“After Life” from Ricky Gervais leaves something for audiences to think about, even if the critics are not fans of the mechanics.
I just finished watching “After Life” season 1 on Netflix. It is hard not to imagine that this Ricky Gervais creation is just a little autobiographical. A story arc that takes us from the depressed grieving widower who abuses everything and everyone, to the more hopeful widower who sees hope, and a distinction between those that truly deserve our ire and those that are simply struggling to navigate the crap in their life. Of course, to take anything Ricky does seriously or literally, would be to sucker punched by a man who, on most days, would prefer to shock us than hug us.
Needless to say, it is hard not to cringe when saying something nice about anything to do with Ricky. Does a man who has made so much money from insulting and humiliating so many, ever deserve to be lavished with praise? I don’t know, so let’s leave Ricky out of this for now, and focus on the issue that is left hanging by the end of season 1. Season 1 ends with the assertion that the noble working (wo)man is not deserving of our rage, but the rich and famous are.
In 2016, the Democratic Party missed the boat on jumping on the band wagon of the working-class person. Bernie Sanders was a notable exception among high profile candidates, at least in the eyes of the media and his social media following. Whether Bernie, Ricky, or anyone else cares more about the working-class person than those who did not get out in front with this message, is not my point. My point is, pop culture is now painfully aware of this gap, especially as a widely despised American President was able to leverage it to advantage. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Ricky and other pop culture stars might rotate back in this direction. No one really believes old money conservative political parties will make the plight of working-class people their main priority, yet, the wing of politics that has historically been the home of the working class, seems to periodically lose their grip on them, historically, including Reagan Democrats.
Now maybe this is just Ricky explaining himself and apologizing for what he has been, and where he may go in the future. He may have mocked the full-bodied prostitute who insists on being called a sex worker in the beginning of season 1, but by the end of the show, he has made her into a noble person. She is flawed, not willing to call a spade a spade, preferring “sex worker” to prostitute, but even a flawed working-class person has goodness within. There is even redemption for the school yard bully and the mail reading postal worker. Certainly, for those that simply have confidence problems and personality quirks, for example co-workers.
The rich and famous, not so much. Ricky says through his character that he got it wrong, not everyone is an “asshole”, just some people. It is difficult not to draw a line between that assertion, and Ricky’s most recent 2020 Golden Globes ceremony, where he clearly went after the rich and famous, including star-studded actors and actresses. Most certainly the privileged infrastructure behind them. For Ricky of course, no one is off limits, no person, and no race. Even the working class are hilarious idiots to be made fun of, but perhaps they can’t help it, so let’s cut them some slack. Not the rich and famous, they can help it, they have no excuse. They are educated, they have means, and they have the ability to do so much more damage through the power they yield.
From a spiritual perspective, I am inclined to assert that it is a slippery slope we get on when we decide some people are deserving of our rage and not others. One day you are screaming at the powerful and a day later you wake up to find out you are screaming at your wife, your co-worker, or simply someone who is having a bad day. Not asserting sainthood here, just commenting on the principle. From a morality and social justice perspective, the rich and famous deserve every piece of criticism and hardship coming their way, and criticism may even make them better people. On balance, I perhaps idealistically believe there is an art to taking on the bad things people do, rather than the people themselves. In the hands of common men, rage rarely brings forth coherent articulations, and from a practical perspective, I acknowledge the difficulty in separating the person from the act.
The message that it is ok to humiliate the powerful, but not the powerless, is at once an apology by Ricky to anyone he has thoughtlessly and unintentionally hurt, and a self-serving cover for him to go on as he is, attacking whatever and whoever he wants, as long as HE deems there is social value. This will continue to draw criticism and disdain, but of course, as we all know, he “doesn’t care”. He simply, shoulder shrug, “doesn’t care”.
It is notable that critics are not as impressed by “After Life” as audiences are. Critics focus on whether the acting and storytelling uses innovative and fresh devices are often left feeling the series falls short. Audiences on the other hand, judge the series by how much it makes them laugh, and how many other emotions it plays with.
It is the most [classically] liberal of all liberal sentiments to have disdain for the powerful, to look at then with skepticism, cynicism, and concern about what they might do with that power; to mistrust all centers of power, whether they be royal, commercial, or political. In “After Life”, Ricky takes up the voice of the powerless working class, against the powerful, a pop culture theme that became inevitable in a post-2016 world. He does it in a funny, sometimes depressing, and ultimately redemptive way. It is food for thought, even if it does nothing to change your view on Ricky himself, who after all, probably made a few quid on this endeavor.
I’m not sure there is a moral difference between a working-class schoolyard bully and a powerful Hollywood bully, but Ricky asks us to consider whether there is, and whether the schoolyard bully can be turned around with a few acts of random kindness. It is an interesting question, and one worthy of consideration, even if it is a vehicle for Ricky to manipulate us all into believing he has a noble and purposeful cause in life — something he might say we are all looking for.