Sam Hamilton reviews Ricky Gervais’ heartfelt six-part character study.
How far can you push a punchline? What are the boundaries of the taboo? And when has a joke gone too far? These three questions seem to form a constant thread of reaction reeling from Ricky Gervais’ every move, and with some good reason. The 57-year-old comedian has made his career dancing glibly through standup routines addressing Nazism, sexism, racism, and bigotry, wilfully incurring the wrath of many and the shock of many more. From his approach to his sentiment to his choice of subject matter, it may be easy to form an image of the man as an insensitive misanthrope. But After Life, a six-part character study on Netflix, written and directed by Gervais, provides evidence to the contrary.
We meet Tony (Gervais) grieving for his late wife, overwhelmed by impulsive anger, shouty-sweary irreverence, and a fondness for suicide-related sarcasm. Such a premise sounds like a comedy club scene gone majorly wrong – and at first, that is the way it feels. Jokes don’t land, silences lack impact, and Tony’s morbid quips take a while to leap from dark humour to the kind of guilt-trip comedy to which the comedian has always aspired. All three of these problems are made more intense by the unforgiving gravity of the subject matter, possibly leading to an audience’s premature conclusion on what this show is striving towards: cheap, disrespectful laughs. There is little space at first to allow any meaningful character development beyond exposing a deep-seated bitterness in the central character. And such an initial impression of shallowness extends to the supporting cast of Tony’s workplace at the Tambury Gazette; his brother-in-law and his institutionalised father both come across as little more than strategically placed punchbags. When Gervais’ pen then leans into the subjects of emotional abuse, drug abuse, and prostitution, one might wonder whether there can be any redeeming quality to this narrative.
In fact, surprisingly, there is. By episode four, Tony’s bravado is exposed as superficial by a crippling desire to relieve himself of his grief. His painful musings on death become recognised as shallow, feigned attempts to hide a searing loneliness. This is in part achieved by his reaction to Kerry Godliman’s quietly devastating performance as Tony’s wife, Lisa, revealed part by part in webcam recordings. Godliman’s presence is played to pitch-perfect standards even in its ephemerality, and her role in the unfolding story never feels expository or contrived. Gervais uses all this to build Tony’s angst that his wretched depression will never go away. This is not to mention the presence Tony and Lisa’s dog, who in the most desperate times remains Tony’s only tether to sanity (which may be awfully relatable to many pet-owners), as well as long, quiet, contemplative sequences where Tony wanders the streets of Tambury and the countryside surrounding it. These moments, recurring once or twice per episode, may seem docile at first but by the finale evoke a churning emptiness that resonates with the soul of this character. Witnessing moments like these is quite profound to the attentive viewer.
Moments like these come about not only through writing but also through craft. Martin Hawkins’ often washed-out, teal-heavy cinematography beautifully captures the rural simplicity of Tambury and its surroundings. The village’s solace, and the soundtrack’s mellifluous chimes, emphasise that Tony stands out like a sore thumb; he, or rather the person his grief has created, is the problem. It goes without saying that this is the biggest stylistic departure for Gervais to date, taking on a uniformly more cinematic approach in pacing and presentation.
But it is through the subtext that After Life’s heart is revealed. Beneath the droll musings is a story of prevailing optimism and the will to come to grips with life beyond death. We witness alongside Tony that the futile pursuit of happiness is tragically common amongst the people of Tambury, and he discovers through this a rekindled interest in joining in the fight. This transformation is best demonstrated by the way in which static characters, mostly used to comedic effect, eventually begin to tug on Tony’s conscience, often inadvertently but to a significant end. His father’s dementia provides an example of Tony’s fortune in being sentient. Lisa’s willingness to accept her lot is a paragon of grace against Tony’s wretched demeanour. Revelations as to the personal struggles of colleagues Matt (Tom Basden), Lenny (Tony Way), and Kath (Diane Morgan), coupled with the calming acceptance of fate by widow Anne (Dame Penelope Wilton), bring to light the value of equanimity in the face of despair and what Tony might become without it. Initially a motley crew, this ensemble gradually comes together to exemplify the bittersweet relief that Tony might find in spiritual freedom and self-satisfaction. And, as is the case with any good drama, Tony is replaceable in all these circumstances by any of us (albeit with a predisposition towards minor crime). I found the jokes to improve substantially as the show progressed, such that the best laughs were spread amongst the most dramatic moments.
Ricky Gervais is a mercurial entertainer. Tackling subjects like morbid depression could be as painful to some as it is worthwhile to others. But it appears to me that as the final credits roll, Gervais has created a character in Tony whose arc from determined delinquent to benevolent being is relatable, endearing, and tonally far more than the sum of its parts. After Life addresses the quandary of reconciling one’s own hardships with the hardships of others; of realising that each man, woman and child can be faced with their own distinctly unique and desperately difficult set of circumstances; and the idea that they are worth no less for it.
This is a quiet, careful character study, determined to use both drama and comedy to press its messages. After Life has no hero. It has no villain. It has no perceivable guide to depression of any substantive sort. But it does contain a surprise. A show which might, at first, be perceived as a comedian waltzing round a rural English town, pretending to harbour regret, grief, and depression at the expense of some mildly funny punch lines, can manifest of itself an insightful dwelling on the value of being alive.
After Life is available to stream on Netflix. Check out the trailer below: