By Matt Fowler
All six episodes of After Life debut on Friday, March 8 on Netflix.
Ricky Gervais’ new series, After Life, is a special type of sugar-coated sour. Its blueprint is very basic, and the story is as sleepy as the quaint English town it’s set in, but there’s a fundamentally lovely message about kindness underneath.
There are no real surprises here. Everything sort of works itself out, landing like you expect it to. At first glimpse, the premise feels like a mechanism that just allows Gervais’ character, Tony, to be a vile a-hole to most everyone around him. And there’s some truth to that, to be honest. The set-up here is that Tony, a recent widower, is so depressed and hollow inside after the tragic death of his wife that he’s decided to be an utter s*** to everyone he encounters. He considers it a “superpower.” And then he figures, since he’s still on the fence about wanting to live, he can just off himself if there starts to be actual consequences for his actions.
So with the table set as it is, we get sharp-tongued Gervais lashing out in acerbic, mostly-funny ways at the rude and obtuse. Things get uncomfortable, however – which, in turn, makes the show feel more like its own thing and not just a generalized meditation on grief – when Tony also verbally abuses his friends and co-workers. It’s the ickiest, and probably the most important element of After Life. Tony, by all summations, is a jerk. The loss of his wife has only amplified this. It takes a few episodes to discover just why he’s so specifically devastated about his wife’s passing, but once you do then the reward here – meager as it is – becomes watching Gervais not only climb out of his hole but transform into someone he wasn’t even before his partner’s passing.
Tony’s wife, Lisa (played charmingly in old videos by Kerry Godliman), was a one in a billion match for Tony. Quite possibly the only person on the planet to not only put up with him, but also love him for his asinine traits. For Tony, as a right miserable jerk, he’s lost the only thing he enjoyed in life. After Life, quite stealthily, becomes a show about a guy who never found value in humanity learning the inherent merit of happiness, whether it be his or other people’s.
After Life breaks no molds and creates very few ripples, but it has a morbid charm that will actively have you rooting against Gervais’ trademark vitriol. At first, it feels as if the show tries too hard to make Tony’s tirades justifiable, by making his targets particularly ripe for mockery, but that all mellows out with some modest messaging and broader discussions about everyone being on unknowable personal journeys. Usually alone.
Greatly assisting After Life, helping it rise up a bit out of the biting bile that it doesn’t know what to do with sometimes, are the supporting players. Not just the co-workers at the local newspaper Tony resentfully writes for (Tony Way, Tom Basden, Diane Morgan, and Mandeep Dhillon), but also the oddball assortment of friends he makes in the wake of his malaise – like Roisin Conaty’s
prostitute sex worker, Penelope Wilton’s widow, and Tim Plester’s town junkie. All of them whimsically transform from the objects of Tony’s pity to the cause of his betterment. It’s a slight journey, but After Life is a slight series after all.
After Life can occasionally feel too easy, in both its viciousness and atonement, but its intentions are good and there are some charming takeaways. Its most uncomfortable elements help it stand out, but they also make it feel like a series that takes plain sailing pot shots at existence. Overall, its a morbidly pleasant series about what it means to lose your joy and bounce back as good as can be expected.