In After Life, series creator and writer Ricky Gervais stars as Tony, a grief-stricken widower who freely indulges his capacity for brutal bluntness, and in the most self-serving of ways. Tony’s evolution into an asshole isn’t just an involuntary symptom of his emotional pain. For him, it’s also a goal worth pursuing—a way to punish the world for his misfortune. The Netflix show’s linking of cruelty and emotional healing is dubious at best, and ultimately just an excuse for Gervais to spit his acerbic wit at easy targets.
Gervais’s sharply honed comedic timing and delivery are undeniable, even when he’s working with such tiresome or obvious material as this. Throughout After Life, Tony rants about people chewing too loudly or dragging their feet when they walk, and while these aren’t novel grievances, Gervais’s exasperation can be contagious. The comedian is most effective in scenes when Tony, a features writer at a free weekly paper, is tasked with whipping up stories about local curiosities. When reporting on a baby who looks like Hitler, or a stain that vaguely resembles Kenneth Branagh, the man’s cynicism echoes our own wariness of the motivations of fame seekers and would-be viral sensations.
Still, the cumulative effect of these interactions and the countless others in which Tony berates or belittles the people in his life is ultimately numbing. Curb Your Enthusiasm, another series about a misanthrope nitpicking others for their idiosyncrasies, is After Life’s obvious reference point. The comedic target in that enduring series, however, is Larry David and all of his neuroses. In After Life, even as Tony’s behavior turns self-destructive, we get the sense that Gervais admires, above all, the ease with which Tony disarms and dominates his conversational partners; the character even refers to it as a superpower.
As a director, Gervais’s workmanlike and unremarkable sensibility contrasts with his bombastic sense of humor. Each episode features many of the same settings, and when Tony visits his therapist (Paul Kaye), his father (David Bradley), or his office, the camera is always reliably placed in the same position. Because there are very few scenes that take place in other locales, After Life feels stagey, as if the English hamlet Tony occupies is actually one large set.
The show’s sense of artifice extends to the characters who surround Tony, appearing to exist only as they relate to him. This occasionally makes for an unexpectedly moving portrait of friendship, such as the one between Tony and Lenny (Tony Way), a punching-bag buddy who, we learn, tolerates Tony because he senses his pain. Other times, Tony’s relationships can be confounding: When a new co-worker (Mandeep Dhillon) tells Tony, teary-eyed, that his sadness is breaking her heart, the moment is genuinely shocking, if only because it’s just the second truly substantive conversation we see these two characters share.
At one point in the series, when Tony does grasp the harm he causes others, and ultimately decides to use his superpower “for good,” Gervais tries and fails to derive didactic moralism from After Life’s premise—perhaps because it’s never clear which Tony best represents Gervais’s voice. Is it the reformed jerk, wistfully apologizing to his friends, or the brash bully, who considers it an act of temerity to curse at a 10-year-old?
A speech in a late episode finds Tony extolling the value of life and love to his co-workers, in stilted words that veer toward Hallmark sentimentality. Perhaps his words ring hollow because Tony seems to have rushed to the conclusion that arbitrary meanness is wrong. It might also be that Gervais’s formidable wit is better suited for bitterness than sweetness. When Tony strings together imaginative combinations of curses and insults, he can be funny, or at least clever. But when attempting to expound on life’s beauty, he’s simply boring.
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