Ricky Gervais’ Show “After Life” Breaks the #1 Writing Rule
A Masterclass in ‘Tell, Don’t Show’
Every time I’ve done a writing course, whether it be screenwriting, novel writing, travel writing or my Masters in Creative Writing — there is one reliable piece of feedback I always get: “SHOW, DON’T TELL.”
Well, it seems like Ricky Gervais missed the memo.
I am not opposed to Gervais in principle, although I understand the reasons why many people are. Having suffered the death of a close family member, I really WANTED to relate to a dark comedy about grief.
But good grief, Ricky — the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule was written for a reason.
(Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Episode 1 kicks off with Ricky — ahem, I mean Tony — explaining his worldview since the death of his wife: There’s no advantage to being nice and thoughtful and caring and having integrity… If I become an asshole and I do and say the fuck I want for as long as I want and when it all gets too much, I can just kill myself. This is said multiple times in various ways, in case you missed it the first time.
Through the course of the next six episodes, Ricky will find lots of people to talk at — including an annoying colleague, inept therapist, sex worker with a heart of gold, wise child, and Lady Crawley from Downton Abbey who sits in a graveyard all day. This gives him the opportunity to explain his feelings about a whole bunch of things.
Here’s Tony talking: Humanity’s a plague, we’re a disgusting, narcissistic, selfish parasite and the world would be a better place without us. It should be everyone’s moral duty to kill ourselves.
Talking some more: You can believe in an afterlife if that makes you feel better, doesn’t mean it’s true, but once you realise you’re not going to be around forever, that’s what makes life so magical…. That’s why you should treasure the few years you’ve got because that’s all there is.
He talks about religion, about dating, about people being assholes, about kindness, about suicide, and again and again about the pain and pointlessness of being alive… you get the idea. These people in turn tell him a whole lot of reasons back about why he should feel differently.
Gold-Heart the Sex Worker says things like: Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people… sometimes it’s just no one’s fault.
Especially Graveyard Lady, she’s got a heck of a lot to say. Sometimes she delivers it in big chunky monologues like this:
I had the most wonderful life with my husband and I have all those memories. That’s all we are really, memories. And Stan had a wonderful life too and he’s not in any pain, he doesn’t even know it’s over. I’d rather live missing him than for him to live missing me, that’s how much I love him. I wouldn’t change anything…. You shouldn’t regret anything. etc etc
By Episode 5, she’s telling Tony all about how we’re not here for ourselves, we should make other people happy and so on and so forth. This is a big tell-y episode because Tony’s having his transformation and we just have to HEAR all about it.
In case you’re not sure yet what that transformation is, fear not! Tony is here to tell us exactly: I realised you can’t not care about things you actually care about, you can’t fool yourself. It’s not all about me, and even though I’m always in pain, it’s worth sticking around to make my corner of the world a slightly better place.
Graveyard McGee likes that so much, she enthuses about how amazing happiness is and something about old men planting trees — I tuned out a little at this point to wonder why Crawley always happens to be in the graveyard when Tony turns up to tell her things and if she actually lives there or they have pre-arranged graveyard dates— and when I tune back in, she’s still going on about how good people do things for other people.
Tony is a good person, even though he acts like a fat-shamey, misogynistic asshole. I know this because at least three other characters tell him (and us) he’s a good person. In case there’s not enough telling from the living characters, his late wife turns up in every episode to tell us how Tony always used to find joy in things, but he doesn’t anymore.
By Episode 6, when Tony is ready to date again (which he wasn’t before because he told us he wasn’t), the nice nurse he asks out says: I’ve never met anyone quite as sad as him… it’s like he’s trying to turn his heart into stone so that he wouldn’t actually feel anything because it’s just all really painful for him.
As if we HAVEN’T just watched the last five episodes… (Also, what? Is Tony really the only grief-stricken person she’s ever met??)
Basically, if Ricky Gervais was a film student and delivered a screenplay this lazy, he’d be sent away to write another draft. It taught me a valuable lesson about writing: it doesn’t matter if it’s bad as long as you’re already famous.
However if you want a screenplay that delivers the message When you’re a good person, doing things you want to do is the same as doing good (yes, that’s from an After Life monologue as well) that doesn’t actually have anyone TELL you what the meaning of life is, I suggest you watch Groundhog Day instead.