Ricky Gervais may be a little bit obsessed with getting to say whatever he wants — and he’s now making a show which is about exactly that.
Tony (Ricky Gervais) had a perfect life. But after his wife Lisa suddenly dies, Tony changes. After contemplating taking his own life, he decides instead to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever he likes from now on. He thinks it’s like a Super Power — not caring about himself or anyone else — but it turns out to be tricky when everyone is trying to save the nice guy they used to know.
Gervais announced the news on his Twitter feed with the below message:
I start pre production on my new Netflix show tomorrow. It's a 6 part, dark comedy, in which I play a man who, after the death of his wife, becomes suicidal but decides to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever the fuck he likes from now on. pic.twitter.com/7AwmV6rEbd
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) May 7, 2018
The premise of the show isn’t a bad one…but it’s also impossible to separate from its creator. Over the last several years, Gervais has made it a part of his personal brand that he’ll say whatever he wants to say, and seems to relish the outrage that ensues. Take his latest stand-up special, wherein it becomes clear that as much as Gervais wants to put forward his own strong opinions about topics, he also pays close attention to what the press writes about him. (In which case: Hi, Mr. Gervais!)
At the same time, in “Ricky Gervais: Humanity,” he also chose to go hard on transphobic material, to the point that IndieWire’s Jude Dry said, of his bits regarding Caitlyn Jenner, “Thanks to Netflix, billions of people around the world now think they can justify their hate with mediocre jokes as well.”
Gervais wants to say whatever he wants to say, but seems relatively uncaring about the concept of punching up versus punching down in the process. In fact, Gervais has been “problematic” (using those quotes because certainly he’d use them sarcastically) for years now, though, as called out by writer Lindy West on Jezebel in 2014, who noted that between jokes on Twitter about fat people and the mentally disabled, he’d abandoned the sort of sensitive, grounded, yet still brutal humor that initially made him such an international icon.
There may be a reason for this shift: Critically and commercially, there’s no doubt that Gervais’s stardom was built on the foundation of “The Office” and “Extras,” both of which were shows he collaborated on with his former partner Stephen Merchant. The two haven’t worked together in years, and Gervais has only ever said, in March 2018, that they are doing their “own things.”
In an interview last year with IndieWire, Gervais emphasized how much it meant for him to have creative control, and how he feels like if he can make a project on his own terms, then it doesn’t really matter what the critical response is like. “If you get your own way, and you enjoyed doing it, you’re pretty bulletproof,” he said.
But Gervais’s “own things” since splitting with Merchant haven’t hit the same level of cultural impact of his early works, and while it’s hard to say if “After Life” is the project that will witness him rebound after the poorly reviewed “Special Correspondents” and more positively reviewed (but still disappointing) “David Brent: Life on the Road,” it is unfortunate that instead of aiming to elevate new voices or create new narratives, his fixation is on the idea of a man choosing to say whatever he wants — hardly something he’s experienced real conflict in making possible, thanks to his ongoing film and television projects.
In fact, Gervais is already joking on Twitter about how it’s “what straight white dudes do”:
The theme is "what straight white dudes do" and the plot is him doing it. Easy.
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) May 9, 2018
Though it’s not clear how much of a real joke that is.
“Writing what you know” isn’t necessarily bad advice for creators, but it’s an idea that, honestly, feels lazy, and we’ve seen little evidence that Gervais feels pushed to go beyond the easy execution of the “After Life” premise. Daring to be offensive is funny when it’s honed and targeted towards the right people, and it’d be amazing if that proved to be the case for Gervais’ new show. But in order for that to happen, he might have to listen to other people. Bringing in a strong collaborator who might challenge him would be a start.