Roush Review: Loss, Laughter, Maybe Love in Ricky Gervais' 'After Life'
Laughing till you cry is nothing new for a Ricky Gervais fan, but the tears are genuine in the writer-director-star's emotionally overwhelming dramedy After Life. A tender though often profane fable of loss and the healing power of human kindness, the series achieves new depths of feeling — and even hilarity — in its second season.
Mourning has not quite broken for Tony (Gervais), a misanthropic widower we find still wallowing in whines and wine as he gazes upon videos of his late wife (Kerry Godliman), who before succumbing to cancer was clearly the life of any party — and, more significantly, the love and purpose of Tony's life. He's surrounded by sad sacks in the peculiar British village of Tambury, where he toils at the struggling local newspaper. His brother-in-law Matt (the hangdog Tom Basden) runs the Gazette in a sadly passive and forlorn fashion, distracted by his own broken marriage. (Matt's visits to the world's most inappropriately vulgar psychiatrist, played with a perverse caveman zeal by Paul Kaye, are comic highlights.)
Tony's day job, pursuing humorously bizarre human-interest stories, provides only so much cheer. And yet these vignettes show Gervais at his best: observing quirks of behavior with a "f---ing hell" attitude of appalled amusement. In the season premiere, an interview with a 100-year-old curmudgeon (Annette Crosbie) goes sour fast: "It hurts just to be alive," she gripes. "I might as well have been a tree." Told to smile for the camera, she barks, "Bollocks."
If anyone doesn't need to be told it hurts to be alive, it's Tony. But he's on a mission this season: to pay forward as best he can the generosity of his quirky and caring friends, who have tried to lift him through his depression. These include Anne (Downton Abbey's marvelous Penelope Wilton), a widow who provides sage counsel as they sit in wry contemplation at the graveyard where their beloved spouses lie. And his dying dad's nurse (Ashley Jensen, a pillar of warmth and wit), who takes a shine to Tony but despairs of his reticence to snap out of it and make a move towards a new relationship.
While some people, including a condescending yoga instructor who makes weird snorting noises, are beyond Tony's capacity for compassion, he indulges oddballs like shambling postman Pat (Joe Wilkinson), who knows so little of boundaries that he walks into Tony's home to take an impromptu bath. But when Pat confesses a crush on cheerful sex worker Roxy (Roisin Conaty), Tony actually encourages it. And then there's the unexpected empathy he shows toward a pathetic local whose addiction to cosmetic surgery has backfired terribly. "We're all screwed up in one way or another," Tony explains. "It's what makes you normal."
Throughout the six episodes of After Life, the impulse to laugh out loud collides with the effort to choke back tears. This modest masterpiece is one of Gervais's great achievements, and every time he allows Tony to retreat to his bed with his loyal dog, playing back videos and lost in happy-sad memories, we're reminded that life's too short not to root for this bloke.
After Life, Season 2 Premiere, Friday, April 24, Netflix