TV review: After Life from Ricky Gervais is an emotional rollercoaster and I love it
- Credit: (C) Netflix
Crippled by depression and driven to think of suicide after the death of his beloved wife, the set-up for Ricky Gervais' new comedy doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs - but this redemption dramedy is the best Gervais has given us for years.
Ricky Gervais manages to evoke just about every emotion possible through the course of the six episodes of his special new series, After Life – now streaming on Netflix.
After Life tells the story of Tony – played by Gervais – a grieving widower utterly disillusioned with life, the world and everybody in it.
He's on the brink of suicide, has lost everything that matters and it feels as if life isn't worth living - the only thing keeping him on this earth is his dog, owing to her being unable to feed herself and Tony not wanting to leave her behind. So, instead, Tony directs his pain on the world – setting out to do what he wants and say whatever he likes as a means of gaining some sort of revenge on a world out to get him.
It does all sound a rather heavy set-up for something billed as a 'dark comedy', but After Life has at least one foot firmly planted in drama territory and the addition of comedy makes the blend startingly effective.
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In the opening moments of the first episode, Tony slurps vegetable curry straight from a tin as a makeshift breakfast. He hasn't been shopping and there are masses of dirty plates, pots, pans, mugs, cups, glasses and more piled up in his kitchen. The cupboards are bare. He feeds his dog baked beans.
It sets the tone for one of Gervais' most convincing creations brought to life by one of his best ever performances.
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He is gut wrenchingly believable as a man struggling with his grief and stuck at his lowest ebb: there is nothing 'larger than life' about Tony, he is just finished with the world and everybody in it - as far as he's concerned, his life is over.
Gervais brings his character to life in such a raw, real way that even when the laughs come – yes, rest assured, there are plenty – they hurt as when Tony unleashes his vicious snark on the world, you can feel the pain from the place where it's coming from.
The life he once had is shown through home videos Tony made of him pranking wife, Lisa (played by Derek co-star, Kerry Goldiman) and as with everything else in this show, the relationship is wonderfully authentic and 'real'.
Tony also watches videos left for him by Lisa as she sat in her hospital bed, spelling out just what she wanted his future without her to look like. Both are incredibly effective devices and well utilised as the series progresses.
Outside of his post mortem video sessions with Lisa and caring for his dog, Tony truly is unrepentant in his rudeness but his job – a job he did well once upon a time – as a local journalist for the Tambury Gazette forms the basis for the journey he goes on.
Each episode offers up a new person for Tony to greet, someone who wants their name in the paper for having a baby that looks like Adolf Hitler or damp on their wall which looks like Kenneth Brannagh. Each encounter offers up a lesson and each, more often than not, brings a real moment of poignancy.
But while Gervais has done much of the heavy lifting here – he is the show's creator, writer, director and executive producer – he's not done it all on his own, there's a great supporting cast backing him all the way.
The brilliant David Bradley (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones) is Tony's father, confined to a nursing home, convinced that Lisa is still alive and with no filter of his own. Elsewhere there's Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey, Doctor Who) as voice of reason, Anne, who Tony regularly talks to at the graveyard and who never strays from being anything less than lovely.
Other supporting characters can be a little more 'oddball', such as Joe Wilkinson's postman who is hellbent on handing Tony his mail rather than sliding it through the letterbox and Diane Morgan (Philomena Cunk) as Kath, one of Tony's co-workers who loves a bit of Kevin Hart and pitching different ideas for features. But still, they feel brilliantly real – testament to both the performance and the writing here. This idea is only intensified with characters such as Matt (Tom Basden) – Tony's boss and brother-in-law – who is desperate to try and pull him out of his hole.
It may not be the Ricky Gervais show that you were expecting but it is a very real, deeply authentic exploration of grief. It's just about as likely to make you cry as it is to make you laugh. But, anchored by humanity and oozing in heart, this will be the Ricky Gervais show that you're glad you've watched.