What is the worst sitcom in TV history? Don’t worry. I’m not about to say that it’s After Life by Ricky Gervais. The new Netflix show has received mixed reviews. I have plenty of friends who enjoyed it and plenty of friends who can’t watch it because the very sight of Ricky Gervais’ face makes them angry. These are the polarised times we live in.
Gervais embraces this controversial persona. He relishes the “Ooh, can I say that?” moments with a big grin or a loud laugh, which delight his fans and make the haters hate him all the more. He is also comfortable with success, which can rankle. After Life is, apparently, a success. In numerous interviews, Gervais has assured us he’s been bowled over by the response to the show. So let’s put my cards on the table. I wasn’t wild about it. The show did contain moments that made me laugh out loud, but you’d expect that in six half-hours of comedy by someone as talented as Gervais.
So why ask about the worst sitcom in TV history? It’s because a show called My Mother the Car came to mind when watching After Life. This NBC sitcom from 1965 is sometimes described as the worst sitcom ever. The premise of My Mother the Car sounds bad. Jerry Van Dyke (not Dick, sadly) buys a car that turns out to contain the reincarnated spirit of his deceased mother. She talks via the car radio. I said it was bad.
But is even the “worst ever” verdict on My Mother the Car a little harsh? Talking to dead people is not unusual in classic sitcoms, movies and plays. Theatres eternally host performances of Noël Cowards’ Blithe Spirit in which a novelist is haunted by the spirit of his annoying first wife. The movie Ghost Town is about a dentist (also played by Gervais) who technically dies but is revived to find he can now see dead people. And he finds them very annoying.
The afterlife is a fruitful area for comedy (and horror). When the natural and supernatural collide, you get laughs (or screams). You find this sort of thing in the Bible. Look up 1 Samuel 28 and you’ll find King Saul trying to talk to the dead eponymous prophet. Or pity Peter whose eyes are out on stalks when he sees Jesus speak with Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration. Jesus tells a parable that is set in the afterlife, a troubling tale about an unnamed rich man who suffers torment and a poor man called Lazarus in paradise.
For virtually all of human history and in every culture, the concept of an afterlife is assumed. It might be rather hazy, non-specific, meritocratic or quasi-biblical. It could involve pearly gates and St Peter, having your heart weighed on scales, answering to the risen and returning Christ, reincarnation, or seeing a light at the end of a tunnel.
This enduring impulse to believe in the infinite shouldn’t be a surprise to Christians. We are image bearers of God. He is eternal. We are eternal. We know it in our hearts, for he has put eternity there (Ecclesiastes 3:11). A dogged denial of this takes some effort. But in a post-Christian society, it is becoming easier and easier. Secular funerals are more common, and people are finding them less weird. What remains of our ragtag public theological system seems inconsistent and incoherent. But no matter how threadbare and inadequate stories of the afterlife may seem, they have power in this life. They give solace and succour. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, you don’t notice it till it’s gone. Then what? Well, then you get After Life.
No longer angry
This show is a depressing window into a world where there is, ironically, very little talk of the afterlife. There is nothing supernatural. Instead, when the lead character, Tony, played by Gervais, loses his wife, that’s it. She’s gone. She’s not coming back. She’s not talking to Tony through a car radio. There’s no hint of wondering if she’s gone to a better place. The very last scene in the final episode has a church in the background.
But throughout the series that’s all the church ever is: background. This feels like one more step on a path away from any kind of residual public faith. The habit of Western art in the last century is to use suffering as ammunition against God. This anger has only increased in an evermore comfortable First World. We have come to expect three score years and ten of not only abundance but a choice of food, opportunities to work and leisure pursuits, along with free speech and the rule of law. We look at other countries that don’t enjoy any of these things and make the assumption that they must be angry about their trials, and that they direct this rage against the supreme being.
We see this in a show far more controversial than After Life. The Book of Mormon is an award-winning, smash-hit musical stage show. In it, we follow two young faithful Latter-day Saints sent out to proclaim their religion to the people of Uganda where we are told the locals encounter warlords, an AIDS epidemic, infant mortality and far worse. How do the Ugandans cope? They sing a song called ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ that reminds the listener of The Lion King classic ‘Hakuna matata’ which is about not worrying yourself.
But there is a sting in the tail. When the Mormons enquire about what ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ means, they are told (if you don’t like offensive blasphemy, look away now) that it means “F*** you, God”. The writers had to add some extra lines after those three words so that the audience who were still rolling in the aisles didn’t miss anything, such was the show-stopping laugh from audiences.
