Penetrating Plot

Analysis of Ricky Gervais’ “After Life” S1 : E1

Florian Führen
Oct 4 · 20 min read
Image (altered) by Bokskapet via Pixabay.

In Penetrating Plot, I’d like to share my thoughts on great plots with you, both on and off the screen. We’ll have a look at character motivation, plot design, symbolism, and all the good stuff that makes our favorite shows and novels so binge-worthy.

Trailer for After Life (Netflix)

Before we start, and I shouldn’t have to say this, but SPOILER ALERT!

If you haven’t seen After Life yet and want to watch it (which you should), keep this article in your reading list, just as you put the show in your Netflix cue. Once your done watching, I’ll welcome you back with open arms.

Oh, one other thing. It seems that Ricky Gervais himself enjoyed my take on his series (even though he explained that he just wrote it and didn’t plot). Not to brag, but that felt like Zeus coming down from Olympus and telling me, “Oh nice, you noticed.” I hope you enjoy it just as much!


After Life (2019–) — Hell is Other People

We start off with Ricky Gervais’ recent show, a funny, but also dark series about Tony, a local reporter (although he wouldn’t accept that label) whose wife recently passed away.

Along the way, Tony considers several different ways of dealing with his new reality. First, he even contemplates suicide, but then he starts to see the possibility of suicide as his new “superpower” and makes it his job to say, do, and think what he wants.

Genre: Cynical, Drama, Comedy

The genre alone may mislead you, depending on what you’re used to. You won’t find your cleanly washed comedy. Moreover, it’s not Larry David’s “comedy about nothing” either (even though After Life does have comparable features when it comes to some parts of the dialogue, but more on that later).

Choosing a suffering widower as a protagonist already limits you in the choices you can make regarding humor and themes (that’s a good thing, by the way). However, many readers, even writers, still expect a comedy to leave them screamingly laughing. That’s probably not what you’ll get in After Life, but it does contain features of many genres:

Love Story, Education Plot, Black Comedy, Satire, etc.

Antiplot-flavored Miniplot

I’d characterize the form as what Robert McKee called Miniplot, meaning a clean, economic plotline.

Miniplots often come with open endings (thus encouraging the audience to participate in the interpretation).

A Miniplot’s protagonist (Tony, in this case) tends to be passive, which is balanced by an inner struggle (like Tony’s depression) and horrible events (like his wife’s death). However, Tony isn’t entirely passive.

He is an active protagonist in the sense that he even seeks conflict with other characters, but these conflicts don’t lead to any results in his world, they focus on banal everyday observations.

He is mostly a passive protagonist because most of his desires and wishes are concerned with memories and emotions. Most of his conflict takes place in his head.

However, After Life does have slight tendencies of an Antiplot.

It’s not that the series has an actual antistructure to it, but Tony often stresses the randomness of events in the universe, which matches a rational, atheist widower. In a way, we get the view of an Antiplot inside a Miniplot.

Tony likes to substitute coincidence for causality, to emphasize the random, everyday character of the events that other characters seem to admire, thus sharing his view of a meaningless life with everyone else.

Prologue

Obviously a show doesn’t have a prologue in the literal sense, but I like to think that the show’s first scene has the same vibe as a proclamator in some stageplays.

In the first scene, we see Tony’s wife Lisa in a medium shot, facing the camera (and at the same time, Tony) from her hospital bed. We dive right into the action, too. There’s not much fooling around:

If you’re watching this, then I’m not around anymore. I couldn’t say any of this to your face, it’s too embarrassing. For you, not for me, obviously. You’re never very good at hearing how lovely you are. But you are. You are. You’re lovely. But you’re absolutely fucking useless. So I thought I’d leave you a little guide to life without me.

First exposition

I love how efficiently this part is designed, it serves (at least) three purposes at once.

First, we immediately get to know that Tony is a widower, and according to the imagery, we might already have a clue Lisa died of cancer. This way, Gervais lets his characters deliver the personal exposition themselves.

Second, we learn that Tony is (or was) a lovely character. That will turn out to be useful because he’ll mostly show another side for the coming episodes. So what we mindlessly absorb as a flashback from his point of view also serves as a counterpoint to Tony’s actions and remarks later on.

