Review: After Life is the Latest Chapter in Ricky Gervais’ Career of Diminishing Returns
In After Life, the latest chapter in Ricky Gervais’ career of diminishing artistic returns, his protagonist Tony spends most of his time bullying co-workers, threatening to commit suicide and generally being a monumental pain in the proverbial.
In between these moments, we are compelled to feel sorry for the nihilistic schlub via a series of vignettes recorded by his dying wife, which the recently bereaved Tony watches on his laptop from bed while cloying music plays. This terrain should be familiar to anyone who endured the relentless, soupy sincerity of Derek, a series that Gervais made to convince critics that his usage of the word “mong” did not in any way indicate contempt for disabled people.
Tony lives in an impossibly idyllic English town called Tambury and works on the local gazette, under the auspices of his far too tolerant editor and brother-in-law, Matt. The plot, such as it is, involves a crushed Tony pettily insulting everyone he comes into contact with while doing the rounds on a succession of local stories featuring oddballs desperate to get in the paper. It’s a decent basis for a comedy, but the laughs are thin on the ground here. In fact, Gervais rakes over old ground in the very first episode, repurposing an old ‘bit’ from one of his early standup shows.
A poor impersonation of a person
There is much that does not ring true about After Life, not least the fact that picture-postcard Tambury, with its spotless beaches and parkland and Victorian houses, seems to be bathed in munificent sunshine during all six episodes, enabling Tony to slouch about in jogging bottoms, a T-shirt and sunglasses (stock attire of the modern journo). Or the fact that, despite his thoroughly unlikeable persona, various characters persistently point out what a great and funny bloke he is. Or the entirely unconvincing portrayals of a junkie and sex worker, with whom Tony improbably finds himself fraternising.
What is perhaps most galling is just how little thought has been put into the cast of characters whom Tony exasperatedly butts up against. There’s the paper’s photographer Lenny, whose chief characteristics are to eat loudly (and thereby disgust/irritate Tony) and look gormless; the new reporter Sandy, a Dawn Tinsley-like figure who merely smiles while passively observing the antihero’s behaviour; Tony’s bewildered care home-bound father, who acts as a proxy for his son’s despair; you get the gist.
A comedy vehicle without petrol
There is no collision or friction, no three-dimensional entity to anchor the whole project. Tony? He’s an Angry Man, a misanthropic, sweary presence stomping around his sunny market town communicating his grief to anyone who’ll listen. He also finds opportune moments to say exactly what his creator would say to people who believe in God. Oh, and finds time to fend off a pair of snarling teenage muggers and heroically intervene during a moped mugging. Because, well, maybe Tony isn’t such a lost cause after all.
After Life meanders through its six episodes, with the occasional laugh to be had amid the ham-fisted sentimentality – quasi-touching scenes of Tony perched by the graveside, or watching home video of himself pranking his departed wife (to which she invariably shrieks “Oh, you cunt! You twat! Tony!” before subsiding to the hilarity of it all) or staring earnestly at his dad in a claustrophobic care home.
It can’t be that bad, can it? Well, Paul Kanye puts in a good turn as an amusingly insensitive psychiatrist and David Earl excels, as he did in Extras and Derek, as a kooky scene-stealer; plus there’s a tiny chance you’ll be taken in by the see-it-coming-a-mile-away trajectory of the story, enough to find the whole endeavour worthwhile. But even the most loyal Gervais apparatchiks wouldn’t shelve After Life alongside The Office or Extras.
This is a comedy vehicle without petrol, a clumsy attempt at dark humour and pathos with an unlikeable character at its core and a supporting cast of thinly-drawn strangers, drifting this way and that. Hey, that’s a point: if there’s any justification to be made for a second series, it’s the lack of flesh on the bones of these anonymous creatures…
Words by Ronnie McCluskey