Having spent a good amount of printer ink writing about the religious experience I had on pilgrimage in Mexico, it is only a logical progression that my tangled mind should turn its energy toward my new favorite atheist.
My old favorite, Christopher Hitchens, passed away years ago — may God have mercy on his soul — so I have been in the market. If my new favorite atheist heard me say, “God have mercy on you,” he would likely not be as visceral as Hitchens, but I can almost guarantee his retort would be funny, incisive, and I would have to go back to Chesterton or Fulton Sheen to refute it.
British actor/writer/comedian Ricky Gervais is an exceptionally talented guy with a long history of success, and it is another logical progression that he would create a series that has a powerful and even spiritual component to it, but cemented in his own deep disbelief in God.
The Netflix series “After Life” is not suitable for family viewing, but even in its more offensive and “adult” content, there is something of value here. Gervais’ talent and thoughtfulness is worth exploring. If anyone was going to make a limited-run comedy series about a man horribly damaged by the death of his one true love and make a throughline of the main character seeking to destroy himself to stop his pain, Gervais is that guy.
His character is devastated by the premature death of his wife to cancer, and she becomes an integral cog in the story arc, as Gervais’ character constantly watches old digital videos of her on his computer. He is still deeply in love with her, and all the videos are slices of a life of bliss and happiness.
The corresponding sadness that we see in Gervais’ widower colors every aspect of his life, whether it is dealing with the cast of screwball characters he works with at the local village newspaper, where he is a most disinterested human-interest reporter, or the equally odd inhabitants of the village where he makes his home.
There is a beautiful relationship that develops between Gervais’ widower and a widow. They meet regularly on the bench in front of the graves of their respective spouses. The widow becomes his muse, and in Gervais fashion, also shares his views that believing in an afterlife is for other people, not them.
Yet, she is positive about life and positive about the memory of her dead husband, just as Gervais’ character is consumed by grief over the loss of his wife. It is through her that Gervais’ character begins to slowly climb out of the psychic black hole he inhabits and discovers by acting kindly and mustering herculean forbearance, his character begins to get better and believes he is doing what his late wife would have wanted for him.
God’s feelings about lying are so strident that he had them written in stone, so the whole idea of lying for a good reason is theological quicksand. Yet Gervais’ character tells a beautiful lie in the series. He is doing one of his mundane human-interest stories in the mundane little village he covers when he finds himself in the pediatric cancer ward of the local hospital.
The topic of heaven comes up, and one of the sick children asks Gervais’ character if he believes in heaven. The pain and conflict his character is feeling is palpable. He then says, of course he does. It makes the sick child feel good even though we know Gervais is lying.
The series really is all about his character’s search for meaning in a world without a prime mover. Of course, it would be a journey wrought with detours and dead ends that we see him come up against. But there is one thing his character does believe in with all his might: love.
And a door opens just a crack — he discovers that love survives the death of his wife. He cannot see love. He cannot touch or see the love of his dead wife, but it is so real to him that his character does not believe he can live without it. And whether the writer/performer Gervais realizes it, he is making a compelling case for the supernatural and the place everlasting love has in this world and beyond.
No spoiler alert needed here. There is no way, at least not now, that a series created and written by Gervais is going to end with an epiphany or choir of angels escorting him into the Beatific Vision. But what he does come to realize at the end of the series, and what makes this rewarding, in its own, weird way, is a faith in the now invisible love of his late wife.
It does not bring him an inch closer to God — this is Ricky Gervais after all — but his understanding of the eternal aspect of love is at least a start.