Third, we hear (and see) that Tony probably last functioned in a manner that wouldn’t upset anyone when Lisa was still around if he ever did so at all.

After all, he’s watching this video in his bed (and we productive people can already prejudge him because it might be noon), and Lisa tells him how to turn the alarm off, use his phone, and feed the dog who then happens to get him out of bed.

So we learn about character relationships because Tony’s relationships with Lisa and society define him and our predictions about him.

That image of Tony’s “disfunction” is then enforced when we see the sleepy town of Hertfordshire waking up while he is groaning and moaning during his bathroom routine, all accompanied by Bill Withers.

Moreover, Tony’s inability to function in daily life is cemented a second time (though on a different level) when he enters his messy yet empty kitchen. Not for himself, though. Mostly to feed his dog who is presented with the tempting choices:

Baked beans or vegetable curry?

Why is that important? — Well, he doesn’t just throw two tin cans on the floor to leave the house. He moans, “Oh f***!” when he opens the cupboard, hoping someone might magically have left dog food there during the night.

So that does give Tony another loving dimension. He’s not just a hating misanthrope; he genuinely cares about his wife and his dog. He’s (sort of) mad at himself and helpless within his own personal hell. That’s why he looks around at all the unwashed dishes before he carelessly decides to chug the vegetable curry from the tin can.

Also, it’s a textbook example of giving a character drive whose traits otherwise wouldn’t lend themselves for too much action. Tony is depressed and isolating himself, which makes finding character motivations and themes even more complicated.

Private vs. Public

Up until now, we’ve seen private Tony. He doesn’t seem to get how life works in general, but he’s a lovely guy.

Now we’re in the most public setting you can imagine, a park, where Tony plays with his dog and a stranger tells him that she should be on a lead. Tony replies by doing so and talking to his dog’s face, saying:

Come here, girl. Come here. What?! He is not a fat, hairy, nosy c*********. Bad girl, Brandy. Sorry about that.

First, there is, of course, something condescending about talking to the human through the dog (which I love!).

Moreover, we get to enjoy Tony’s ironic apology and cursing.

Now we know both sides of Tony’s character. The sarcastic, dark, misanthrope Public Tony, and the melancholic, dysfunctional, depressed Private Tony.

In a fairly short scene, Tony visits his wife’s grave, and his dog Brandy even rests on the grave. So we know it’s part of his daily routine (dogs are a great narrative device for showing their humans’ habits).

Also, for the hardcore fans, we get the dates on the gravestone, of course, so we can all construct our little conspiracy theory about different dates relevant to Ricky Gervais.

Just kidding, but little nuggets like that may be useful for orientation in your plot. In this case, it may be valuable later on. After all, Tony works at a newspaper, so he works with paper marked by date every day.

Next up…

Dialogue

A true master of sarcasm like Gervais, I feel, warms up during those last passages to get to the exchange of blows to follow.

Tony leaves the house for work and meets the new postman out front, who hands him his post just a couple of feet from his entrance. Let’s have a look at the desires and values driving both characters:

Postman: Here you go.
Tony: What?

Tony’s action: (Consciously) rejecting human interaction and everyday life, only to get back home to “be” with his wife, even if it’s just a recording.

Postman’s reaction: Surprise because he was expecting more than a regular interaction to get it his (lazy) way and back to listening to music while incidentally throwing in some letters.

Postman: It’s your post.
Tony: Put it in the door.
Postman: Well you’re here, so it saves me a trip.
Tony: I don’t wanna walk with it, do I?
Postman: Why not?

Tony’s action: Reaffirming his rejection, though obviously not voicing it but explaining it rationally (he’s walking away).

Postman’s reaction: Voicing what Tony considers laziness and his surprise about Tony’s “impolite” response (which only stands in the way of him staying lazy).

Tony: You’re new, aren’t you?
Postman: Yeah, I was transfered — –
Tony: No, I don’t care. But, presumably in your old round, you used to put things through the door, didn’t you?
Postman: Mate, there’s no need to get lairy.
Tony: Why are you talking to me like this?

Tony’s action: Analyzing behavior logically while refusing any personal information (transfer). He’s rejecting the person behind the job “postman,” only to achieve his goal and not do the postman’s job for him.

