We’ve been watching a lot of TV lately. Who hasn’t? When the workday ends, you’ve been reading from a computer screen for nine hours straight, and you’ve just taken your third walk of the day around your neighborhood, what the heck else are you going to do?
I’m not sure you could call this a positive, but because of abundant TV sampling we’ve watched some shows that we probably wouldn’t have watched otherwise. And, because of the high-volume exposure to the boob tube, I’ve also identified a core problem with me, as a TV viewer. The problem is that, instead of simply enjoying a show, I always try to figure out what the creator of the show wants me to think about the main characters. When I watched House, for example, I always wondered whether the creator of the show wanted me to grow to like the brilliant main character, or sympathize with him because of his bad leg, or think he was a colossal, egotistical jerk who would never have a friend like Wilson in real life. Dr. House’s complex, multi-dimensional character (brilliantly played by Hugh Laurie) was one of the things that made that show a good watch in my book.
For most shows, figuring out how you’re supposed to react to a character isn’t a problem, because most shows are written so that it’s quickly apparent that a particular character is supposed to funny, or repellent, or heroic, or whatever. It’s pretty rare for a show to leave that central issue ambiguous, where the creators are comfortable with different viewers, perhaps, reacting to a particular character in different ways.
After Life is one of those rare shows. Written and created by, and starring, Ricky Gervais, it features a main character, Tony, who is one of those ambiguous characters. He’s obsessed with watching highly personal videos of his life with his wife, now dead of cancer, and has been toying with the idea of killing himself because her death makes him so sad. That’s pretty sympathetic, but a lot of the videos that he watches reveal him to be a kind of annoying prankster and a bit of a jerk. (His wife, on the other hand, seems like a real saint to laugh, for example, when he sets off an air horn while she’s sleeping.) He’s a colossal jerk with some people, for no readily apparent reason, and a nice, supportive guy to others. He’s ridiculously mean to people who wouldn’t challenge him, but won’t say boo to the world’s worst therapist who’s supposed to be helping him deal with his grief.
So, what are we supposed to think of this guy? Dismiss him as a weepy sad sack who just can’t move on? Feel sorry for him because he’s so totally distraught? Think he’s funny because of his witty snark? View him as a jackass who’s just pushing away most of the people who are trying to help him? Decide he can’t be all bad because he’s got a great dog that he obviously cares about, and anybody who’s got a relationship like that with a dog must have some redeeming qualities? The perspective on Tony keeps shifting.
It’s worth watching.