No one does withering disdain quite like Ricky Gervais. Surveying his targets through narrowed eyes, the comedian unleashes eloquent abuse in a soft-spoken rush, like one long sigh of exasperation. Though this style of brilliant brutality is the centerpiece of After Life, the six-episode Netflix dramedy — created by and starring Gervais — is also unexpectedly moving, and a welcome throwback to the oddball sweetness of his most famous work, The Office.
After losing his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) to cancer, newspaper writer Tony (Gervais) exists in a haze of rage and despair. Shuffling around in a grief uniform of saggy T-shirts and sweatpants, Tony leads all interactions with a caustic, f—k-it rudeness and repeated threats of suicide. (The only reason he hasn’t offed himself yet, he says, is his dog. “If you could open a tin, I’d be dead by now,” he tells the pooch.) When he isn’t drinking or watching old videos of his laugh-filled life with Lisa, Tony torments his co-workers at The Tambury Gazette — including his endlessly patient boss (and Lisa’s brother) Matt (Tom Basden), and the newspaper’s schlubby photographer Lenny (Tony Way) — with relentless pessimism and insults. “Humanity’s a plague,” Tony says, introducing himself to the Gazette’s eager new reporter, Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon). “We’re a disgusting, narcissistic, selfish parasite, and the world would be a better place without us.”
There was a time, of course, when Tony was not such a miserable arsehole — and naturally, forces conspire to help him rediscover his will to live. Gervais has sketched a predictable arc for his character, but Tony’s transition over the course of After Life’s six episodes is nonetheless heartfelt and moving. He meets an older widow at the graveyard (Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton, exuding warmth and wit) who begins nudging his worldview from anger to acceptance with her clear-eyed wisdom. Far less gentle is Emma (Ashley Jensen, Gervais’ exceptionally funny Extras co-star), a nurse who cares for Tony’s aging father at the old folks’ home. She refuses to excuse Tony’s misanthropic behavior — “You’re like a troll on Twitter. Just because you’re all upset, everybody else has to feel upset” — which makes her the perfect screwball love interest.
And even though he continually derides the Gazette’s coverage — “It’s hard for me to throw myself into my work when my work is often talking to a plumber… who’s grown a potato that looks like Lionel Richie” — Tony can’t bring himself to crush Sandy’s enthusiasm about her job. Instead, he amuses her with a running commentary about his eccentric coworkers, and obsessing over the folds of skin on Lenny’s neck. (“Like a pug!” Tony marvels.) Gervais has always displayed a skeptical but loving curiosity about people, and he’s got a gift for creating characters who are capital-Q quirky, but also recognizably human. Some of After Life’s funniest moments involve Tony’s conversations with the townsfolk he profiles for the Gazette — like the woman who makes rice pudding out of her breast milk, or the couple who dresses their baby like Hitler for a laugh.
These lighter moments are essential, especially in the first few episodes as Tony turns to hard drugs to numb his pain. At times these scenes border on the self-indulgent — Tony slipping into unconsciousness as Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” throbs on the soundtrack — but After Life mostly keeps the wallowing in check. Our unhappy hero’s inevitable epiphany comes only after he does something truly reprehensible, and Gervais, who writes and directs every episode, delivers a conclusion that’s fully expected but completely satisfying. At a time when so many TV series wear their phony complexity with pride, After Life is a simple, wonderfully entertaining reminder of how easy it can be to choose kindness. Grade: A-