Postman’s reaction: Feeling hurt because Tony seemed to ask about his personal story, only to reject it.

Postman: You gonna report me?
Tony: Yeah. What’s your name?
Postman: You’ll laugh.
Tony: Trust me.
Postman: It’s Pat.
Tony: Postman Pat.
Postman: Yeah.

Tony’s action: Threatening to report postman while probably realizing his lack of motivation won’t allow it anyway. Then giving the dialogue a funny twist by referencing Postman Pat, the animated character.

Postman’s reaction: Afraid to be reported and laughed at.

Tony: Put it in the door. — That was easy, wasn’t it?
Postman: You could’ve done that.
Tony: No, I couldn’t.
Postman: Why not?
Tony: I’m not a postman.

Tony’s action: Returning to his initial claim, only to ridicule the postman after obliging. After he has achieved his situational goal, the only thing left for him in this relationship is an opportunity for sarcasm.

Postman’s reaction: Now presents the factual side (which Tony took in the beginning), although he only gives Tony another chance to make fun of him.

Another version of the exposition

Just like Lisa introduces Tony to the tasks of everyday life through her video messages, Matt — the head of the newspaper’s and Tony’s brother-in-law — tells Sandy about the ways of journalism and, of course, all the other people she will collaborate with.

This, again, is a very efficient scene.

First, we see Matt’s enthusiasm for journalism, his empathy for someone who’s suffering through the first day at work, his love for his colleagues and the community. He’s the likable Mr.-Nice-Guy, who will be placed opposite to the sarcastic Tony when it comes to the value and purpose of local journalism (or life in general).

Second, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast because Sandy has to work with them.

There’s a natural cause for introducing everyone at once — the outsider Sandy. We meet Kath from advertising, Lenny, the photographer, and in a reserved reaction to Sandy’s passion for writing features, he tells her about Tony who’s absent:

He’s a very good writer. Very smart, very experienced, good guy. Um… He’s not himself at the minute, to be honest. He’s had a bit of bad news, um… His, er… Tony’s my brother-in-law. Um, he was married to my sister, Lisa, who died. Cancer. (…) He was obviously devastated. Er, suicidal. (…) I should warn you, he might say a few things that are a bit, er… brutal… at times, so, you know, don’t take it personally. I mean, you will be working closely with him. Anyway, er… have fun!

This is probably one of the densest passages in the first episode regarding writing and plot functionality.

For one, our image of Tony’s lovable past self is reinforced from an outside perspective, and a close one, as well — Matt is his brother-in-law. However, we also get another character’s description of his current suffering self, and you can recognize how uncomfortable the good guy Matt feels by all the ums and ers.

When Matt tries to emphasize Tony’s good side, he uses comparatively generic terms, such as “very good,” “very smart,” “very experienced,” or the “good guy.”

He even waits (syntactically) to come out and say that his sister died. Before that, he goes on about his relationship with Tony and his sister. Don’t mistake this as a data dump to fill a scene with character biographies; it’s a character who is very uncomfortable, and who focusses on the positive or generic to soften the blow.

After all, this entire explanation only builds up to an intern’s dream, “You’re going to work with the crazy person. Enjoy!”

This reinforces Tony as opposed to the other “functioning” characters (at least functioning according to the rules of their society) and Tony’s almost bipolar character.

Side characters

All the side characters are introduced only briefly, and their scenes are sprinkled all over the first episode, so I’ll cover them against the scene chronology.

The intro for Sandy, the positive side character to Tony in many ways, is comparatively brief. She shyly walks up to the Tambury Gazette’s entrance and introduces herself, and we learn that Mr. Braden hired her as an intern. So we can already make assumptions about her character, but that’s mostly based on Mandeep Dhillon’s acting.

George, Tony’s nephew, is shown on the schoolyard playing with his classmates while Tony passes by to quickly greet him. There’s a bit more depth to this scene because another schoolboy calls Tony a pedophile, only to become yet another victim of his sarcasm. Again, we see Tony’s sweet side toward his family and his dark, sarcastic public image.

We’ll get to Julian’s introduction later on because he serves several purposes throughout the show and has a more spacious scene.

