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after life poster

He’s not really a murderer, he just wants you to be nice.

Main Cast: Ricky Gervais, Kerry Godliman

Creator: Ricky Gervais

I’m not sure I know what to expect from Ricky Gervais. His style is quite uniquely his own, a combination of casual vulgarity and disregard for conventions, but also a certain sensibility, a way of making us feel for his usually extremely unlikable characters. Could any one of us really stand to be in the same room with David Brent from the original The Office for more than five minutes? Absolutely not, but there’s a vulnerability in all his bluster, hiding under inappropriate behavior and bravado. In After Life, Gervais turns things upside down and gives us a character that is primarily heartbreaking, with the vulgarity and inappropriateness all stemming from his deep sadness. That’s a tough task for a comedy, yet somehow After Life succeeds.

Gervais plays Tony Johnson, a reporter at a small local newspaper in England. Tony is deeply grieving the death of his wife Lisa (beautifully played in flashback and videos by Kerry Godliman). It has been awhile but he feels it every day as a fresh wound, spending time watching her videos and contemplating suicide. Given his feelings about living he has absolutely no incentive to behave in any sort of societally acceptable fashion, so he doesn’t. Hence, vulgarity and inappropriate behavior.

The people in Tony’s life, including his late wife’s brother (who is also his boss) Matt (Tom Blasden), his coworkers Lenny (Tony Way), Kath (Diane Morgan), and Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon) try to be sympathetic, but Tony is just such an…asshole. He goes through the motions every day, never really present, lost in his own pain, doing and saying absolutely anything he chooses because nothing matters to him.

That sounds like an absolutely dreadful comedy. It should be an absolutely dreadful comedy. But it isn’t. It’s sad, yes, but Gervais also has masterful timing and even at his worst there’s still a little twinkle of mischief in Tony’s eye. His daily interactions with the postman, a sex worker, or one of the many locals who desperately want to be in the paper are all touched with the irreverence we expect from Gervais, but without any of the real meanness that he sometimes brings to bear. This character’s baseline level of sadness blunts those sarcastic comments, the insults fall primarily on the unimpressed ears of his coworkers (who are a strange, wonderful group), and  when he does go too far there are people willing to call him out despite his grief. It’s a very delicate balance and somehow the Gervais as writer and director and the ensemble cast make it work. It’s funny and touching and heartbreaking.

It’s hard to decide who should get second billing behind Gervais. The supporting cast is an impressive group, each bringing out a different side of Tony. My favorites are Dame Penelope Wilton as Anne, a widow he meets at the cemetery, and Roxy (Roisin Conaty), a local sex worker who becomes an unlikely friend. Also deserving of a special nod is Joe Wilkinson as Postman Pat.  Gervais did an excellent job of surrounding himself with characters and performers who could bring out as many facets of Tony as possible in six 30 minute episodes.

After Life is a show for people who like the comedy of Ricky Gervais. It’s not going to change any minds. But it may well bring those who feel like they’ve seen all he’s got back to the table. This is something that feels quite different from his other characters, more deeply realized and less purely glib. I enjoyed the show immensely; though recognize that it won’t be for everyone. If you don’t like Gervais, don’t bother. If gallows humor is not your thing, you also may want to choose something else. But if you’re even a lukewarm fan, give it a shot; you may be as surprised as I was at how affecting After Life manages to be within its comedy framework. Also, you should have a tissue handy.

After Life Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix. There is a second season in the works.