Published on March 20th, 2019 | by Craig Silliphant0
Ricky Gervais plumbs the depth of pain and misanthropy to create one of the comedy surprises of the year so far, in Netflix’s After Life.
In an age of trying to find the balance between showing people the respect they deserve and giving a middle finger political correctness run amok, Ricky Gervais is a complicated prospect. He’s known for sometimes being abrasive, but also for his use of comedy and his own fame to speak out about things like animal abuse. (There’s a great interview with the New York Times where he talks about irony, comedy, and outrage culture).
In After Life, his new Netflix show, Gervais plays Tony, a man who has recently lost his wife to cancer. In the depths of depression, he contemplates suicide, but isn’t able to do it. Instead, he turns his firehose of sadness and rage outward, to soak everyone around him. Sounds hilarious, right? It is. At least, if you find Gervais’ brand of misanthropy funny. Tony doesn’t care about anything, so he finds himself free from social niceties (which is an understatement here). I wouldn’t say that the show feels like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there are moments that I was reminded of Larry David’s show, just in the way that Tony and Larry argue with certain people about social cues and expectations.
Tony’s situation is made all the more amusing because of his job — he’s a writer for a small town newspaper. He’s called to interview people for stories that couldn’t be any more ridiculously mundane. One man he interviews has a stain on his wall in the shape of Kenneth Branagh. This annoys Tony even more after he learns that the man’s wife was attacked by two men on a motorcycle and the Branagh stain is the story he chose to call the paper about.
We see Tony trudging through his days and interacting with a lot of different characters that each bring out a different side of him. His father is suffering from dementia and he visits him in a home, while also chatting with a nurse there. He sees his psychiatrist. He spends time with his workmates and his young nephew. He meets an older woman whose husband also passed away and forms a bond with her. He befriends a prostitute (er, “sex worker,” as she keeps reminding him), another relationship that reminded me a bit of a Curb episode.
And on the darker end of things, he also starts hanging out with a down and out drug addict. And as funny as I said the show was, it’s also not. Sometimes the comedy comes from the juxtaposition of anger and sadness and jokes, but sometimes all you’re meant to take away from a scene is heartbreak and pain. It’s not only about grief, but it’s about what that looks like to people on the outside of it. And when you’re the one in that kind of pain, after a time you realize how you’re acting, but you’re still helpless to stop yourself from playing the martyr. Anyone that has experienced any kind of loss will recognize themselves in Tony. Or conversely, if you’ve ever watched someone you care about in a grief spiral, you’ll recognize the people around him.
Gervais shows us a new side to his acting range by doing the sad clown thing that other comedians before him, like say, Jim Carrey, have done successfully. When we’re used to seeing someone as wacky or hilarious, it really does give them acting mileage when they turn that frown upside down.
As the cliché goes, much like the brilliant show Baskets, After Life is able to balance pathos and humor well. And as much as Gervais tries to make Tony look like an asshole, his humanity shines through. In fact, Tony can’t help betraying himself in certain moments, to smile in spite of himself, to show the seeds of moving on. That is, if his grief doesn’t get the better of him first.