Written, directed, and starring Ricky Gervais, Netflix’s ‘After Life’ is a candid and bitterly dark comedy about loss and depression.
Ricky Gervais is renowned for his role as the gauche, bumbling David Brent in The Office – the far superior British original that is. Few expected the comedy actor to extend beyond the cringeworthy limits of Wernham-Hogg’s finest middle-manager, but that he did. While he reprised his best-known role in 2016’s David Brent: Life on the Road, Gervais has proven himself time after time to be a versatile performer. From a string of major roles in both film and television, including a number of successful stand-up shows, right through to a few cameo appearances in video games, Gervais has come far since he started out. And his humour has changed along the way too.
This is most evident in his latest creation After Life, a candid and bitterly dark comedy about loss and depression. In this 6-part Netflix series, both written and directed by Gervais, we’re offered a gut-wrenching yet hysterical snapshot into the life of Tony Johnson (Gervais), a reporter at a local newspaper coming to terms with the untimely death of his beloved wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) from cancer.
When things get going with a pre-death recording of Lisa giving Tony life instructions, she calls him “lovely,” and we immediately know this protagonist is a good man. But when we see Tony ignoring later snippets of the recording telling him not to mope, it’s clear he’s stubborn too.
While there are glimpses of Gervais’ awkward, uncomfortable brand of humour from back in the day, there’s also something new here. This material is far dryer and terser, really pushing the envelope further than ever before. A scene in the first episode, where Tony bluntly informs a chubby ginger kid he’d be immune to the cravings of a paedophile, bears witness to that.
Tony is reminiscent of Gervais’ odious Bertram Pincus from Ghost Town, only far more relatable. We know he’s not responsible for the scathing words that fall from his mouth. Rather, it’s a much more powerful, violent monster speaking here: grief.
This makes it easy to forgive and invest in this downcast individual, as those around him do in spite of his countless requests to be left alone. Tony opts out of killing himself, racked with guilt at the thought of abandoning Brandy the dog. In its place, he chooses to get away with blue murder, keeping his suicidal get-out-of-jail card at hand for when it all goes Pete Tong. Tony calls this his “superpower,” which he uses regularly to disparage those closest to him, especially dim but sweet friend/co-worker Lenny (Tony Way) and concerned, well-intentioned brother-in-law/boss Matt (Tom Basden). And they just take the vitriol he hurls at them because that’s what you do for someone in that position. Stephen Fry once said, “It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” These guys must be as kind and noble as they come.
Some of the funniest moments can be found when Tony directs his caustic wit at those he doesn’t know so well. Harmless co-worker Kath (Diane Morgan) often falls in the line of fire, along with a host of locals desperate to get their faces in The Tambury Gazette with mundane or ludicrous stories. A water stain that supposedly resembles Kenneth Branagh and a boy who can play the recorder using his nostrils top the list, truly testing Tony’s thin patience.
For the first half of the series, Tony’s doom and gloom reign supreme. Thankfully, in the second half, a diverse ensemble of characters help scoop Tony out of his murky pit of despair, showing him life can be a shiny thing worth living for. Among them are Emma (Ashley Jensen), his dad’s carer and a potential new love interest who calls him out on his crap; Daphne/Roxy (Roisin Conaty), a friendly local sex worker who cleans Tony’s house; and Anne (Penelope Wilton), a warm but plain-spoken widow he meets at the cemetery.
After Life may be a merciless and farcical tale of vindication, but it’s also one about the very real struggle encountered by many of those faced with bereavement: the struggle to achieve clarity and care about anything other than sadness when doing so seems like the furthest thing from possibility.
If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of killing yourself, this might not be the one for you. A particularly raw scene where Tony gives a suicidal homeless guy the cash to buy drugs for an intentional overdose really hammers the nail into this point. However, if you’ve ever been floored by grief or depression, this funny but sympathetic story will feel familiar; a lot more familiar than Gervais’ newly evolved comedic style.