'After Life': TV Review
Ricky Gervais' new Netflix dramedy delivers a couple laughs and avoids an overdose of mawkishness until the final episode.
By pedigree, the arrival of a new show by Ricky Gervais ought to be cause for schedule-clearing excitement. The Office is one of the key texts of the Peak TV era; Extras is a trenchant classic; and his Golden Globes stints, for better or worse, remain a standard against which most hosts are measured. Even if you happen to have been a big fan of Life's Too Short and Derek — both comedies, while astoundingly uneven, surely have supporters — it's hard to deny that they chilled some of the enthusiasm around Gervais, especially the self-indulgence he's capable of when left unchecked.
With that in mind, it's worth starting my review of Gervais' new Netflix dramedy After Life by acknowledging that while it sets itself up for mawkishness of the type that often torpedoes Gervais' lesser work, five of the six episodes in the first season were less bogged down in sentiment than I initially feared. That sixth episode, the finale, is 30 minutes of banal platitudes and questionably deserved resolution, but up until that point, I kept finding occasional things to enjoy in After Life, primarily when it just operates as a comedy.
Written and directed by Gervais, After Life initially emanates from a place of drama, even if it's a half-hour. Gervais plays Tony, features editor at a small-town newspaper. Tony is still grieving after the death of his longtime wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman). Lisa left Tony lots of videos advising him on matters like basic hygiene and how to go on living in her absence, but Tony is right on the verge of suicide. The only thing keeping him going is his dog Brandy and the newfound license he feels to tell people exactly what he thinks, no matter how inappropriate or cruel it is. Tony's life has fallen into a routine of visits to his ailing father (David Bradley) and to his wife's grave, half-assing it at work — boss Matt (Tom Basden) was his wife's brother and still enables Tony's grief and misbehavior — and drinking. Slowly, as one will inevitably expect, Tony begins to reevaluate his behavior and to contemplate how he can begin to live again.
Gervais has stacked the deck aggressively. Tony may say rude and politically incorrect things, but he's far from indiscriminate. In fact, he mostly directs his canards at an assortment of variably husky and bearded men in his life, picking his targets with a specificity that make it clear that if he's lashing out, he's most lacerating toward himself and people who remind him of himself. He's vicious-but-kind toward his co-worker Lenny (Tony Way), who accompanies him to local news stories like an obese boy who can play two recorders with his nostrils and an old man who received five of the same birthday card. He's scathing-but-compassionate to a local junkie (Tim Plester's Julian), who helps Tony experiment with various drugs accompanied by the most comically on-the-nose of musical cues. He's rude to his dad, who can never retain that Lisa is deceased, but with clear limits thanks to a candid and cutting nurse who you know is going to be important because she's played by Extras star Ashley Jensen.
Gervais has built his personal brand over the years on pulling no punches. Here, he's built a show on cushioning every punch as comfortably as possible. The dog is a huge cheat because many viewers are inherently pet-sensitive and they won't care how Tony treats humans as long as he does no harm to Brandy. It's a well of good faith equaled by the presence of Tony's little nephew, because as long as Tony can be compassionate to one child, that gives him a little bit of latitude when it comes to menacing one particular (overweight, ginger) schoolyard bully. He's simpatico with a widow (the wonderful Penelope Wilton) whose husband is buried next to Lisa, utterly respectful of a braising local sex worker (scene-stealing Roisin Conaty) and, in a show that's overwhelmingly white, Tony is never anything other than respectful to the paper's inclusive new hire, played by Mandeep Dhillon.
It is, in fact, an entire show about people telling Tony he's disrespectful and unpleasant and lacking in boundaries when he's actually, if you take a step back, not all that bad at all. He's surely in all ways more likable and coddled by the text than David Brent (The Office), Andy Millman (Extras) or, let's be frank, the version of Ricky Gervais that he's presented himself as on various podcasts and talk show appearances. That, when you think about it, makes it even ickier that Gervais is using a dead wife as an enabling conceit for the amelioration of this guy who, grieving for less than a year, is perfectly entitled to not be sunny and pleasant. This is part of why the finale, a non-stop and excruciating run of observations like "You can't change the world, but you can change yourself," rings so consistently hollow.
After Life finds its own pulse mostly when Gervais is doing riffs that wouldn't be at all out of place in his standup, podcast or other performative routines. There are absolutely hilarious takes on Kenneth Branagh's lack of distinguishing characteristics, discourteous waitresses and the classic inane conversation-starter about which five people, living or dead, you'd want to dine with. I'm not sure Tony says anything controversial on any of these topics, it's just Gervais with a dead wife so that you might sympathize with him.
And Gervais is, as ever, quite funny when laughter's all he's going for. He's great with Way reproducing a dynamic that's essentially his relationship with Karl Pilkington from previous projects. In more earnest scenes, he works well opposite Bradley, Wilton and particularly Jensen, who you can feel the show holding back because otherwise you'd just want After Life to become Extras. It's harder to feel much in the repetitive loops of Tony lamenting the squalor of his life, meandering around town criticizing people for mundane behavior or staring at the endless movies that his wife left him so that, in the afterlife, she could be remembered as a plot device and not a character of her own.
Really, everybody in After Life other than Tony is just a plot device, so Ghost Wife shouldn't feel too bad. World-building used to be something Gervais was great at. Here, he's put effort into populating a full community, but there's the almost Truman Show-esque sensation that nobody in Tambury even exists when Tony isn't around.
Still, I think I was worried, in the early going, that After Life was going to be pushing more and harder for tears and unearned emotion. It still does that too much, but it could have been worse. "Some laughs, a little drama and much less awfulness than I was fearing" is right there as a blurb.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Ashley Jensen, Tom Basden, David Bradly, Roisin Conaty, Kerry Godliman, Tony Way, Penelope Wilton, Tim Plester, Mandeep Dhillon
Creator-writer-director: Ricky Gervais
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)