Tony’s psychiatrist, played by Paul Kaye, brings another dynamic into the plot for the first time: Characters telling Tony why he’s broken while behaving the wrong way themselves.

Let’s investigate that concept further.

Negotiating right and wrong

Tony sees a psychiatrist to deal with his pain. When asked how he is, Tony only replies, “Same.”, which the psychiatrist coldly analyzes as, “Bad then.”, so you can tell we’re witnessing someone who’s supposed to help, but who’s (in this case) simply unprofessional and who has no problem to call his patient a “mental case.”

Tony tells him that a good day, to him, means not wanting to shoot random strangers before killing himself. So his psychiatrist tries to “cheer him up” by laughingly telling him about another client who fantasizes about killing his ex-wife in his sexual fantasies.

Rightfully, Tony calls out that unprofessional behavior and asks him why he’s telling him that, to which the psychiatrist replies, “I didn’t say his name.” He reframes the purpose as if it were okay to gossip about his clients as long as privacy meant not mentioning their actual names.

They even flip the relationship when the psychiatrist tries to calm Tony by telling him, he’s not the only “mental case,” that he has problems, too. This leads to Tony just observantly saying, “Go on,” and the psychiatrist offering the proverbial, “Where do I start?”. We realize that Tony, in a way, can be the sane person, even though the others treat him like the broken one.

As the show continues, we’ll meet some other characters that form relationships with Tony, where the line of correct behavior is negotiated in the subtext. So the world says that Tony is sick and hurt, but repeatedly shows how broken it is itself (partly to Tony, partly to an objective outside audience like us).

Right after the first session at the psychiatrist’s, Gervais introduces another theme that will come up again and again during the show.

Non-news and people’s hunger for fame

A lousy writer would have given Tony a job as a reporter alongside his depression so he could dread all the exciting news from Wallstreet or politics that flood by him.

However, Gervais went a different route; he even adjusted the news stories, and we learn that in the first scene after the psychiatrist when Tony walks down the street and greets a kiosk owner who comments on the headlines in the papers she has just put out on the newsstand.

Kiosk owner: Terrible, isn’t it? Scarred for life.
Tony: Hardly scarred for life. She’s 93. If she lives to 100, she’s only been scarred for seven percent of her life.

We’ll see how this theme plays out in later episodes, too, when we get to observe the people on the other side of the story, but for now, we can enjoy Gervais’ humor about small-town logic.

In those small, harmonic bubbles, most people (emptily) empathize with stories, as long as they know it happened near their front yard. So naturally, the kiosk owner would expect Tony to participate in the small talk. The headline could be about someone he knows, after all. However, he takes the story and her interpretation at face value and dismantles it with cold math.

Again, a situation where an empty gesture and some meaningless small talk would have met the dialogue partner’s expectation, but Tony uses a chance for sarcasm and for lifting the curtain on what we all know to be some sort of a facade.

The topic of local citizens seeking fame through their newspaper will return several times during the show. Similar to the psychiatrist, it allows Gervais to contrast characters getting excited about the banalest and stupid events, and Tony, whose negative attitude is disregarded because of his depression.

Matt almost demands Tony’s enthusiasm for stories about a plumber who grew a potato looking like Lionel Richie, a trash can sounding like Chewbacca when dragged across the floor, a woman who “woke up Chinese,” or a man who received the same birthday card five times.

We understand Tony’s feelings toward this kind of “journalism” — if we want to call it that — until he and Lenny visit the elderly man who received the five birthday cards. Of course, the facts don’t change Tony’s mind, but then he realizes that the man wants to tell “his Denise” about the headline, which he illustrates by patting the empty chair next to him. So even this banal event gives Tony something to ponder when the man says:

Nothing’s as good if you don’t share it.

After the man explains how he had to learn to appreciate the little things after his wife’s death, Tony shows his human, non-sarcastic side in public for the first time by wishing him a Happy Birthday.

Making a static character dynamic

We’ve seen Tony bounce off a few different kinds of characters, from strangers to colleagues and relatives. That’s one of the few opportunities for a writer to make a static character interesting.

If your protagonist is stuck in a rut, depressed, bored, or just stubborn, he probably won’t develop for a while. He has to, eventually, and Tony does, too. For now, we haven’t even covered the entire first episode, and he’s still the same guy.

