Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix series After Life is dark and funny, and more meditative than anything the comedian has done before.
Grief, morality, mortality, euthanasia – these are all subjects the six-part comedy tackles head on. It can be thought-provoking and affecting. However, it can also at times feel cloyingly sentimental, a hangover from Gervais’ previous comedy drama Derek.
After Life is centred around Tony (Gervais), a reporter for a local newspaper who has decided that life without his late wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) is meaningless.
“If I become an arsehole and I do and say what the f*** I want for as long as I want, and then when it all gets too much I can always kill myself,” Tony tells his kind-but-naive brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basdale). “It’s like a superpower.”
It isn’t. Thankfully, it is not the political correctness-skewering plot device that many feared it would be, either.
Tony’s new attitude is a window to wish fulfilment: he tries heroin for the first time, hires a local prostitute (Roisin Conaty) to clean his house and threatens a young bully who has been picking on his nephew. You know, stuff that we know we shouldn’t do, but perhaps would just about consider if free from the shackles of social responsibility.
Still, Tony hasn’t totally given up – there’s still his dog to care for after all – and this offers a glimmer of hope, spurring those around him to try and lure him out of his depression.
He still trundles into the office every day, despite his distaste for the chancers in the community trying to make the headlines – like the man who has a leak in his house that looks like Kenneth Branagh, or the woman making bread from vaginal yeast (each of which draw typically frustrated and hilarious responses).
And despite his efforts to isolate himself from his friends, they keep finding their way back in, encouraging him to give life another chance. Here, though, the series gets a bit soppy, steering towards love-thy-neighbour territory. Gervais’ intentions are admirable and his message sound – that good people do good things for others, not for themselves – but the delivery is a little blunt-edged.
Perhaps this is because the community in Tambury is made up of loveable caricatures who lack the nuance of the protagonist, offering platitude-filled speeches about morality, love and friendship as if they were nuggets of enlightenment.
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It’s a shame, because the glimpses of Tony and Lisa’s relationship are real and affecting. There’s a pleasantly cyclical nature to each episode, which begin with Tony watching clips of his wife Lisa on his laptop.
In one home video, Tony replays the time he booby-trapped his front door to drop a water balloon on Lisa’s head as she returns home from work. It’s particularly bittersweet, as it arrives amidst Tony’s emotional spiral as he tries to make sense of life without her.
Gervais isn’t know for his dramatic acting – his work in that melancholic Extras Christmas Special is still underrated – but he is very good in the heavier moments here as a man in the depths of grief (this is rather important, as he is on screen for approximately 99 per cent of the six-episode series).
He is equally brilliant when, as is his wont, he gets sarky and ranty. There’s some not-so-subtle shade thrown in the direction of his peers James Corden and Kevin Hart, and scenes with an incompetent therapist recall Andy Millman’s interactions with his agent in Extras.
It’s Gervais’ most visually accomplished series yet, a world away from the pseudo-documentary style of The Office – even if this comes at the expense of narrative plausibility. It is interspersed with shots of the fictional, uncharacteristically sunny English village of Tambury, and Tony’s swanky-but-soulless living space, like Carrie Bradshaw’s and Monica Gellar’s before him, does not match his wage bracket.
And there are brilliant performances beyond the creator’s, particularly Godliman, who exhibits sparkling, realistic chemistry with Gervais in the limited screen time husband and wife share together. Ashley Jensen too, co-starring alongside Gervais for the first time since Extras, is typically severe and brilliant as a nurse charged with the care of his father (David Bradley), who suffers from dementia.
It’s just a shame that the emotional crescendos can’t match the comedy. But, saccharine speeches aside, there is a lot to enjoy here in this concise, sub three-hour binge.
After Life is released on Netflix on Friday 8th March