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‘After Life’ Review: Ricky Gervais Checks Himself in Fitfully Sweet New Netflix Series

The often brash comedian delivers an introspective limited series about a suicidal widower who has to relearn why life's worth living.

"After Life" Netflix Ricky Gervais Kerry Godliman

Ricky Gervais and Kerry Godliman in “After Life”

Rich Hardcastle / Netflix

Ricky Gervais often sells himself as the comedian who will say anything, consequences be damned, and yet those consequences appear to be limited to fame, fortune, and creative liberty. He’s got 13.1 million Twitter followers, a massive Netflix deal, and he’s hosted the Golden Globes four times. So when Gervais announced his next project would be a show about a suicidal man who “decides to live long enough to punish the world by saying and doing whatever the fuck he likes,” it’s easy to imagine a series dedicated to defending Gervais’ more controversial choices. “After Life” does come across as Gervais’ most autobiographical work to date, but the writer, director, and star actually tells a sweet, earnest story about learning when and why to shut the hell up.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Gervais’ TV projects. More successful than his film work — all of his credited TV shows are well-reviewed, while most of his movies are mixed to negative — the “Office” and “Derek” creator skews softer and more sentimental when given time to explore his characters. (“Ghost Town,” his best feature, also abides by this maxim.) It’s as though the further he gets from making provocative quips on stage, the more time he has to appreciate the good people around him and unearth their best qualities on camera.

“After Life” is a study in appreciating the banality of life — that’s not to say it’s dull, though even at just six episodes, the limited series could be shorter. Gervais plays Tony, a widower who mourns his lost life every second of every day. His wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman), died of cancer, and now all the sparkle filling his days has vanished, replaced by frustrations, irritations, and hopelessness. Tony nearly loses his mind when a man eats his chips too loudly in a pub. He walks by a grade school, calls one kid a “tubby little ginger cunt,” and moves on, unfazed. When he’s mugged by two older kids, Tony doesn’t hesitate to punch one in the mouth — if they stab him, who cares? He’s got nothing left to live for.

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“After Life”

Natalie Seery

When pressed by his brother-in-law and boss over his rude behavior, Tony lays out his thesis: “There’s no advantage to being nice, and thoughtful, and having integrity,” he says. “It’s a disadvantage, if anything.” Tony was going to kill himself, but stopped when he saw the dog he shared with his wife right before slitting his wrists. When he felt no relief over being alive, he committed to living without worry. “If I become an asshole and do and say as much as I want, I can always kill myself,” Tony explains. “It’s like a superpower.”

As in life, there are a lot of easy targets for Tony’s carefree, tell-it-like-it-is attitude. His mailman reads his mail? Boom, Tony sends a card to himself with a secret message to the carrier. On a bad date? Boom, Tony tells her what’s what tout suite. And his office — hoo boy, his office is littered with fools in need of edifying. Tony works at a local newspaper that only does puff pieces — like, a baby that looks like Hitler (the parents paint a mustache on him), or an elderly man who gets the same birthday card from five different people. Not only does that let Tony/Gervais wax poetic about the despondent state of journalism, but he’s constantly mocking his pudgy deskmate — by pinching his neck fat — or shaming his shallow co-worker over her trivial interests.

The minor ambitions of Tony’s newspaper provide an ideal Rorschach test for morality. At the start of the show, he’s deeply annoyed by the stories he’s assigned — to the point that he just doesn’t bother doing them. But where he sees vain idiocy, others see innocent entertainment. The beauty (or repellent) is in the eye of the beholder. When Tony gets upset that one subject chose to call the paper over a water stain that looks like Kenneth Branagh instead of his wife being attacked by a motorcycle gang, he walks out ranting. Clearly, the man cares more about getting his picture in the paper than protecting his family. But by the end of the limited series, Tony is coaxed toward seeing the other side, and much of the credit goes to friends and family who care about him, even though he provides little reason.

"After Life" Netflix Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais in “After Life”

“After Life” can contradict itself when Tony’s perturbed observations feel more important than the story around him. Gervais sets up situations just to voice his annoyances, which would be fine if his remarks were funnier or fresher; they’re often redundant. (There are so many fat jokes.) The balance is off, badly, at times; the whiplash between insult grenades and warmhearted gestures can throw you out of the show entirely. But as Tony’s growth becomes evident, the weight of his risky decisions bear down on the viewer. One choice, in particular, is the kind of line-crossing necessary to get through to someone as stubborn, lost, and pained as Tony, but boy will it divide audiences’ allegiances.

The series’ intentions boil down to personal accountability and humanity’s responsibility to itself. Midway, Tony is told the meaning of life (though not in so many words): “All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die, and then we’re done. No point in feeling sorry for yourself and making everyone else unhappy, too.” In the past, Gervais has acknowledged as much, but only toward animals and the disadvantaged. His most tender work can be found in “Derek,” where a mentally disabled man proves kinder and more selfless than any able-minded person around him, and when Gervais himself plays with his pets on Facebook. In those moments, he separates what he loves purely and the rest of humankind, in line with his stand-up routines that take anyone and everyone to task.

Here, that line isn’t exactly erased, but it’s widened to include a small group of actual people. That’s a big step for Gervais, and while “After Life” turn navel-gazey — with one man working out his own issues — it still makes for a thoughtful, compelling dark comedy to boot.

Grade: B-

“After Life” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.

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