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After Life Review: Ricky Gervais is Sublime in Dark Comedy About Acceptance of Loss

By: Priyanka Sinha Jha


Last Updated: May 08, 2020, 09:47 IST

After Life

After Life

For those who have faced grief and loss, this dark comedy could put a smile --however gentle--back on your face.

After Life
Cast: Ricky Gervais, David Bradley, Tom Basden, Roisin Conaty
Director: Ricky Gervais

Death is something that has been on many people’s minds for a while now. The apprehension of the untimely loss of loved ones or the fear of one’s own life being cut short by the COVID-19 Pandemic is more common than one would imagine. Under the given circumstances, After Life on Netflix is a something of a salve, with its deep and unhurried study of what irreparable personal loss and the ensuing deep sorrow look like.

In the show’s two seasons, we observe Tony (Ricky Gervais), a journalist in the local newspaper struggle with the loss of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) who was snatched away by cancer. When we meet first meet Tony, it seems he has only two reasons left to live for- his dog, Brandy, and his father (David Bradley) who is in an old age home.

And then, there‘s a conversation about an attempt at suicide, which naturally makes Tony’s boss and brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden) concerned about him. Besides Matt, Tony’s circle of colleagues, like photographer Lenny (Tony Way) or Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon), attempt helping him process his grief. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts they prove to be of little help. Tony relentlessly wallows in self-pity, often watching videos of Lisa and their beautiful moments together, over and over again. This is a masterful narrative device for creating layers and varied moods in an otherwise simple and straightforward story. Along with Tony we watch the old videos and discover that Lisa was a warm, affectionate woman who anchored Tony’s life. In fact, one could say that with Lisa, Tony had a near-perfect life. These moments of happiness allow a seamless transition from the sad to the lighter sidebars besides making us understand why Tony now sees life and living as a pointless endeavor.

On the brighter side, despite his early reticence Tony gradually begins to open up to new people—Anne (Penelope Wilton) a lady he meets at the graveyard, or Roxy (Roisin Conaty), a good-hearted prostitute who he hires to clean up the dishes, the nurse (Ashley Jenson) he meets at the old age home or even the oddball postman (Joe Wilkinson). Intriguingly, it is the kindness and company of strangers that lend Tony the succor he needs even if it’s fleeting. Gradually certain inevitable realizations kick in. For starters, Tony begins to understand that everyone is going through their own personal hell—Matt and his wife have separated, the newspaper he works for is struggling, and his colleague Sandy is desperately hoping to keep her job. The one downside in the second season is its predictability in certain episodes despite the infusion of happy tidings.

But for the most part, this careful observation of a grieving man and his eventual healing has tranquility and depth rarely seen in comedies. With a cleverly structured screenplay, Tony’s moments of darkness keep alternating with the more sunny moments—like the jokes Tony shares with his nephew or his exchanges with the postman—appear like a ray of sunshine when he least expects them. And then there is the ever-reliable Brandy who with an unerring instinct pulls him back from the brink every single time. There is an ever-so-delicate diaphanous quality in the writing, which if Gervais, as the director had not handled with extreme deftness, would have broken that spell- that joint grieving of Tony and the audience. Performances by the entire cast are understated and droll, quite in sync with the story. The daily motion of existence barely changes, just a couple of modifications every now and then giving the series a very life-like pace, and yet, surprisingly, After Life is not dull at all. Just unhurried.

Ricky Gervais, the comedian who we now associate with acerbic putdowns as a host of the Golden Globe Awards, has both written and directed this show. Here, Gervais surprises us, by using his comic flair to tell an unexpected story with such sensitivity that it makes you smile through tears, quite like Tony when watching videos of Lisa and him together.

For those who have faced grief and loss, this dark comedy could put a smile --however gentle--back on your face.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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first published:May 08, 2020, 09:47 IST
last updated:May 08, 2020, 09:47 IST