If you have read any of my reviews on Vocal.media or on WordPress, you know that I’m a fan of both film and television. Though I have been concentrating my efforts on Netflix films of late – you’re welcome – my true love is serial television.
Even before my favourite show of all time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, hit the screens, I enjoyed Starsky and Hutch, House on the Prairie, The Six Million Dollar Man and many other shows of the seventies and eighties.
Those older shows, even though episodic, usually told an entire story per episode, a murder would get solved, a bad guy caught, world disaster avoided, whatever the issue, regardless of scale, it was generally sorted out in one episode. Sometimes the writers would lose their minds and make you have to wait an entire week for the conclusion. Madness!
Then Steven Bocho changed everything. In 1981 Hill Street Blues, an ensemble cast, police show, introduced the multiple episode story arc, where the main story would run over several episodes or even a season as smaller stories happened in each episode. It changed the landscape of television and is pretty much the norm now.
Moving beyond what Bochco instigated and even what many of my favourite writers of today began their careers with, is the bingeable format that is the expectation on streaming services now. No longer does one have to wait a week to see what is going to happen in a show. A ten-episode arc? Clear the weekend, Netflix and chill.
Like I have written before, besides the star or director of a show or film, the thing that gets me to want to watch a show is who it is written by. For the most part, many of my favourite writers ply their trade on the other side of the water; Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino – Gilmore Girls is one of the best-written shows ever. Fight me.
Here in the UK, there are certain writers whose reputations precede them. Lynda La Plante, Richard Curtis, Charlie Brooker and, of late, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Another well-known writer on these shores, though he is always thought of predominantly as a comedian, is Ricky Gervais.
Having risen to global prominence after writing, along with Stephen Merchant, The Office. Gervais went on to create, with Merchant in collaboration once more, Extras. Gervais brilliance is never more evident than in the film The Invention Of Lying.
An excellent comedy where the premise is actually the title of the film, it is a romantic comedy where Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a man who lives in a world where he is the only person capable of telling a lie.
This year Gervais has written, directed and stars in a six-episode, dramedy on Netflix called After Life. Gervais is Tony Johnson, a journalist on a local newspaper whose life spirals into depression when his wife, Lisa ( Kerry Godliman) dies of cancer. He watches videos of his departed wife that she had recorded for him when she realised she was going to die.
Suicidal of thought and seeing no point in anything, Tony says the only reason he has not killed himself is because of his dog. He visits his dementia ravaged father, Ray (David Bradley) every day in the nursing home, but sees little point in that, as his father always asks for Lisa, something Tony finds particularly wounding.
Tony’s brother-in-law, Matt (Tom Basden) is also his boss at the newspaper. He puts aspiring journalists Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon) to work with him, so as she can gain some experience, and to try and lift him out of his depression. Tony is angry. Angry at the world.
I must admit, I found the first episode of After Life really difficult to enjoy. It is bleak, punctured only briefly with the blackest of humour. I left it after that and only returned again after a couple of people told me how good it was. The second episode had me hooked.
The writing of the show is so poignant and observant, Tony’s pain is used as a magnifying glass of the human condition. Even though he seems to have the greatest reason to be miserable, suicidal, it shows that even as he feels his life is at its lowest possible ebb, others around him have stuff going on too.
Every character is wonderfully observed, no character is added just for comedic effect. Every person in the story has a reason to be there, has a story to tell even if it does not get told. It is, if you can get past the heaviness of the first episode, an astounding show. Quite, quite brilliant. Gervais is a genius. Watch it.