It’s not often that a series can win you over and then shove you away as abruptly as After Life does. The Netflix comedy drama, created, written and produced by and starring Ricky Gervais (he stopped short of recording the theme song, at least), has been one of Netflix’s less-ballyhooed success stories. Casting Gervais as Tony, a misanthropic widower consumed by grief after the death of his wife, the first two seasons struck an uneasy balance between comedy and pathos, lunging from cynicism to mawkishness within the space of a scene. But when it worked, it worked – and After Life’s third season, streaming from today, is much the same beast.
It picks up with Tony still miserable and combative as ever, still working as a feature writer for the Tambury local paper. His social circle comprises friends, co-workers and assorted local oddballs, such as Matt (Tom Basden), his brother-in-law and boss, Kath (Diane Morgan), his lonely co-worker, and Emma (Extras’ Ashley Jensen), a nurse with whom Tony enjoys an insistently platonic friendship. Tony is a curious role for Gervais, both playing it safe and over-extending himself at once. He is at his best in comic mode; as a withering, sarcastic straight man, he is comfortably at home. When playing personalities closer to his own, as here, he comes across as authentically smart, and funny. But whenever he has to deliver a moment of real emotion, it’s harder to buy in.
This is a problem that isn’t helped by the writing, which is similarly lopsided on the comedy-drama front. If you’re not already on board with Gervais’s shtick then this is unlikely to convert you – anyone looking for the usual mix of pseudo-ironic homophobia, fatphobia and sexism won’t walk away empty-handed – but it’s undeniably better than the serious parts of the script. Monologues about grief and recovery are painfully trite, painfully single-dimensional; it falls short of even syrupy fare like Ted Lasso.
After Life is also strange and uninvolving in the way it juggles its various plot threads. So much screen time is devoted to dismal comedian Brian (David Earl) and his much-younger friend James (Ethan Lawrence), in a storyline that doesn’t intersect with Tony’s once. The series was filmed while the UK was still in a stage of lockdown last year; that’s the only explanation I can think of for why everything seems so piecemeal.
Ultimately, there are little things that endear you to After Life – among them a great soundtrack, a cast of characters who don’t all look like conventional TV stars, a standout performance from Morgan and a brilliant cameo from Tim Key. But then it’s all undone by a descent into clumsy sentimentalism. If Gervais follows his usual MO, he may well get the chance to redeem the ending with a conclusory Christmas special. I hope so, because there are times when After Life feels like it genuinely deserves redemption.
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