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After Life on Netflix, created by and staring Ricky Gervais, asks: What does it mean to be a reasonably good person in a time that actually doesn’t allow many people to be caring?Netflix

Years ago I met up with the parents of a friend of mine who were visiting him in Toronto. Coming from a farm in Southwestern Ontario, they said they were unused to the big city and the complete absence of people they know made it an unsettling experience. My friend’s dad asked me, “Do you know your neighbours?” Me: “Well yes, a bunch of them. They have a key to my house I have keys to theirs. Take in a package, feed the cat, that kind of thing.”

I was put in mind of that chat last week. Talking to my neighbour Tony – he on his porch, me on the sidewalk – he told me his wife, Barbara, who works at a long-term care facility, was putting in long shifts and self-isolating at home, from him and the kids. It was hard on everyone. The next day, I dropped a bottle of Cava at their door with a note for Barbara.

The following day, at my door, were two pasta meals from Barbara. This could escalate, I thought. Soon, we’d both be borrowing wheelbarrows to give each other cases of wine or a meal for 12.

This brings me to the second season of After Life (Netflix), created by and staring Ricky Gervais. It’s about being decent and caring. It is also formidably rude, full of grotesque figures and cringe-inducing scenes. But, as with the first season, Gervais has done something utterly remarkable – he’s created a profound and funny meditation on caring about people other than the self. It asks: What does it mean to be a reasonably good person in a time that actually doesn’t allow many people to be caring?

Gervais again plays Tony, a middle-aged man who is surly, rude and deeply cynical. He’s been in this state since his wife died, and Tony is still watching old videos of his wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), and mourning. In the first season, the situation was lifted by his fragile relationship with a nurse, Emma (Ashley Jensen), who cares for his dad (David Bradley), who has dementia and is in a nursing home.

As this season first unfolds, Tony remains detached and impersonal. He is less interested in connecting than in understanding the impact of grief on himself. The same cast of characters surrounds him. He’s friendly with Roxy (Roisin Conaty), a sex worker whose role is to banter with him; the eccentric postman (Joe Wilkinson); his boss/brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden); the earnest young reporter, Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon); Lenny (Tony Way), the lumbering, near-inert photographer; and widow Anne (Penelope Wilton), who is also grieving. There is also the unhinged psychiatrist (Paul Kaye) whose foul-mouth stories are breathtaking.

Once again, Gervais derives comedy from rants, insults and grotesquery. But at the same time he’s probing human decency and the series treads lightly on serious matters. It illustrates the various forms of care and kindness, showing us how some acts of caring are merely transactional, and others are frenzied or ill-timed.

In the end, it’s about finding decency, locating an utterly benign view of life and rejecting negativity and cruelty. While it sometimes seems drenched in Gervais’s trademark savage humour, it is also littered with references to fables such as The Scorpion and The Frog and there is even a brief injection of Robert Frost’s famous poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Under the surface, After Life is pugnaciously about our duty to be good people.

Coming at a time when much of normal life and behaviour is paused, this new batch of episodes is a great gift, like a meal or wine left on a doorstep to simply say without complication, thank you.

Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is American Vandal (Netflix), a seemingly juvenile but sharp mockery of the true-crime format. It’s also about juvenile crime. There’s this kid, see, who was nailed for spray-painting penises on cars in the school parking lot. Did he do it? Well, the teachers think the evidence is incontrovertible. And then there are some of his friends who believe, with some authority, that he’s just too dumb to carry out the prank. Made as mockumentary, the series’ hero is tech geek, high-school sophomore and aspiring documentary filmmaker Peter (Tyler Alvarez). Sharply critical of social media and the gullibility of viewers, it is way smarter than expected.

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