In what may be the darkest work of his career, Ricky Gervais plays Tony, a local newspaper reporter, who is trying to adjust after the death of his wife of 25 years, Lisa (Kerry Godliman) from cancer. Lisa has left Tony a number of video recordings of advice and general conversation to help ready him for life without her (Tony also has a number of clips of everyday life spent with her). Left only with their dog, and visits to his dementia-afflicted father (David Bradley), he embarks on a path of saying, and doing, whatever he feels like, in the knowledge that life really can’t get any worse.
After Life is an uncomfortable mix of the brave and the safe. Brave in its willingness to mine comedy from the most painful aspects of life – death of a spouse, loneliness – and in its unflinching look at a man losing the conviction of his values. Tony spends time with a prostitute (not at all what that implies), a drug dealer (exactly what that implies), and insults virtually everyone he meets. That this all comes from a place of pain, and with it the inference that he feels his life is, effectively, over (with this being some kind of last hurrah while he sees out the final years of his father’s – and dog’s – life), makes this possibly the most ambitious work – in its themes – of Gervais’ career.
On the other hand, the show is safe in its familiarity and re-use of ideas, themes, and people from earlier Gervais work. In an early stand-up show, Ricky told a brief story about an old lady getting scarred “for life” in an attack at the age of 93, with the added commentary from someone he knew that of course it isn’t for life: even if she lived to 100, it would be only 7% of her lifespan. That exact story, with wording almost identical to the stand-up routine, is given to Tony. Similarly, there is a spin on a breast milk story Ricky has told, previously, on a podcast. Throughout, there are many examples of little phrases, stories and opinions we’ve heard elsewhere.
We hear familiar Gervais expoundings on life, fame, belief, and our purpose on this earth. In fact, much of this show functions as a compilation album of his career, or, more accurately, public musings over the course of his career. It makes the show at once feel like it is both something to which his whole career has been building, but also a walk down memory lane for those of us who have got to know the public face of Ricky Gervais. The show is fresh in its end product, but it’s woven from second-hand materials.
This extends to personnel, which is full of alumni from his earlier shows and films. The show features, in no particular order: Kerry Godliman, the care home owner from Derek; David Earl, Kev, in the same show; Tom Basden, David Brent’s road manager from Life on the Road; also from the same film, Roisin Conaty (one of the women Brent takes to his hotel); Diane Morgan (the PR lady he hires); Mandeep Dhillon (Secretary at Lavichem) – there are others in more minor roles. Most notably, perhaps, Ashley Jensen (Maggie from Extras – here not even credited with a name, though we do learn it is Emma). The latter evoked both nostalgia and melancholy: nostalgia for the last virtually perfect work Ricky Gervais ever produced, and sadness at how much time has now elapsed in-between. It’s nice to see so many collaborators celebrated, and reminds us what a career it has been; but it adds to a slight feeling of recycling.
As for the episodes themselves, early scenes mine the comedy – and pathos – of the man rendered useless without a woman: Tony being able to offer the dog only baked beans or vegetable curry. The trend for the character to insult people is set early, with a man in the park, a postman and a schoolboy all taken to task within the first quarter of the first episode. It’s very much the comedy of catharsis – enjoying somebody saying all the things we couldn’t and wouldn’t. He describes a good day to his psychiatrist (Paul Kaye) as a day where he doesn’t want to “go around shooting random strangers in the face..”.
As with The Office, the show noticeably takes time to show the mundane, Tony examining his empty kitchen, and getting frustrated is something that almost any other show, with any other creator, would deal with more quickly. In this case, Gervais is going to make us experience Tony’s pains, boredoms and frustrations with him. The character looks happy only when watching the clips of his wife. These moments remind us what an expressive face Ricky has, and what a fine actor he can be in quiet, character moments. As a portrait of loss, it’s heart-breaking.
A woman who has a dustbin that sounds like Chewbacca; a man with a stain on his wall that looks like Kenneth Branagh; a boy who can play two recorders, at the same time, with his nose; and a baby that looks like Adolf Hitler. These are some of the ‘scoops’ Tony has to pursue for his paper. Putting him in that position – and making it a sleepy, provincial town – allows for good comedy, and it brings the character into contact with ordinary (and less than ordinary) people, who add perspective to his own struggles.
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Whilst the episodes lack a little for individual identities (this is very much longer-form storytelling, which it is recommended to watch in as few sittings as possible), the arc is key. There is only so much we could have taken of episode one Tony. By the final third of that instalment, his relentless negativity and insulting of good people was getting too much. The insults are funny, but it would have lacked for balance had it not been in service of a journey. As always with Ricky Gervais, the show slowly – from the second half of episode two on – reveals great heart, and demonstrates that all of this is in service of something far more thoughtful. That he has considered where he wanted the show to go, and what he wanted to say about life ends up being the saving grace of After Life.
After Life lacks for detail in its character work, for anyone except the Tony character. This has been an issue with most post-Stephen Merchant work: compare the likes of Tim in The Office, to Nigel in Life on the Road. It’s not a serious issue, as, more than any other work in his canon, this show has a laser focus on its lead. Additionally, episodes tend to lack a single point of focus, in plot terms, and it is – all of it – the blackest of black comedy.
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For all of that, however, After Life could serve as Ricky Gervais’ definitive statement – the distillation of the themes of his career; and a reflection of everything he has learned as writer, director, actor, and, more than that, what he believes he has learned from life. It’s not The Office, or Extras – It won’t capture the zeitgeist, as the former did, and it isn’t as funny as the latter. In fact, it’s like nothing you’ve seen from him before, yet everything you’ve seen from him before. It is very him, but very fresh. It’s new, woven from old.
Has this been the first work we’d ever seen from from Ricky Gervais, this show would garner, without hesitation, a perfect score – it’s far from flawless, but its flaws simply don’t matter – it is merely the re-use of ideas from earlier work that prevents this. It is fair to say, however, that it is the experience gained from the years creating those earlier pieces that allows him to imbue this with such richness. This is thoughtful, and (eventually) life-affirming stuff from a comedy superstar, proving to all that he still has things to say, and it is, without doubt, the most emotionally affecting work of his career. Despite the scoring – which is nit-picking, to a degree – this may be the best work he’s ever produced. Highly recommended.
After Life is now streaming on Netflix UK.