What can we learn from this? We have to concede that the anti-God joke has some kind of resonance with its audience. But ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ is a classic example of cultural Western snobbery. When the writers of The Book of Mormon looked at the sufferings of the Ugandans, they assumed that their response to pain and suffering would be visceral anger at the Almighty. This is not what you would see in even the most desperate and desolate parts of Africa. You see churches everywhere. In fact, you see faith of all kinds – Christian, Islamic and animistic. Far from the abandonment of religion, you see growing congregations and religious revivals. The notion that suffering leads to unbelief is a recent Western assumption.
After Life, however, takes us beyond that. The show isn’t anti-Christian, or even post-Christian. It is post-post-Christian. We’re so far past Christianity, we can’t even remember what we don’t believe in anymore. No one seems angry at God, because the very concept of God is simply not plausible in the world Gervais has created. There are flashes of the comedian’s trademark gleeful atheism, but they are fleeting. Occasionally, Kath (Diane Morgan), a colleague of Tony’s, makes a half-hearted defence of something resembling traditional thinking about God. It’s a kind of moralistic sentimental theism. Tony bats these comments away with a slick bit of rhetoric that could be classified as intellectual grandstanding. It’s hardly a ninja-style display of argumentation and oratory since Kath has no comeback. Her theism isn’t based on any coherent theology. It’s just something cobbled together from the remnants of Judeo-Christianity and handed to her with no explanatory notes. Christians could legitimately complain Gervais is merely setting fire to a straw woman in these conversations, but he doesn’t seem interested in yelling at Christians for believing in make-believe fairies. When Tony’s nephew asks why Jesus didn’t save Tony’s wife, Tony just calls Jesus a rude word and moves on.
In the world of After Life, God is not a thing. Religion barely exists beyond backdrops. When you die, you die. Is that liberating? The first four and half episodes suggest not. Tony lived for his wife, Lisa. She was all he ever wanted or needed. We see Tony watching back videos of practical jokes he used to play on her, and how they both laughed. Tony was happy. Life was good. But now she’s gone.
Something to live for
After Life is about how Tony deals with the all-consuming pain of his grief. How could he have any kind of consolation? He’d placed all of his happiness and meaning in the hands of another person over whom he ultimately did not have control. “I just want to be out of pain,” Tony says. “To live without pain. Or die without pain. Whichever one comes first.”
Tony is not the only one suffering pain. He encounters a variety of sad and lonely people who are battling to keep going and find solace in their grief.
The obvious way out of the pain for Tony is presented early on in the form of suicide. The only thing that prevents him from killing himself is the need to feed the dog. (Gervais has spoken about his views on the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs as being, for him, almost divine. Now that’s a show right there.) The point is that without Lisa, death no longer scares Tony. This was one of the ideas that Gervais says he was most attracted to: a character who wasn’t afraid of dying because he no longer had anything to live for.
Eventually, the pain subsides. It is clear to Tony that he can’t go on living like this, if he’s going to go on living. So towards the end of the series, we have various characters giving Tony pep talks that use lots of abstract nouns in a fairly nonspecific way. This is the part where Gervais gets to other themes of the show that he wanted to write about, specifically the view that atheists can’t be moral without God. Again, Kath half-heartedly attempts to make this suggestion, which Tony flicks away with some well-crafted rhetoric, which sounds clever, but doesn’t actually offer anything satisfactory or coherent in response.
The show concludes with various characters asserting things that sound true, and would probably make a good inspirational poster. They ultimately beg far more questions than they answer, but that’s what comedies and dramas do. A widow on a bench beautifully played by Penelope Wilton tells Tony: “Happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not.” Sounds great, but what does it mean? There’s no time to find out. “A society grows great when old men plant trees the shade of which they know they will never sit in.” Does it? Why is that greatness? Why do future generations matter? “Good people do things for other people. That’s it. The end.” Is that the end? I know what I think the end is. The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. But Gervais has other ideas.
Tony does lots of good things at the end of the series, and it feels good to watch the goodness. But why? We live in a world of pain. If After Life demonstrates anything, it is that our muddled post-post-Christian thinking is a cure that might be worse than the disease. Perhaps series two, that has already been commissioned, will offer some better painkillers. In the meantime, check out Ghost Town.