What happened to Ricky Gervais?
His latest major television project, After Life, feels like the culmination of this divisive, oft-controversial comedian and what he has been attempting to give audiences for almost 20 years, since The Office made him a household British and American name. Gervais, as grief-stricken widower Tony, has lost touch with the purpose of life to such a degree he no longer cares about offending anyone; and is resolved to say what he wants, when he wants, to whom he wants.“It’s like a superpower…” he boasts with the freedom of someone with nothing to lose.
Yet what on the face of it is billed as a dark, mordant comedy with a bad boy streak, with the wilfully offensive Gervais having the vehicle to create a comic monster filled with bitterness – David Brent spliced with One Foot in the Grave’s Victor Meldrew – never actually comes to bear. After Life is underpinned with a powerful sense of at times mawkish sentimentality to the point you wonder whether you *should* be laughing at the clear, telegraphed comedy built around Tony’s refusal to edit himself? It almost feels too personal to laugh at, given Gervais wants us to simultaneously wince and care about this broken, sad and nihilistic man.
What it left me wondering is this… is After Life really about Tony, or is it in some bizarre way about Ricky?
There really is nothing like an ending.
We are obsessed, as audiences, with endings. At times we lose sight of how important the journey is of the stories we digest precisely because of how obsessed we are at what will happen in the grand denouement. Often it takes rediscovering a series long after it has all been said and done, taking in the breadth and scope of it, to truly understand and appreciate the piece as a complete entity. We judge so much on the destination. This is a fate about to happen with Game of Thrones, much as it did with the last true genre phenomenon of mainstream television: Lost.
Neither of these two shows are alike in any way except for one key aspect. Both of them saw their audiences become enraptured in the power of delayed anticipation like no other series before them. No other series outside of them have been so assiduously studied, examined, picked apart and theorised about, all of them, in many respects, to crack what has been most important to their audiences from day one: how they are going to end.
One of the first questions raised by the announcement of BritBox, a new, jointly-created streaming service by the BBC and ITV, was whether this is television for post-Brexit Britain. It’s a question as polarising as it is potentially unfair.
BritBox is not a new creation, something the majority of common or garden readers probably do not know. BritBox is technically being imported after successfully launching as a service in the United States; it offers a selection of British shows from the modern day and yesteryear which are available separately from services such as BBC America, allowing American audiences the chance to dip their toe in the arcanum of staid British drama and quirky, offbeat British comedy. It is, to them, jolly old England neatly encapsulated.
You can see why commentators might suspect BritBox is the service the divided, post-EU Britain deserves. It doesn’t exactly sound the most cosmopolitan, stridently Euro-centric television proposal. It’s basically suggesting we kick off the 2020’s with access to bucket loads of Rising Dampand Dalziel & Pascoe.
Welcome to March! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.
Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation (or perhaps Set The Tape) but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.
Let’s start this month with Books…
Raise your hands, who reading this article has seen Counterpart, the recently cancelled science-fiction drama starring JK Simmons? Just as suspected… that’s not very many hands.
Honestly, had you ever even really *heard* of it in the first place? Counterpart, created by Justin Marks, has spent over a year across two seasons being critically feted by writers yet largely being ignored by audiences. Most people who *have* found Counterpart have seemed to embrace its ‘Fringe for grown ups’ narrative; Simmons in the dual role of a UN diplomat, Howard Silk, with two very different personas across adjacent parallel universes in danger of edging into conflict with each other. Counterpart is stylish, measured, dramatic and filled with great performances… so why, two seasons in, has it been dumped?
As is often the way with American networks, it all comes down to ratings. Counterpart aired on Starz with just a network average share of 500,000 viewers across its second season. When Netflix are boasting about Gillian Anderson-starring teen dramedy Sex Education netting 40 *million* viewers, half a million is chump change. Counterpart is filmed in Europe often on location, with actors such as Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd etc… who don’t come dirt cheap, and ultimately the sums simply don’t add up. Not enough people watched to justify the expense. So goes the story of hundreds of other shows a core fan base loved but ended unresolved and sometimes ignominiously.
The difference now is that something like this just should not happen to a show as critically applauded as Counterpart. Not in the streaming era of peak TV.
The second season of Star Trek: Discovery proves, with ‘An Obol for Charon’, that it is morphing into a show determined to serve two masters.
On the one hand, there is the kind of consistent, serialised storytelling which caused such division with the show’s first season, thanks to the ongoing search for Spock (pun very much intended) and the mystery of the ‘Red Angel’. Yet on the other, show runner Alex Kurtzman seems desperately trying to heave Discovery more in line with the 1990’s peak of the franchise on TV while continuing to imbue the series with an updated, retro-1960’s aesthetic.
Russian Doll is a series about meanings within meanings, extending from the double meaning of the very title, through to the genius Netflix stroke of releasing this Groundhog Day-style tale *on* the renowned and celebrated Groundhog Day itself.
Most people are familiar with the ornamental ‘Russian dolls’ which nest inside of each other; revealing the top of the doll only leads to one the next size under and on and on until the smallest is uncovered, usually the seventh. Layers upon layers of dolls. They are known in Russia as ‘Matryoshka’, which derives from the Latin meaning ‘mother’. Matryoshka dolls symbolically represent fertility and motherhood, the largest the matriarch protecting her young.
This on first glance may seem less important to a show like Russian Doll, in which ostensibly the ‘doll’ of the title is the character played by star and co-creator/writer Natasha Lyonne, Nadia Vulvokov – a New Yorker of Russian-Jewish descent around whom the time loop conceit rests. In truth, motherhood and the internal pain represented by the Matryoshka dolls lies at the core of Russian Doll, which, like those ornamental souvenirs, hides more than it first appears.