A close friend told me to watch After Life (2019-22) a three-season series written and directed by Ricky Gervais.
Ricky Gervais is a well-known comedian-actor who probably first came to world notice in co-creating The Office (2001-03) with Stephen Merchant.
The two also created Extras (2005-07) before Gervais began making a host of largely forgettable films, mostly out of Hollywood.
For this reason, the early episodes of After Life were for me somewhat of a repeat of what I’d seen before. A wise cracking bloke in an impossible situation giving us the same schtick.
However, I had forgotten a lesson learned early in life. Comedy films take time. The characters and situation have to be descriptively drawn so the gags that eventually come have meaning.
Billy Connolly once began a stand up by talking to the crowd and telling them they were being over expectant if they wanted him to be immediately funny. It’s like work everywhere, he said. You come in to the office, you talk about what happened on your weekend, you make a cup of coffee, have a bit more chat and eventually you get down to work. Same here. You can’t expect me to walk out here and be funny straight away.
Great comedy is just that and After Life is great comedy, created and directed alone by Gervais. Don’t, as I did, lose faith after the first few episodes.
When my friend inquired as to how I liked it, I said I had seen a few episodes and that “I’m a bit over Ricky Gervais.” You could fill a bin with how many times I’ve been wrong but never so much as with that statement.
After Life isn’t only the funniest thing I’ve seen since Fawlty Towers (1975-79), it is the most moving account of grief to grace TV screens. Tears of sadness stream down your face but, within what seem seconds, you’re falling off the sofa laughing.
Its message is somewhat familiar?
Like George Bailey (James Stewart) in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), the Gervais character learns that if he had taken his own life in episode one, the lives of all the others we get to know would have turned out a lot worse.
Gervais is Tony, a journalist for a small paper in a fictional small English town called Tambury.
His wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman, seen in every episode as Tony watches video of her on his laptop) has just died from cancer and Tony is grieving. He lives with their dog Brandy and thinks mainly of killing himself. He hates his job, mostly writing the front page story of the Tambury Gazette about people who believe they have a story. All of these make wonderful set pieces as Tony sits on their sofa with Lenny, the paper’s photographer, looking askance at the bizarre tales they impart.
Lenny (Tony Way) is just one of the brilliant Gervais creations. Overweight and bald, Tony tells him he looks like Shrek but he is his friend. While Tony refuses to even consider finding another woman, Lenny meets June (Jo Hartley) on assignment. June’s son James (Ethan Lawrence) is a front-page pic story because he can play two recorders stuck in his nostrils.
Despite their importance, Lenny, June and James are put in perspective by the other eccentric characters: Pat the postman (Joe Wilkinson), Brian the hoarder (David Earl), the psychiatrist (Paul Kaye) and theatre tragic Ken (Colin Hoult), among many.
There is also major emotional input and genuine acting cred from Ashley Jensen as Emma, a nurse and potential love interest in the aged care home where Tony visits his father (David Bradley); and Anne (Penelope Wilton), who shares a bench with Tony opposite the gravestones of her late husband and Lisa.
There are other great cameos and the inventiveness of the writer in creating these is profound. The actors are mostly Brits you’ve seen in something else.
Kaye, the ambulance driver-hood in The Toll (2021) and the murderous detective in The Stranger (2020), an episodic thriller on one of the streaming channels, is marvellous in a series studded with eccentrics.
There are others too but I can’t ruin it by releasing too much plot. I only urge you to watch it. Stick with it and be rewarded. This is Gervais’ finest hour.
He has written a memorable piece about grief and life. Indeed while After Life dwells a lot on the possibility (or in Tony’s view impossibility of) after life, it is also a lesson for life to be lived.
I defy even the most po-faced viewer to not laugh at it but, even more importantly, I defy even the hardest, meanest bastard not to cry.
This is why I watch television. To see greatness such as this.