On paper, Ricky Gervais’ latest series sounds promisingly wicked: In After Life, the Office and Extras creator plays a recent widower who’s so angry about his wife’s death that he decides to punish everyone around him by being an unfiltered asshole. Rather than some kind of madcap dark comedy, the “punishment” takes the form of a dreary, sarcastic self-pity party that also manages—in a magic trick perhaps only Gervais is capable of pulling off—to constantly point out its protagonist’s intellectual superiority. (And atheism. It’s a Gervais joint, so there’s gotta be some discourse on the obvious beauty of atheism.)
In the first of After Life’s six half-hours, Gervais’ character, Tony, meets a series of broadly drawn idiots—small-town simpletons whose stupidity only shines a light on his smarts. There’s an idiot mailman, an idiot grocery-store stocker, and idiot local citizens of his small town whose stories he’s forced to tell for his job as a human-interest writer at a tiny newspaper. Even his best pal—Game Of Thrones bit player Tony Way—is subject to his constant harassment, most often about his weight. If the jokes were funny, that’d be one thing, but they’re delivered through the haze of Tony’s grief, and therefore mostly undersold and exhausted.
We learn that Tony wasn’t always a nihilistic prick, via video messages from his dead, saintly wife, Lisa (Kerry Godliman). As if addressing the audience directly, she tells Tony what a good man he is, how funny he is, and how happy certain things make him. Weirdly, Tony also flips through old home movies in which he plays dumb, vaguely mean practical jokes on Lisa—blowing an air horn while she’s painting, throwing cold water on her while she’s sleeping at the beach—and she just loves it. Truly this was his soul mate, putting up with (and encouraging!) him. Maybe it makes sense that after 25 years of marriage he knows what a unicorn she truly was for dealing with him.
In the aftermath of Lisa’s death, Tony isn’t just a spoiled brat but a helpless manchild as well: Though 50-ish years old, he apparently doesn’t know how to shop for groceries or feed himself, pathetically downing old cans of food with his beloved German shepherd. (The dog also serves as his excuse for not killing himself on several occasions, even as he half-heartedly brings a blade to his wrist in the bathtub.)
Somehow, someway, everyone in After Life remains patient with Tony as he sullenly lashes out, and he even manages to gain a coterie of new friends, including a heroin addict with whom he does drugs, a prostitute with a heart of gold who helps clean up his house, a cub reporter on his newspaper who worships him for no clear reason, and the woman who takes care of his father with Alzheimer’s. (That’d be Extras’ Ashley Jensen, so criminally underused here that her character’s name is mentioned maybe once, in passing.)
So saintly and understanding are his old and new friends that Tony is challenged only by his brother-in-law/boss, and only then when Tony crosses what turns out to be a totally inconsequential line. His self-involved therapist, constantly checking Twitter and saying inappropriate things, offers occasional laughs but feels flown in from another show altogether. Never in After Life does there appear to be much dramatic conflict at all, or any danger of real consequence. More than one character remarks to Tony that he doesn’t actually want to kill himself, a notion with which he seems to quietly agree.
A chance meeting with a widow at the graveyard—her husband just happens to be buried right next to his wife, both plots conveniently situated in front of a bench they can chat on!—gives Tony a chance to wrestle with his emotions in front of someone he actually appears to respect. If her life advice were any more sweet or perfect, she would have to be a ghost. That scenario might actually be easier to swallow than the happenstance that leads to their initial meeting and repeated chance encounters.
Even at the depths of his misery, it’s impossible to feel much sympathy for Tony, who makes destructive decisions with an air of smugness rather than desperation. But gradually and unfortunately, Tony is stricken with dark comedy’s mortal enemies: self-realization and personal growth. A conversation with his brother-in-law shakes him up. There’s a death so tonally awkward and quickly forgotten that it beggars belief. And yet life, Tony somehow learns, might be worth living after all—an idea that he still manages to square explicitly with his atheism.
And really, if it weren’t for Tony’s (and Gervais’) insistence on the non-existence of a god—and some of the language, perhaps—After Life might have fit nicely in some alternate-universe version of the Hallmark Channel. It feels like one of those Christian-leaning, lessons-learned films, twisted slightly for a while and then bent right back into easily anticipated, perfectly predictable shapes. As a meaningful meditation on grief, After Life is dead on arrival. As a comedy, it’s good only for a few passing chuckles. It wants so badly to be both comedy and drama—to be both funny and touching—that it fails pretty spectacularly at both.