Ricky Gervais does not need to prove his comedic credentials. Ever since “The Office” (the short-lived and much-loved British original, not the American remake, which sadly outstayed its welcome by several seasons) turned him into a global superstar almost 20 years ago, his sitcoms, drama-comedies, stand-up specials and podcasts have met with almost universal acclaim.
From the meta-comedy of the Larry David-inspired “Extras” to the sweet and poignant “Derek,” Gervais has the Midas touch. And he has the recognition of his peers to prove it: seven BAFTA Awards, five British Comedy Awards, two Emmy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards and the 2006 Rose d'Or. This success has afforded him the kind of freedom that few enjoy. He is free to go in whatever direction takes his fancy.
His latest offering, Netflix’s “After Life,” is a harrowing, moving and occasionally funny story of self-redemption. In it, Gervais returns to themes that have cropped up frequently in his work – themes which, at first glance, seem to have been lifted from the diary of a deeply depressed teenage nihilist: the finality of death in a godless world, the futility of society and social mores, and the realization that suicide is a superpower.
Meet Tony, a fifty-something widower who has decided to punish the world for his wife’s sudden death. He’s decided to postpone his suicide for long enough to vent his fury on the world by saying and doing anything he wants.
And what he wants, apparently, is to be outrageously rude to everyone: his colleagues, his postman, his brother-in-law and random passersby. This allows Gervais to practice in his writing what he preaches on social media: that offense is taken, not given, and that no subject is off limits for comedy.
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As Tony spends his evenings drinking and watching a hospital-bed video from his dying wife – “a guide to life without me,” she calls it – we learn that he used to be a “lovely, kind, funny man.” There’s precious little sign of this now, though. Tony is a nasty, petty piece of work.
He hates his job as a features editor for a small-town newspaper; he despairs of the endless parade of what passes for news – a wallpaper stain that looks like Sir Kenneth Branagh and a baby that looks “exactly like Hitler,” once its parents have drawn a mustache on its upper lip, that is.
Like Gervais himself, Tony has been freed of the constraints of normal behavior. He can say whatever he likes. Tony ‘scolds’ his dog for saying to a passerby, who has complained that said dog was not on a leash. “What!?” he says in mock anger. “He is not a fat, hairy, nosy cocksucker! Bad girl, Brandy!”
There are glimpse of Tony’s “loveliness” even at the height of his viciousness. His interactions with his nephew and a widow he meets while visiting his wife’s grave give the viewer hope that he will find his way out of the emotional abyss. And Gervais provides him with a path to redemption – one of the nurses at his dementia-suffering father’s nursing home.
There is never any doubt that Tony will emerge from his cesspool of hatred and, once again, become the man his wife fell in love with. The only question is whether Gervais can pull it off without mawkishness and in a way that feels real. He does. Tony’s path to redemption is not formulaic; he doesn’t have an epiphany and there’s no miraculous escape from death to jolt him back to his former self.
Instead, there a very human path, paved with very human weaknesses. Tony goes to some dark places before emerging into the light. His role in the suicide-by-overdose of the junkie he befriends and with whom he smokes crack is a particularly somber moment. But Gervais has a lightness of touch when it comes to emotionally charged scenes; he seems to know intuitively when a dramatic moment needs to be broken with a laugh and when to allow the pathos to come to the fore.
As always, Gervais is backed by a cast of familiar and capable actors: Ashley Jensen and Kerry Godliman, who worked with Gervais on “Extras” and “Derek” respectively; Dame Penelope Wilton (Baroness Merton from “Downton Abbey); Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk); and David Bradley, the former Royal Shakespeare Company member who viewers will most likely recognize as Walder Frey from “Game of Thrones.” There are also excellent performances from Paul Kaye as the worst psychologist in the world and Roisin Conaty as the sex worker he befriends.
Despite its gloomy starting point, “After Life” is a tender offering. Gervais sometimes flies close to the line between poignancy and mawkishness, but his handling of emotional scenes catches the right tone more often than not.
The Ricky Gervais juggernaut will continue to speed down the road to wherever he wants, fueled, in part, by his social media presence. He uses his massive online audience – 13 million followers on Twitter – to promote the causes he believes in, especially animal welfare, and vociferously to defend his brand of radical atheism. As long as he manages to keep his writing from becoming too polemic, Gervais’ Midas touch will not desert him and we will continue to enjoy the fruits of this prolific and talented voice.