Comedy and crippling grief might seem like strange bedfellows, but Ricky Gervais mostly makes the odd juxtaposition work in “After Life,” a melancholy series that continues the writer-director-star’s relationship with Netflix.
Gervais’ TV output has taken a darker turn since “The Office,” with the brilliant “Extras” followed by the less successful “Derek.” As an outspoken atheist, his new show deals with weighty subject matter – namely, how to process death and loss without the comfort that religion brings to our understanding of them – while still veering, sometimes awkwardly, into quirky comedic situations.
Here, he plays Tony, a reporter for a small newspaper (the strange people he meets working on human-interest features provide much of the comedy) devastated by his wife’s death due to cancer.
“It broke me,” he confesses in a later episode. “I just don’t see any point in living.”
Those around Tony try to tiptoe around his fragile emotional state, beginning with his brother-in-law (Tom Basden), who also happens to be his boss. But the main conceit is that Tony’s indifference to carrying on becomes a kind of “super power,” as he puts it, allowing him to say precisely what he thinks and occasionally put himself in harm’s way when the situation calls for it.
At first, there’s not much fun in hanging around with a character who’s both surly and suicidal, prone to sulking as he watches videos of his late spouse, while being introduced via a series of unpleasant encounters with random people. About the only creature he shows any affection is his dog, even snapping at the kids who attend school with his nephew.
Gradually, though, rays of hope begin to emerge as Tony sleepwalks through his days – meeting a wisdom-dispensing widow (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton) at the cemetery, experimenting with drugs and trading barbs with the nurse (“Extras” co-star Ashley Jensen) attending to his aging father (“The Strain’s” David Bradley), who is in throes of dementia.
Gervais’ comedy generally thrives on a brand of misanthropy, pushing to the edge of that bleak assessment of human nature before stepping back from the abyss. So when Tony says early on “There’s no advantage to being nice, and thoughtful, and caring,” it’s basically serving notice that “After Life” will involve the process of building toward finding some reason to believe otherwise, however hopeless it all might appear at first.
Tony’s uneven evolution is perhaps an inevitable side effect of contemplating existential issues within the confines of this six-episode format. Ultimately, though, Gervais has produced a series that tackles the biggest of questions and darkest of thoughts in a characteristically uncomfortable, relatively modest and ultimately satisfying manner.
“After Life” premieres March 8 on Netflix.