Review by April Hunter
After Life is a comedy about depression and suicide that’s surprisingly relatable. Comedians have always tried to push the “how deep can I go into rabbit hole and still be funny” bar. Ricky Gervais, who wrote, directed and stars in the show, pulls it off brilliantly as he gives us the darkest of British black comedies about Plan B. One can almost envision Gervais sitting across from a Netflix executive with a toothy grin and a dare in his voice. “I’ll bet you six exclusive episodes that I can make suicide funny, mate.”
What’s Plan B, you ask? Well, let’s rewind.
Tony, a local journalist in a small town, is an angry, sad widower because the wonderful life he’d had with his wife of twenty-five years, Lisa, was completely shattered when she died from cancer.
Each episode starts off with Tony viewing one of Lisa’s video messages recorded from her hospital room advising him how to live after her death. “You’re useless,” she says. “Don’t forget to program the alarm so the dog won’t set it off and do the washing up.” Tony plods into the kitchen where he ignores a heaping stack of food-encrusted dishes to search a near-empty cupboard for something to feed the dog. A tin of beans suffices.
After Life is brutally candid, but not offensive. His unending portrayal of pain and misery might be depressing if his irritation were not so funny. Tony says and does all the things we want to but can’t. His excuse: “Well, there’s always Plan B. I do and say whatever the f*ck I want and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just kill myself.” And we believe it. He shops for one can of dog food at a time. There are multiple botched attempts. At no point do you ever feel he’s not morbidly serious about taking his own life. “Oh, no, what will he do now?” is the pervasive mood.
Tony leaves his house and refuses to take mail handed to him by the Pat the postman, insisting the worker walk the last few steps to his door and deliver it properly. When two kids with a weapon attempt a mugging, he doesn’t hesitate to punch one of them in the mouth, because who cares if they stab him? Yet, despite Tony being a jerk, he’s not unlikeable. He speaks harsh truths, which are in fact, truths. He loyally visits his father with advanced Alzheimer’s in the nursing home even though “Where’s Lisa?” is repeatedly (and painfully) enquired. No matter how down and out he is, Tony puts the needs of his dog above himself. He meets a prostitute on the streets (“Sex worker!”) who offers to do anything he wants for fifty quid. He agrees…and has her clean his house. Then, he offers her tea.
The local newspaper Tony works for covers a new feature story in each episode that borders on the ridiculous and lends endless humor to the series along with an appreciation for the banal in life. Tony’s coworkers debate deep subjects not usually touched on in comedies such as religion, life and love.
While visiting his wife’s plot, he befriends a cheerful widow (played by Penelope Wilton, best known as Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey) who becomes a mentor, full of wise advice on how to keep going and not squander life away.
We see valid consequences for Tony’s harsh actions several times, including his brother-in-law threatening to never let him see his nephew again. After Life can also be lesson in loyalty and friendship when dealing with a depressed loved one, as Tony’s friends patiently tolerate his moods and lashing out, never turning their backs on him. However, after a particularly harrowing event, Tony realizes he’s gone too far and might lose them too, which is his turning point.
Among other topics, the short series explores heroin use and assisted suicide, but underneath the gloom and doom is a steady current of sweetness and charm. Our anti-hero learns how to cope and makes a comeback with more than a little help from his friends and Plan B never comes to fruition. Yes, Tony – hope really is everything.
Fans of other Gervais’ other works will enjoy seeing quite a few familiar faces. Ashley Jensen (Maggie on Extras) was a stellar addition to the show. Unlike films, which he’s come under fire for in recent years, Gervais is at his best at the helm of a TV series, which gives him the time to expand character development, and this is quite possibly his best show to date.
From desolate to revived, we’re given an authentic portrayal of the struggle to recover after devastating loss. After Life confidently walks the fine line of pushing new boundaries and dark comedy like no one has successfully done before.
Thank you, Ricky Gervais, for giving us something real we can relate to.
Watch After Life exclusively on Netflix.
**Right after I posted, Ricky Gervais responded. I won’t lie………SO COOL.