In Netflix's After Life, Ricky Gervais grieves, and we're uplifted
Commentary: I came for Ricky Gervais. I stayed for the moving and relatable moments of human connection.
Leslie KatzFormer Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
the other night in search of a lighthearted diversion, I stumbled across After Life, Ricky Gervais' new dark comedy. I was having one of those moments that take hold without warning since Dad died five months ago. A lick of country music or the sight of a dahlia, his favorite flower, will remind me how much I miss him, and suddenly I can barely move or form a sentence.
Sometimes in instances like these, I just need a silly escape. A series by the creator of comic masterpieces The Office and Extras could work, I thought. But a show about a guy grieving the loss of his wife? That might hew a little too close to the bone right now.
I'm glad I watched it anyway. It's hard to find sympathy for Tony, Gervais' hardened protagonist, who spends most of After Life being offensive and obnoxious. And the dialogue can be too on the nose and pithy. ("We're not just here for us. We're here for others. All we've got is each other," another character tells Tony.) But having suffered a major loss myself, After Life touched me in ways it might not have otherwise.
Season 1 of the show -- a six-episode series that's part Gervais stand-up routine and part crushing dreariness -- is about profound loss. But at its heart, it's about the moments of human connection that save us in our darkest moments. It's a reminder that we're all rolling around in this crazy monkey barrel together, and that even the smallest gesture of kindness, compassion and empathy can change the course of another person's day, and maybe even their life.
Gervais, who created, produced and directed the show, plays a middle-aged small-town newspaper journalist who's flattened by depression after losing his beloved wife, Lisa, to cancer.
As I was reminded observing my family in the wake of Dad's passing, everyone grieves differently, but Tony's turned angry and rude -- to strangers, co-workers, even his elderly dad, who's suffering from dementia. Tony's open about the fact that without Lisa, he just wants to die, and he reasons that since he wants to check out anyway, he might as well just toss any sense of decorum into the sink with his growing pile of dirty dishes and punish the world for his loss.
"If I become an asshole, and I do and say what the fuck I want, for as long as I want, and then when it all gets too much, I can always kill myself, it's like a superpower," he tells his boss at The Tambury Gazette, where Tony's recent stories include one about a kid who can play two recorders at a time (one in each nostril), and another about a guy whose leaky pipe stained his wallpaper in the shape of Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Tony doesn't just carry his misery around. He flings it at anyone who intersects with him in his nondescript British town, where the sun always shines in defiance of Tony's dark rampage.
Some of his cantankerous exchanges are hilarious, recalling the kind of prickly annoyance that characterizes Gervais' best comedy routines. Others are just mean-spirited and cringeworthy (and not in a David Brent sort of way), making it hard to relate to Tony and his relentless self-pity. He's far from the only one in this world suffering after all.
Fortunately, flashbacks of his relationship with Lisa (the lovely Kerry Godliman) show he hasn't always been insufferable. The pair had a long, happy marriage characterized by cozy evenings on the couch with the dog and lots of pranks -- he especially liked sneaking up on his good-natured wife at unsuspecting moments. Video messages she's left him to watch after she's gone -- lovingly reminding him to set the alarm in the mornings and always remember to laugh -- also paint a picture of a good-hearted guy.
The people who slowly help Tony climb out of his dark hole of despair are also able to see his basic decency. The nurse at the assisted living facility where his dad stays (Ashley Jensen, his adorable, air-headed sidekick in Extras who predictably becomes his love interest here); Anne, the wise, comforting older widow he meets at the cemetery (a standout turn by the always wonderful Penelope Wilton of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who); Roxy, the hooker with a heart of gold (is there any other kind?) he hires to give him some much needed, well, house cleaning … all find him charming, funny, deeply wounded and worth their time.
There are moments I did too. My favorite scene in the series happens when Tony and his hapless newspaper-photographer cohort go to interview an older man who got five of the exact same birthday cards. (What are the odds?) Tony looks like he's about to faint from boredom listening to the story -- until the man mentions he recently lost his wife, the "light of my life." A subtle but powerful softening crosses Tony's face, and it's a wonderful reveal of the vulnerability behind his gruff exterior. Both men are broken, but this one faces his loss with cheery determination.
Gervais may be a Twitter curmudgeon these days and he's had a run of mediocre movies. But in The Office and Extras he showed himself to be a keen observer of human nature, especially when it comes to insecurity and unbridaled ego. After Life turns its eye toward the healing power of kindness. For anyone who's experienced grief, parts of the show might feel like a friend reaching out a hand across the confusing chasm of loss.
After Life started streaming globally March 8. There's no word yet on whether we can expect a second season.