Ricky Gervais’s After Life is a tart and tender little wonder. The series opens with a hospital bedside testimonial by Tony Johnson’s (Ricky Gervais) late wife, the love of his life. The video, which instructs Tony on how to live without her and wafts nostalgic over their affectionate and prank-filled life together, becomes a recurring posthumous source in the six-part series. “Keep being funny,” she advises in her end-of-life state. “You make everyone laugh. Then, the next morning, you have a spiritual hangover, wondering if you’ve offended anybody.” Sounds like the story of Gervais’s Golden Globes–hosting infamy.
However, Tony is doing horribly in life after life with her. As our would-be suicidal protagonist tells his boss — in that measured, sneering, take-it-or-leave-it Gervais-ian patter — at the free paper, the Tambury Gazette, “A good day is when I don’t want to shoot random strangers in the face, and then turn the gun on me.” As for his job, supplied by his brother-in-law editor, Tony describes it as making “the fucking banal mildly interesting.” He’s that kind of guy. He is, inimitably, Ricky Gervais.
Aside from the innate pleasures, nasty fun, endearing gusts of life-affirmation (they do occur), and clever writing throughout, one of the prime motivations for checking out After Life is the rare glimpse at the human side of Gervais. Gervais, the tough-tongue boss in the original British version of The Office, and the toothy comic who brought in the cold breeze to his hosting gigs at the Golden Globes, has honed his brand as the king of constant causticity. And yet, as seen on Netflix, a human heart beats within, and there is even a penchant for sentimentality — however slight and reluctant in arrival.
For the most part, he remains the seemingly cynical salty dog, a caricature of the cold, biting Brit archetype. But we notice a warming trend come and go through the episodes, whether in sympathetic moments while visiting his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (and falling for the nurse there, played by Ashley Jensen), or in a series of conversations in the cemetery with a wise older woman (the excellent Dame Penelope Wilton) who has lost her spouse.
Gervais’s vitality as creator, star, and director makes After Life one of the finer things on TV at the moment, albeit of the dark sort. He has created a comforting, small world of motley characters that include a worldly, wise sex worker; a junkie (and supplier to our protagonist); and his beloved dog, Anti — who tends to steal the screen and gives Tony a reason to continue living. And then there is the built-in comic vignette structure of the strange, trivial subjects for the tabloid’s sensational pages, including a teen who plays two recorders with his nose, a baby who resembles Hitler (when the parents paint on a moustache), a woman making custard with her breast milk, and a publicity-famished hoarder.
As a harmless and not surprising semi-spoiler alert, the black-comedy atmosphere of the series — with melancholy humming beneath the mayhem — takes a turn toward the heartening in its final episode. Gervais turns almost sentimental, making amends with former targets of his bile and at least suggesting sincerity when he tells the office, “Once you realize you’re not going to be around, that’s what makes life so magical.”
At a time when the afterlife theme has been creeping into our living rooms, via such fare as Forever and The Good Place, After Life carves out a comic life of its own, thanks to the Gervais touch.
After Life can be seen on Netflix.