Ricky Gervais’ latest show for Netflix has a simple format and sense of style, but it deals with some complicated subject matter. As you’d expect from Gervais, it’s a comedy, but this time the humor is on the dark side.
Gervais stars as Tony, a suicidal man grieving the death of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman). The show avoids flashbacks by establishing their relationship by showing old video footage Tony has on his computer. It’s often of him pranking Lisa, so we can see how lively and good spirited she was. But she also left him a series of video messages meant to encourage him to keep going after she’s gone. It’s a small role for Godliman, but she manages to make her mark on the proceedings in these fleeting moments.
Tony’s method of coping with the loss is simply not caring about anything. He calls it a rare super power. Saying whatever he’s thinking, no matter how offensive, makes other people feel bad. And that cheers him up, if only because they become as miserable as he is. If suicide is his backup plan, what could go wrong from doing and saying whatever he wants? Fortunately, Gervais opts to keep the material more introspective rather than letting it devolve into wild antics. Tony isn’t the sort of man to push his luck by doing literally “anything” he wants, but if people around him are bothering him, he certainly won’t refrain from letting them know about it.
He considers suicide a couple of times throughout the show, and he might have gone through with it if not for the fact that his dog still needs taking care of. He spends most of his free time visiting his dad (David Bradley), who has alzheimer’s, and visiting his wife’s grave – that is, of course, when he isn’t drinking and smoking weed in an attempt to numb the pain. He works at a small, struggling newspaper where he’s forced to write articles about boring people around town.
While he resents the people he has to write about, the people he works with aren’t much better. They put up with his angsty attitude because they sympathize with him, but it soon becomes too much to ignore. Nevertheless, they all end up having a positive affect on him. Other people, like the nurse (Ashley Jensen) who cares for his father, and the elderly lady (Penelope Wilton) visiting her late husband at the cemetery, and the woman (Roisin Conaty) he hires to clean his house, have a positive impact on his life as well.
Now, on the one hand, this setup has all the makings of a fairly standard formula that begins with a grumpy man slowly learning to be happy again through newfound relationships. It’s a formula that typically has a feel-good ending and it’s worked for films like A Man Called Ove (2016), Up (2009), Grumpy Old Men (1993), Kikujiro (1999) and even Groundhog Day (1993), but less-so for St. Vincent (2014). Certainly, After Life is aiming for that formula, but Gervais isn’t afraid to delve into some darker issues.
The role here for Gervais is nearly the opposite of his iconic role as office manager David Brent, in The Office. Where Brent was a bundle of energy, always smirking and looking to the people around him for approval, Tony is an indie dramedy sad-sack who doesn’t care what anyone around him thinks. In fact, he can barely stand being around most of them. That is, of course, until he realizes how much good it does him to have them around.
A problem many of these types of stories run into is that the side characters can feel like props to serve the main character and little more. Unfortunately, that’s the case for many of the characters here as well. There’s a bit of depth to a few of them, but most exist merely to serve the function of contributing to Tony’s change. That isn’t to say they aren’t likable, but few, if any of them, feel like fleshed out characters.
Much of the show’s comedy is built around Tony’s willful disregard for other people’s feelings, but the show is at its best once he starts being receptive to those around him. It’s also quite good when it’s doling out tidbits of wisdom about happiness and making a positive impact on those around us. They’re important lessons for Tony, but feel just as necessary for anyone watching.
Not all of Tony’s moment to moment character changes feel earned, but most of them do. After Life is, at times, equally funny and poignant. Gervais has credit as writer and director, making this easily his most mature work yet.