aging father. They’re not exactly dating, but there’s interest.
I like the fact that this season suggests that just because you’ve made some friends, met a potential new love interest, and are feeling a bit better, the grief hasn’t disappeared. That’s not how life works. After Life season 2 explores it a bit deeper.
The most moving parts are, of course, when Gervais watches old videos of his wife and talks about how the things he misses most about her. As anyone who has been in a long term relationship can attest to, you do miss just being able to be around your significant other if they aren’t there. Just being able to lounge around the house doing boring everyday things, but being able to do them together, makes a world of difference. Because as we know, it isn’t all the big moments you miss about another person, it’s all the little moments.
“After Life” is definitive proof of how talented Gervais is as an actor and how much range he has as a writer.
But it’s not all grief. There’s comedic relief as well. A lot of it is Gervais poking fun at everyone from toxic, self-described “alpha males,” to feminists, to aloof, if good-natured, small town people. No one is safe. But that’s what makes Gervais fair in his comedy.
There’s certainly still places for the series to go by the end of season 2. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it get approved for a season 3, and I’d certainly welcome it.