In one of Extras more likeable episodes, David Bowie appeared to serenade Ricky Gervais’ character with an insulting piano piece. Friends in real life, the scene represents two comic actors embracing their intractable failings—and yet there’s a subtext to the scene. It showed two respectable artists understanding the impulse of pure creativity.
Much like Bowie, Gervais’ work has hinged on instinct and feeling. Take The Office, a despairing cry for the average paper merchant. Or take Derek, a misunderstood ode to hospital workers. And then there’s the excellent Cemetery Junction, his timely reminder to the wonders of the early 1970s.
There’s been his fair share of mishaps. Gervais returned to his fractious David Brent one time too many, but his work is best displayed when it responds by capturing the feeling of genuine sincerity. It’s that guttural instinct that caught many by surprise last year when the premier After Life launched, capturing a cachet lit from one of the most every day of emotions; grief.
It showed a grieving widower caught in his uncompromisingly straight route to dejection. Unsurprisingly, Gervais took writing and directing duties on himself: more surprisingly was how well he acted in the series. In what has proved his most important role to date, Gervais plays Tony Johnson, a searching, soulful writer in need of redemption.
It’s too early to say if this series improves on the original, but it’s fair to say Gervais has matched it. Fittingly, the series opens with The Carpenters ‘Top of The World’ ringing over the pastoral silhouette, setting a chirpier note it’s older sister largely ignored. Johnson walks his dog, all the while admiring the town that has seen the best and worst of him. It’s a beautiful, almost balletic opening and lends credence to the theory that Gervais can direct without partner Stephen Merchant to guide him. In a speech that was familiar to Bowie’s ears, Johnson says he wants to be “more zen”. What follows is a liturgy that leads Gervais out of the realm of everyday comedy and into the field of British drama.
Life happens all around Johnson. Just as editor-in-chief Matt (Tom Basden) contemplates the end of his marriage, a proposition, more romantic than business-like, lands in his lap. Just as Nurse Emma (Ashley Jensen) comes to visit Johnson’s ailing father, a roguish man winks flirtatiously in her direction. And when Johnson visits a grave-site to sit with the dead, he feels a greater purpose to move on with his life.
There’s a maturity to the writing that corresponds with Gervais’ standing in life. People walk aged, ragged and heavy, unaware of their footing in life. Johnson’s footings, comforts and pleasures come from watching his late wife on film. In one of the episode’s more charming moments, he reminds himself of a dance routine they shared at a wedding. Then he turns to his hungry dog, looking for a new routine in life.
Creativity too stems from catching inspiration in the most unlikely of places, an unlikely aspiration that appealed to Bowie at his most innovative. Much like Bowie, Johnson is an icon for the absolute beginner clamouring to breathe new life.