Here’s an elevator pitch for you: “A foul-mouthed, angry funny guy with the capacity for kindness loses his wife to cancer, much too young; He processes his grief and waits for a reason to live with the help of his family and friends, all of whom are at close to their wit’s end. Think Ricky Gervais, but so sad.” That’s “After Life.” Seems plausible. Maybe worth a look. Now imagine that they actually get Ricky Gervais. Interesting, right? Commentary on a public persona, a chance for a comedian to whet use his dramatic chops while still keeping one foot in comedy. That is also “After Life.” There’s promise to the idea. But “After Life” doesn’t simply star Ricky Gervais. It’s also written and directed by him, all six episodes. That’s three hours of Ricky Gervais but sad, starring Ricky Gervais, written by Ricky Gervais, directed by Ricky Gervais, and soundtracked by a dragon’s hoard of sad guitar songs.
It’s not that such a thing couldn’t work. “Me, but sad” isn’t unfamiliar territory for comedians either writing or performing on screen (or stage). But Gervais’ series treats grief like a retcon—it’s here to explain why Gervais, or rather Tony, is the way he is. Characters tell him, over and over again, that he’s a good, loving person who has turned into a dangerous, selfish asshole; his justification is that, since he’d sort of prefer to be dead, he can do whatever he wants and then just kill himself when it gets old. This, the series argues, is bad. Life, it argues, is good. It is good to be good, and bad to be bad, and you can be funny doing either. It’s not enough. Tony spends the series wondering if there’s any reason to live. But no one seems to have stopped to ask whether or not that’s reason enough for the show to exist at all.
Tony (Gervais) is in mourning. Having lost his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman)—seen both sick, in a reoccurring farewell video message, and healthy, in videos Tony captured just before pulling some sort of prank on her—to cancer, he’s struggling to complete even her most basic instructions for survival without her. Feed the dog, she says on the screen, and he opens up a can of beans, because he’s out of dog food. Later he will go to the store and purchase a single can of dog food. Keep the house clean, she says, and the dishes pile up, so that he drinks a can of curry for breakfast, having neither fork nor bowl at hand. (Later he will hire a sex worker, who he refuses to stop calling a prostitute despite repeated requests, to clean it for him; her name is Daphne (Roisin Conaty), and she has a heart of gold. Enjoy life, she says, and he does not. Find someone new, she says, and he cannot.
Instead, he approaches life as though he’s got a free pass to do and say anything he wants. In the “After Life” universe, Ricky Gervais says “fat cunt” ad nauseam and it’s because there’s no point in being nice, since life is garbage and everyone’s an asshole born simply to torment others and die, and not just because it sounds funny. He has Tony wander the streets of his small town, into the local paper where he works, into cafés with his sweet nephew and pubs with his well-meaning, deeply concerned brother-in-law, who is also his boss (Tom Basden). He drinks, and doses, and makes himself and others miserable. Will he stop being a complete asshole? Will there be consequences for any of this? Will people still care about him? The answers are yes, no, and it’s a television show, what do you think?
“If you’re a good person, doing things you want to do is the same as doing good.” That’s one of the big revelations of the series. It’s nice, though it’s not true. Gervais does his best to make it feel true, and at moments, it almost does—he certainly plays the satisfaction of doing a decent thing and enjoying it all at once with conviction—but it’s a hollow phrase slapped like a bumper sticker on an empty guitar case. The music soars, and a talented guy giving a great performance has to do battle once again with his other creative impulses. He’s stung by the hurt he inflicts on another, then walks back into the rom-com sunlight. He shares a moment of actual honesty with an actor like Wilton, and the Cat Stevens kicks in, full-blast. He extends a hand of friendship to a prostitute, and she asks him to please, for the love of god, call her a sex worker. He doesn’t. He’s a good person, we’re told, but that’s a shitty thing to do, so it would seem he must still be pretty sad.
When “After Life” comes closest to complexity with its relationships, it occurs when Tony is confronted by the struggle of someone else and that someone greets him with anything other than compassion. Basden, as brother-in-law Matt, is particularly well-served in this respect, as a person trying desperately to keep a loved one’s head above water long enough for them to decide not to drown, and who is paying the price left and right for his efforts. But outside that relationship and the odd glimpse of life elsewhere, Tony bounces from seated figure to seated figure, learning lessons and finding forgiveness he doesn’t often register. Two very fine actors, Penelope Wilton and David Bradley, are grievously underserved; the normally fascinating Paul Kaye also fares poorly as one of the worst mental health professionals in television history.
If any of this reads as flippant, it’s because “After Life” deserves some flippancy. That’s not to say that grief can’t bring out some really horrifying anger in people; it can and does. It can make us the worst versions of ourselves. Nor does such behavior mean that everyone in the life of such a person will abandon them. And Gervais, a much better actor here than a writer or director, does truly remarkable work in earning the audience’s empathy and making the love and patience he’s shown plausible. It’s a tender, spare performance, layered and thoughtful; that it’s ever funny at all is even more impressive, and it is. But Gervais the actor is failed by the writer and not shown to best advantage by the director. The performance isn’t enough, and its strengths underline the inadequacies found elsewhere.