After Life review: Ricky Gervais is in his usual form, but this Netflix show is surprisingly likeable

Prathap Nair

Mar 14, 2019 18:18:33 IST

It’s not hard to imagine Ricky Gervais as a foulmouthed, crabby middle-aged man who is unrestrained and nasty on screen at his will. In his new Netflix show After Life where he plays a grieving widower, he expands that repertoire of putdowns, ranging from a school kid to his neighborhood postman to his co-workers to assorted strangers. But the difference between Gervais’s other works and After Life is the fact that his character Tony’s sharp-tongued malice is somehow validated and hence admissible since it’s tied to his process of grieving the loss of his much-loved wife.

Dreadfully ironic and patently unsentimental, Tony, who lost his wife to breast cancer recently, walks around insulting every single human being he encounters. He tells his newly joined features writer team member: “Humanity is a plague. We’re are a disgusting, narcissistic, selfish parasite and the world would be a better place without us. It should be everyone’s moral duty to kill themselves.” His renewed hatred for his job prompts him to say: “…and that newspaper is used to line cat litter trays, by old ladies, once a week.”

After Life review: Ricky Gervais is in his usual form, but this Netflix show is surprisingly likeable

Ricky Gervais in After Life.

He is also suicidal but holds back on that thought owing to his dog, who he once shared with his wife. The show unspools in scenes depicting Tony’s loneliness and his inability in coping up with his wife’s death. Spun together are tiny vignettes of Tony’s life from his happy marriage revealed through emotional videos made by his now-deceased wife, played to heartwarming simplicity in the face of death by Kerry Godliman, (Hannah from Derek).

While you enjoy Tony’s misdirected callousness towards people around him, it gradually sinks in that not one person retaliates to these unbridled Tony-isms that is often hurtful. Except perhaps for his disastrous date with another widower who mocks him for being a coward for not being able to kill himself. Why is he sarcastic all the time, she proceeds to ask him, for which he replies: “Because it stops me from killing people, including myself,” he retorts. Could this impatience and exasperation towards fellow humans have been a result of his grieving? Gervais’s Tony wants you to believe so.

The show derives much of its humor from its setting — the office of a local newspaper where Tony heads the one-man Features Department. He gets to go on assignment where he profiles: a man who gets sent a birthday card five times, a hoarder who stopped clearing things after his wife died and can’t get to the dead mice in the mousetrap because of all the junk obstructing it, an unemployed man who lives with his mother and masters playing flute with his nostrils, and a woman who uses her excess breast milk to bake. As is evident, the show’s humor is often bawdy (elsewhere, Tony calls a child a four-letter insult and refuses to engage with a girl who corrects him that she is a sex-worker, not a prostitute.)

Perhaps Tony’s lessons come in the very first episode when he meets an old man who gets sent the same birthday card five times. The old man misses his recently died wife dearly, which prompts him to say: “Nothing’s good if you don’t share it. [I] Still have my downs, but then life throws you these interesting little things, doesn’t it? You can’t feel sorry for yourself. Got to keep going.” Take that Tony.

After Life is a show about grief, perhaps on how not to grieve and lose touch with humanity.

Ideally, Tony’s constant disparagement should grate on the viewer, but it doesn’t, because one gives these concessions to a grieving man. Simultaneously, as one laughs at his putdowns and chokes on his deadpan witticisms, Tony pulls the rug under from your feet by abetting suicide of his coworker and prompting the viewer to question: Just how many concessions can you make for someone who is so pathologically unhinged? The show is only six episodes long, so it turns out not too many.

Tony’s redemption comes in the form of the female friendships he makes – his co-worker Sandy, played by the quietly confident Mandeep Dhillon; a widow he meets while visiting his wife’s grave, played by the delightfully exuberant Penelope Wilton; his dad’s no-nonsense elderly care nurse Emma, played by Ashley Jensen and the sex-worker he makes friends with, played by the endearing Roisin Conaty. Needless to mention, the women in the series have been kindly treated.

It’s hard to foresee what will transpire in the subsequent seasons of this show - if there are any more seasons at all – because the success of After Life hinges solely on the sorrow of its desolate protagonist and capitalises on his grief. No less vulgar as it is to state, in the absence of that grief-tinged bitterness, the show will lose its bite.

Updated Date: Mar 14, 2019 18:18:33 IST