Review: After Life, Netflix

after life netflix

What is the new six-part Netflix series from Ricky Gervais? After Life is certainly funny but it is no sitcom. There is too much going on here that isn't funny to file it snugly under that genre. It's not that safety net catch-all "comedy drama" either though. It's something totally unique. It deserves a category of its own.

Gervais, who also wrote and directed it, plays Tony, a reporter on a small town freesheet who feels that life is not worth living following the death of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman, excellent as always, seen here in laptop footage and video flashbacks). It is only the fact that he has to feed his beloved dog that keeps him alive. He is angry and wants to punish the world for taking Lisa away. As a result of his nihilistic despair he feels that he has a superpower and can do anything. Consequences don't matter.

When I first heard that this was the plot last year and saw an early still of Gervais perched on a skyscraper window ledge (Superman or suicide?) I expected something more action hero dramatic, maybe singlehandedly preventing armed bank robberies or terrorist attacks. In fact apart from an impetuous response to a handbag snatch and a spontaneous dog food-related moment of self-defence his unique superpower is not employed as fully as it could be. Apart from swearing at a school bully ("tubby little ginger cunt") and adults that irritate him.

As a result After Life is a compelling mix of ordinary life, grief, tragedy, hilarity and humanity. The pace is gentle but a lot happens. Along the way we see him visit his father (David Bradley) who has dementia and is in a care home. While there Tony tentatively befriends his dad's nurse (Ashley Jensen). He bickers with his postman (Joe Wilkinson), tweaks the neck fat of his photographer Lenny (Tony Way) and mocks his boring colleague (Diane Morgan) for having boring taste. Jo Hartley who was in Life on the Road plays a mum he interviews.

He gets to know a prostitute, sorry, sex worker (Roisin Conaty), goes out to dinner (with Tracy Ann Oberman) which is brutally funny and falls into more traditional date-from-hell sitcom territory. Elsewhere he gets to know a sympathetic widow, played by Penelope Wilton, who, of course, was a star of the BBC sitcom much-loved by Gervais, Ever Decreasing Circles.

In case you hadn't already noticed, After Life boasts a fantastic cast. Mandeep Dhillon plays Sandy, an eager-to-learn newspaper newbie, Tom Basden plays Tony's editor. And stand-up Sean McLoughlin has the enviable job of playing a comedian who has a hard time onstage when he spots gloomy-faced Tony in the front row. David Earl, aka comedian Brian Gittins, plays a desperate eccentric whose dream is to be featured in the local Tambury Gazette. Oh and there are some very funny scenes featuring Tony and Paul Kaye as his self-obsessed therapist.

Perhaps the most pivotal supporting character is the local junkie Julian, played by Tim Plester. Tony decides to numb the pain of his loss by smoking heroin with him. It's a controversial scene played out not once but twice (once with Elton John's Rocket Man playing – note the line "I miss the earth so much I miss my wife" – and once with Nick Cave playing in the background – "I don't believe in an interventionist God" - you never got Into My Arms at Wernham Hogg). There are no laughs whatsoever here. In fact I won't say what happens in case you haven't seen After Life yet.

The result is a must-see piece of bittersweet television that is, I should emphasise in case I haven't already, very funny in parts, but intellectually ambitious too. Gervais has said in interviews that as a student he switched to a philosophy degree at London University because the workload was light (he was right, I did the same degree). But there is something deeply philosophical about After Life, which tackles some pretty basic questions about the point of existence and how we should treat others. At one point Tony says "it should be everyone's moral duty to kill themselves". I'm sure that was an essay we had to write. The only comedy i've seen that tackles ethics as much as After Life is another Netflix show, The Good Place.

Whatever you think of Ricky Gervais you should watch After Life. One thing is certain. There has never been a comedy quite like it, with laughs colliding with raw heartbreak. It also looks good, making the English countryside appear beautiful, the postcardy old market town buildings draped in sunlight. And needless to say Tony's dog is a real scene-stealer. 

News: Second Series For After Life?

Watch After Life on Netflix now.

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