To give your story some dimension, you have to involve some dynamic. If your protagonist doesn’t offer that because he is static (or lying in a coma, perhaps), the other characters have to jump in and help him out. This way, you can give him more depth.

We see Tony from different angles, his loving past self, him helplessly caring for his dog, him attacking every stranger who crosses his way, him calling out dishonest behavior with his psychiatrist (which goes unnoticed), etc.

If you simplify this, it all may seem aggressive or negative, but we’re given many different facets of behavior and relationships, not just anger at the world; that would be boring.

The second option you can take to fill your story with meaning is some declaration. When Tony attacks his colleague, first thing in the morning, he’s called into his boss’s office, where he tells him:

You can’t just go around being rude to people.

What follows, is Tony’s declaration (and his lead theme for the upcoming episodes, in a way):

You can, though. That’s the beauty of it. There’s no advantage to being nice and thoughtful and caring and having integrity. It’s a disadvantage, if anything.

Even when his brother-in-law reacts by threatening to fire him, Tony calls him out and “explains” to him the rules of his universe, that he’s a nice guy and won’t do that, which is why he can go on like this.

Then, Tony explains the lead theme of the next few sequences:

(…) when it all gets too much, I can always kill myself. It’s like a superpower.

Since the niches on the movie market are shrinking year by year, and we see more and more sub-genres, declarations make sense in many cases.

If your protagonist does have a set of values that deviates heavily from everyday life or common conceptions, having him or her explain them might help you to prevent misunderstandings. Be careful about length and timing, though. Don’t have your character go on and on about what he believes.

Also, by having Tony watch his wife’s videos, again and again, Gervais makes his protagonist sympathetic.

Tony can listen to his wife asking him to keep the house tidy and not to drink all the time while sitting in a mess of empty bottles and glasses from which he “drank cereal,” and we feel more sympathy for him than if he’d just sit on a couch staring at the ceiling.

He feels more human because he has a connection with another human being, even though that particular person happens to be dead.

We can watch Tony smile and remember that deep down, he’s a nice guy. His circumstances don’t seem to allow him anymore to show that outside of his own house.

The Inciting Incident

What’s probably most unique about the kinds of plots as presented in After Life is the way the Inciting Incident, the critical event that drives the protagonist toward desire and action, is placed outside of the plot. Tony’s wife is already dead; she didn’t pass away within the told sequence.

We can find some theoretical guidance on what Gervais does here in McKee’s book on story:

The protagonist responds to the sudden negative or positive change in the balance of life in whatever way is appropriate to character and world. A refusal to act, however, cannot last for very long, even in the most passive protagonists of minimalist Nonplots. (…)
Therefore, the Inciting Incident first throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance.

– Robert McKee: Story

Since Gervais adheres to that principle, we already know that Tony cannot stay the professional misanthrope forever. He eventually has to find a new focus because otherwise, he’ll become annoying — and Netflix wouldn’t do that to us, would they?

It doesn’t matter how close your story is to real events. If your protagonist remains passive — depressed, lonely, demotivated, or careless — for too long, the audience will leave.

Confirming characters’ believes and statements

For purposes of orientation, it is advisable to repeat crucial information.

That doesn’t mean you should have your protagonist yell, “He’s the bad guy!” over and over, but you can vary one statement to confirm it and cement it as a belief that the viewer or reader now considers his own.

We just witnessed Tony telling his brother-in-law how he and his colleagues will keep exploiting his good nature — Tony by insulting everyone, and Kath by pretending to have three periods a month to get Fridays off.

However, until now, Tony’s statement could still be part of his grief-distorted illusion about the world, couldn’t it? We don’t know whether he says things to aggravate others or because he lives in his own psychotic world. He could be psychologically ill.

That would be an entirely different plot, however, where you could play with your characters’ knowledge and consciousness forever.

Gervais doesn’t go there; he confirms the statement right after Tony leaves the office building and secretly observes Matt and Julian — the drug addict responsible for carrying out the newspapers. Surprisingly, he didn’t get around to do his job.

As in the other instances, Matt gives Julian the benefit of the doubt, assuming that Julian misunderstood and accidentally left the newspapers outside. It couldn’t cross his mind that Julian didn’t deliver them at all. If you weren’t sure until then, Matt’s question clears it all up:

You will do a good job, won’t you?

