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With 'After Life,' Ricky Gervais Brings Bitterness Again but Includes Some Possible Sweetness This Time
March 8, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Ricky Gervais has had a remarkably consistent modus operandi throughout his successful comedic career.

Whether he’s starring in a sitcom or hosting an awards show, he says things that he knows are obnoxious, then figuratively looks you in the eye and says, “You have to admit it was funny. It was also probably true. Get over it.”

He doubles down on that character in After Life, a six-episode British series that becomes available Friday on Netflix.

Gervais plays Tony, the features writer of a small-town newspaper. That alone would be the punchline in most sitcoms, but it’s mostly setup here.

The real plot is that his wife died and left him with a dog and a malaise that’s partly bitterness and partly a total lack of direction, incentive, motivation or interest.

Okay, not your conventional comedy setup. But classic Gervais.

Gervais’ characters being what they are, Tony opts for bitterness. Since he has convinced himself he doesn’t care about anything, whether it’s other people’s opinions of him or waking up tomorrow morning, he begins saying what he thinks.

As various comedies and dramas have noted in the past, that’s a nuclear option. Even if you’re a nice person, being completely honest compels you to say some rather unpleasant things and Tony at this point is not behaving like a nice person at all.

When his milquetoast boss Matt (Tom Basden) asks him to please do his job and be pleasant to the eager newly-hired writer Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon), Tony declines. He then explains he can do that because Matt is too much of a nice guy to fire him, which just shows you that being a nice guy gets you nowhere, so you might as well not bother.

It’s an amusing monologue, clever in a perverse way, and because pretty much all the other actors in After Life are skilled in comedy, Gervais is surrounded by talented straight men. And women.

That includes his late wife, who during the last days of her battle with cancer made a video designed to coach Tony through what she knew would be a tough struggle to cope with the basics of life.

She got that right, and while he watches the video nightly, he’s too depressed to act on most of its instructions. He doesn’t remember to shop for food, so he has no milk for cereal, and he ends up pouring the cereal into a glass of water. When he finds a can of Indian food for dinner, he opens the can and chugs it.

Tony doesn’t provide the only gags in After Life. The dullness of a small town figures prominently into his depressed story, as do his slow-moving fellow staffers at the newspaper.

In their defense, they don’t have a lot to cover in that small town. The first story on which we see Matt send Tony is to interview an elderly man who received the same Christmas card from five different people.

Stop the presses.

That interview, however, gives us a glimpse of the subtler theme in After Life, which is what it all means. Is Tony correct that, in the end, it means nothing? Or do all the little things that occupy the people around him, the things that he finds barely worthy of dismissive scorn, actually add up to an adventure worth enjoying?

Clue: The man with the five Christmas cards says he appreciates being interviewed because ever since his wife died, he has missed having someone with whom to share all those little pleasures.

So you get some idea where After Life could be going. The question is whether you want Ricky Gervais’ misanthropic Tony as your tour guide.

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David J. Clarke
I really don’t want him as the tour guide, at least not without Stephan Merchant. With each new work he seems to be creating prop characters that stand for a point of view or step to work out a platitude. All well and good to say life can still be worth living, or not, but I haven’t had a laugh, (even dark ones), since the ‘Extras Christmas Special.’ Gervais is brilliantly talented but the ‘comedy’ seems more like mini philosophical dialogues ever since he stopped working with Merchant. ‘Hello Ladies’ was underrated and didn’t get proper atttention because Merchant doesn’t have the incessant promotion motion machine of Gervais. I don’t believe anyone is a waste of space but much of what Gervais creates these days does feel banal and facile.
Mar 10, 2019   |  Reply
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