Ricky Gervais’ penchant for the macabre side of human nature as long been a focus of his work. From the fame-desperate Andy in Extras, to the witty cynical take on corporate life in The Office, it’s definitely a key part of his modus operandi. After Life is by far his bleakest affair yet, with a story of depression, death, and suicidal thoughts. While that might not sound like a barrel of laughs, the infusion of well written jokes and human observations, compounded with an uplifting final message, make After Life an emotional rollercoaster. It’s by far Gervais’ most dramatic and touching work, and while not as laugh out loud funny as the genius celebrity cameos of Extras, it’s certainly no slouch in the funnies either.
The cast, are largely impeccable. From regular Gervais contributors like Ashley Jensen, to fantastic newcomers like Tom Basden and Mandeep Dhillon, all deliver realism focused, heartfelt performances. This is a fantastic ensemble cast, with thirteen main or reoccurring characters that all make their stamp, despite some only being afforded minutes of screen time. My reoccurring issue is in the acting of Gervais himself. It’s so difficult to see a character, rather than the comedian himself, particularly as he injects so many personal affectations into Tony (and Brent, and Andy, and Derek). Much like Gervais, he’s an atheist, loves animals, hates loud chewers, and loves the cathartic punishment of morons. The performance is good, but not great. Speaking generously, emotions are delivered subtly, while being realistic, he’s a tad wooden. Some of the super heightened emotional moments are instead delivered with crocodile tears, which is unfortunate. This is by no means a bad performance, but those crucial moments could’ve been more pronounced.
Where Gervais does not disappoint, however, is in his writing. Put simply, it’s spot on. Any notion that he lacks comedic writing without former co-writer Stephen Merchant is put firmly to bed here. The humour is sharp, but the comment on the progression of depression is as poignantly accurate as it is heartbreaking. After Life’s message is one of hope and it’s ultimately delivered very effectively. There are a few moments that do veer on the obtuse side, and make it difficult to relate to Tony. For the most part, these are addressed within the narrative, though are one or two exceptions, where I feel the character’s reactions are not as genuine as they could’ve been.
The song choices are also effective. Song choices like Nick Cave’s Into My Arms for a moment of pure despair demonstrate a well thought through soundtrack that drives the hard hitting moments home far more effectively than Gervais’ acting ever does. Equally, the cinematography and editing techniques are both subtle, yet well done. Flashbacks and archive camera footage are used to the full extent to connect us with the deceased Lisa, and both work wonders.
In review, I found myself far more engaged with After Life than I ever expected. What starts as a sarcastic, overly dark character study, lacking in comedy, ultimately becomes an emotional uplifting, beautiful piece of television. Though I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of Ricky Gervais’ acting, his writing remains as razor sharp as it did for The Office, almost twenty years ago. After Life is a gorgeous study of grief that hits hard because of how real it is. These characters feel human, and real, and flawed. I highly recommend it to anyone, especially those feeling disillusioned, or disheartened. It surprisingly delivers a strong message that we sometimes all forget: life is good. And so is this show.