Now, characters addressing the big picture directly should set off an alarm with you, as it does with viewers and readers. When daddy leaves home and tells Timmy to be a good boy, you instinctively fear that Timmy won’t and that it will turn out bad for both of them.

Also, Tony immediately comments on the situation after Matt leaves and minutely describes Julian’s behavior (“washing in a puddle from a drain”), so we can be reasonably sure that his other observations aren’t so far off, either — even though they may be colored in sarcasm.

This is a classic example of “Show, don’t tell.” We realize that Tony is hurt, but that situation also allows him to observe certain circumstances more accurately than others because he is free from compassion or the benefit of the doubt, if you will.

He is only capable of logical analysis when it comes to the outside world; he reserves all his love and compassion for the privacy of his home.

That pattern goes hand in hand with a world that seems to be idyllic but has its natural flaws. The other characters neglect those or even consciously decide to ignore them because they would destroy their worldview.

Tony doesn’t yell out his observations at Speakers’ Corner; we get to realize them alongside him. He states how colleagues exploit his boss, and then we see it.

In the same way, Gervais confirms Tony’s take on life’s meaning or lack thereof.

We’ve seen him bounce off Matt and Kath, emphasizing how they put out “a free local newspaper that no one cares about,” we’ve heard his rant toward the intern about humanity being a plague. Later while visiting his demented father, he casually tells the nurse, “If it was a dog, you’d put it down.”

All these convey a take on life’s meaning on a different level — the purpose of work or a community, the problems of overpopulation, and the philosophical question when and where life begins or ends.

We learn that Tony doesn’t just despise his personal life, but that his loss has turned him so bitter he finds all life meaningless.

To say that would be bland, so Gervais artfully shows it in many different settings to give Tony depth and profile, even though he doesn’t change.

Making an elephant out of a fly

Remember Seinfeld, that “show about nothing”? Now comes the part for you Seinfeld aficionados. After Life doesn’t share many traits with Larry David’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s writing and humor, but in the pub scene, I feel, we can see some parallels.

After an annoying discussion (annoying for Tony, not for us), he joins Matt and Lenny for lunch at the pub. It mostly turns into a rant about the fat guy crunching his potato chips too loudly.

Before you run off to the writing desk and think, “Oh, I can write a sketch about nothing,” here’s what I believe is crucial: You need a counterpoint to the reaction within your scene.

If your audience doesn’t know how your protagonist usually reacts, how are they supposed to know when his anger or sorrow is notable?

This, to me, is what makes this scene work.

Tony doesn’t get angry at his boss when he threatens to fire him; he doesn’t get mad at the delivery guy for throwing his journalistic work away; he doesn’t yell at the world for taking his wife. Even when he’s robbed later in the series, he doesn’t care whether he’s killed or not. He mostly meets conflict with apathy.

However, when that fat guy begins his crunchy concert in the pub — something most of us wouldn’t even notice or consider mildly annoying but not noteworthy — we see Tony truly angry for the first time. Tony’s day is ruined (as he predicted) because someone ate his chips too loudly.

He could have buttoned his shirt the wrong way or said hello in a highly pitched voice; it doesn’t matter. Pick a detail as minute as you wish.

The picky protagonist himself isn’t funny; it’s his observation in contrast to all the things others care about that makes us laugh.

There’s a lot to learn from watching After Life with intent, from comedy genres over designing a passive protagonist to weaving values of right and wrong into your plot on different levels.

I hope you enjoyed this breakdown and can profit from it in your future writing. If you did, I’d appreciate your feedback (or wishes for future analyses) in the comments! Thanks!


Florian Führen is a story coach, copywriter, and novel proofreader. He just finished his first book to get his doctorate in Medieval Studies. After that, he’ll take his first steps into the literary world as an author with a satiric stage play. If he’s not writing or coaching, he’s probably tweeting @FuehrenWriter. Care to brush up your story? Get in touch to work on your next creative project!

Florian Führen

Written by

Story coach – copywriter – novel proofreader. Got my doctorate in Medieval Studies. Now I want to learn about that "present" everyone's talking about.

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