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story.lead_photo.caption Ricky Gervais and Penelope Wilton star in 'After Life.' (Netflix)

There's a Netflix show that intrigues me called After Life.

It's a dark comedy written, produced and directed by its star, British comedian Ricky Gervais. As with most Netflix offerings, a whole season's worth of shows came online at the same time, making it possible to binge-watch the series. Apparently this is something people do, so it is reasonable that many of you have already consumed Season One of After Life, which has just been picked up for a second season.

Meanwhile, my habits are set -- I don't binge. I have only seen five of the show's six episodes. So there is a risk involved -- I feel like I'm writing about a movie I left 20 minutes before the end. Maybe the last episode will nullify some of the ideas I have about the show and what it's about.

But I think it is about something we all have to cope with; the old dilemma set out by Shakespeare is "to be, or not to be." Hamlet's soliloquy poses the essential human question. If we knew for certain that the afterlife is either paradise or nothingness, we could rationally decide whether it is preferable to our everyday struggles. Suicide is an attempted escape, a bet that whatever is waiting for us isn't worse than the present hell.

What keeps us going might be simple cowardice -- we are afraid of death and maybe, just a little, the possibility of damnation. Gervais is hardly the first artist to explore this idea; aside from the pursuit of each other's affection it's probably the main preoccupation of most humans. What makes us human is the realization that our nonexistence is not only a possibility but an inevitability.

After Life, as its title suggests, negotiates the fallout of death. In this instance, Gervais plays Tony, a small-town newspaper features writer whose wife and soul mate Lisa (Kerry Godliman) has died of cancer. Before she died, she recorded a video urging Tony not to fall into the precise sort of depression he's now experiencing. It's not helping.

Now he drags himself through days in sweat pants and ill-fitting T-shirts while spending nights drinking and obsessively watching video clips of his sweet life with Lisa. He often casually suggests he might commit suicide; he tells his beloved Brandy (a beautiful German shepherd played by very good dog Anti) that if she "could open a tin" he would have already offed himself.

Past bothering with decorous politesse, Tony speaks sarcastic and bitter truth to his co-workers, who include unkempt photographer Lenny (Tony Way), brother-in-law and editor-publisher Matt (Tom Basden), eager new reporter Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon) and ad rep Kath (Diane Morgan). His job is itself ludicrous; most often it requires him to interview various residents of the (fictional) village of Tambury about wall stains that might or might not resemble Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Hurtful and rude, Tony has determined to do and say exactly as he pleases because his "being" is provisional. When the pain becomes too much to bear, suicide is always there for him.

You might think this sounds very grim. Especially when Tony enlists Julian (Tim Plester), a homeless junkie, to procure hard drugs. There's a scene where Tony nods off with Nick Cave's "Into My Arms" playing on the stereo that might come across as melodramatically on the nose.

But (and there's no way to really argue this without spoiling some major plot points, so you're going to have to trust me) it's actually a life-affirming show that's generous with its flawed and flailing human characters. After Life is lovely, and Gervais' Tony winds up as a remarkably nuanced character.

While the show certainly won't be to everyone's taste -- as with most things Gervais is involved with -- it delights in evoking cringes and sometimes derives its humor from a kind of stubborn insistence on stating what is obvious yet unspeakable. Tony indulges in a kind of radical honesty, which he first understands as a kind of superpower. If he doesn't care about what happens to him, it's no big deal to face down a trio of would-be muggers or to snatch the hammer from a motorcycle thug.

Yet the show is deeper than that; in some ways it's reminiscent of Michael Schur's The Good Place, an NBC fantasy about an afterlife where hell is disguised as heaven that riffs on Satre's No Exit. While Gervais is famously an atheist -- see his December 2010 piece in the Wall Street Journal "Why I'm an Atheist" -- there's nothing in After Life that smacks of existential nihilism. Tony may not believe in an afterlife, but this doesn't mean he necessarily defaults to the position that nothing "matters." He worries what would become of his dog were he to die. Tony has empathy for others; it's just being blocked by his pain.

He wouldn't suggest that his life with Lisa was meaningless; it was full of joy and complication. A happy life distracts us from the background hum of mortality -- the knowledge that none of this is going to last, the knowledge that makes us human.



I can't be the only person who wonders if Gervais has read Walker Percy.

It's not unreasonable to suspect he hasn't; most people haven't read Walker Percy, and it is possible to go to a good college and acquire an advanced degree without ever learning much about the novelist-philosopher from Covington, La.

But Percy would have understood Tony.

In his 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Percy suggested that the only cure for depression is suicide -- a proposition with which Tony would surely agree.

"This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option," Percy wrote. "Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it."

But Percy didn't mean one had to kill oneself to escape the pain, only that one had to behave as though one had committed suicide. He drew a start distinction between what he called "ex-suicides" and "non-suicides":

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o'clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn't have to ....

Now notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be.

Since we know After Life has been picked up for a second season, it's no spoiler to say that Tony operates under the premise he has nothing to lose by being alive. He is not stuck with "to be." He has options. But by killing himself, he might cheat himself of some minor moments of grace provided by encounters with characters like Emma (Ashley Jenkins), a nurse at the facility where Tony's demented father (David Bradley) lives; Anne (Penelope Wilton), a widow who Tony meets while visiting Lisa's grave; and Daphne, aka "Roxy," a prostitute ("sex worker!") who Tony hires to clean his house.

After Life is the opposite of morbid -- it's about finding reasons to go on even when you've been deeply damaged. And though it goes to some very black places, with Tony committing some genuinely reprehensible acts, it always manages to retain a certain generosity toward its characters. Even Brian (David Earl), a pest who wants nothing more than to be featured in Tony's newspaper, turns out to be a credible person worthy of our empathy.

Percy argues we have the right to be depressed; that "no member of the two million other species who inhabit the earth -- and who are luckily exempt from depression -- would fail to be depressed if it led the life you lead. You live in a deranged age -- more deranged than usual ..."

Tony is right when, upon meeting fresh-faced Sandy, who sees her new position as her big break in journalism, that "humanity's a plague."

"We're a disgusting, narcissistic, selfish parasite, and the world would be a better place without us," he says, but in the end he can't bring himself to pooh-pooh her dreams. Her job at The Tambury Gazette might well lead to a position at a London newspaper or magazine. Who knows?

After Life might, in the end, succumb to sentimentality, to Tony realizing that -- like Frank Capra's George Bailey -- he has plenty of reasons to stay alive. But Gervais seems to understand that it's not always a wonderful life, and like the High Catholic Percy, suicide might be a rational thing for a person to do under some circumstances.

Just not these circumstances, just not now.

Like Samuel Beckett's mysterious protagonist at the end of his 1953 novel The Unnameable, we can't go on. We go on.


Style on 04/21/2019

Print Headline: CRITICAL MASS: Ricky Gervais' Netflix series 'After Life': What do you have to lose?

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