Ricky Gervais has been the on-and-off global franchise player of British comedy for a number of years. After The Office came Extras, then his own show, then An Idiot Abroad, then Derek, and now After Life. All throughout, he released comedy specials that grossed higher than almost any others, hosted the Golden Globes a number of times, wrote the Flanimals books series, and appeared in a number of films, including the Night at the Museum franchise. Whilst on the island of his birth some comics have been more active and present in recent years, Gervais’ star has remained brighter the world over, to the extent that there are very few British comedians known by as many. Carr, Izzard and Connolly are perhaps his only rivals.
Longevity in comedy is best achieved by innovation, although this, for many, is notoriously difficult to achieve. Fortunately for Gervais, his latest is different from anything before, and brilliant in his own right. After Life sees him star as Tony, a depressed and bitterly cynical-yet-lovable man who has recently lost his wife, Lisa, to cancer. The six episodes of the series are all interspersed by home footage of him and her happy together, and by video footage she recorded in hospital, giving Tony both playful and serious advice.
Lisa is charmingly portrayed by Kerry Godliman – making the viewer ache for Tony all the more. Tony works as a local journalist for the fictional Tambury Gazette – which seems to exclusively cover the comically mundane. Also on the paper are the talented Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon) and the editor Matt (the brother of the late Lisa, played by Tom Basden). The activities of the newspaper and its various staff members serve as relief to the main concern of the show.
The series pits Tony against his unwavering and brutal grief and we learn that it has almost won a number of times – indeed one scene begins with Tony in a bath with a razor blade. In exploring this theme, Gervais combines his usual quick, sarcastic wit with new flavours – serious discussions about mental health, grief, and the place of family. Each episode in the series sees Tony visit his ailing father, suffering from dementia or something similar. His haunting father is well played by David Bradley – who you will recognise for his portrayal of Argus Filch from the Harry Potter franchise. The blend of serious with humour, of dark and light, gives the viewer a fairly rare experience.
The show is represented well in the conversations Tony has with Anne (an elderly widow fantastically played by Dame Penelope Wilton) as they sit on a graveyard bench in front of their respective partners’ gravestones. The writing goes from sweet to poignant in seconds, yet Anne manages to reach out to her deeply troubled and sarcastic conversation partner.
As the episodes go on, Tony sees his new attitude towards life put to the test. He begins the series under the impression that because he cares about nothing, he may do whatever he likes, regardless of the effects upon others. What follows is an expletive-laden demonstration of repulsive behaviour, with Gervais occasionally allowing the mask to slip. This is the only real weakness of the show – although fans of Gervais won’t mind too much.
The show has received criticism for being too crude and too narcissistic. It seems that fans of Gervais probably are so for a reason, and will subsequently enjoy it. Go into it skeptical of him, and you will likely find it intolerable. Any neutral observers will find that the man many love to hate has created something quite special, with the help of a talented cast around him.