After Life review: 'By a long distance the finest thing Ricky Gervais has done in many years'
Ricky Gervais’ After Life, unspooling in six eminently bingeable half-hour episodes that fly by, is bitter and sweet, sad and funny, cruel and tender, cynical and sentimental, heartless and heartwarming, all at the same time and sometimes even in the same scene.
It’s everything, in other words, that both his supporters and his detractors have come to expect from Gervais in all his guises: the provocative, no-limits stand-up; the merciless, celebrity-roasting host of the Golden Globes; the soft-hearted animal lover who posts videos on social media of himself playing with his pets.
It’s also by a long distance the finest thing he has done in many years. As executive producer, writer and director, he has gifted himself his tastiest role since David Brent in The Office, one that gives him a chance to flex his acting muscles in a way we haven’t seen nearly often enough in the past.
After Life is as dark as dark comedy gets. Gervais plays Tony, the features editor-cum-reporter on a small-town freesheet that specialises in daft local stories such as a boy who plays two recorders with his nose, an old man who has received identical birthday cards five years running, a baby that looks like Adolf Hitler and a damp patch on a wall that supposedly bears a striking resemblance to Kenneth Branagh.
Having to deal with this fluff every day would sorely test anyone’s will to live, but Tony is shouldering a heavier, more painful burden. Since the death of his wife of 25 years, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), from breast cancer months before, he has been stuck in a deep pit of grief.
He anaesthetises his pain with booze, and on a couple of occasions by smoking heroin, and spends his nights tearfully watching videos of the dying Lisa, who exhorts him not to be miserable after her death, but to keep going and find someone new.
Tony isn’t just miserable, he’s suicidal. He’s only dissuaded from slashing his wrists in the bath when his beloved dog, Brandy, the only other living creature he seems to care about, comes ambling in at the last moment.
Tony decides against killing himself (for now). Instead, he resolves to live life on his own uncompromising terms, saying and doing whatever he likes, without worrying about consequences. It’s his way of punishing the world for its unfairness.
“There’s no advantage in being nice and thoughtful and having integrity,” he reasons. “If I become an arsehole and say and do as much as I want, I can always kill myself. It’s like a superpower.”
Tony does indeed become an arsehole. He mocks photographer and best pal Lenny’s (Tony Way) weight, winds up dim-bulb secretary Kath (Diane Morgan, doing a variation on her Philomena Cunk character) and exploits the decency of his indulgent boss Matt (Tom Basden), who happens to be his late wife’s brother and therefore will never fire him.
Everyone who crosses Tony’s path gets it: charity collectors, a lazy postman, a bloke who eats crisps too loudly for his liking. At one point he calls an overweight kid who’s bullying his nephew “a tubby ginger c***” (the C-word turns up so often it’s virtually a supporting character).
Gervais never pretends that Tony isn’t selfish and self-pitying, and his behaviour does, in the end, have consequences (in one episode, which may divide viewers, very serious ones). However, the writing is so good, so compassionate, so finely balanced between comedy and pathos that he becomes a figure worthy of sympathy and a shot at redemption.
As we know from The Office, Gervais has always been an exceptionally generous writer, happy to share the goodies. He has written splendid characters for a wonderful supporting cast that includes David Bradley as Tony’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father, Roisin Conaty as a local prostitute, Penelope Wilton as a widow he befriends while visiting Lisa’s grave and his old Extras collaborator Ashley Jensen as a nurse who offers the promise of a new romance.
All episodes of After Life are now available on Netflix.