Since his roaring success with The Office in 2001, co-created with Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais has had no problem finding success. In recent years he has suggested that today’s attitudes would have stopped The Office from ever being made and that eventually his work could easily fall to cancel culture. However, if The Office did ever suffer such a fate, After Life would surely survive as his particular career highlight.
After Life introduces us to Tony Johnson, lead features writer at a small newspaper, the Tambury Gazette. His job is an unspectacular one given that the newspaper is a free paper with the most trivial of stories from the village in which he has carved out his life. It’s an idyllic life – a small village, a wife he adores and a trusty sidekick in the form of his German Shepherd.
Tony’s life falls apart upon the early death of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) from cancer. She has been busy during her treatment preparing videos to try and keep Tony from going under after her departure, but the laughter that they shared throughout their days can’t be replaced by snippets of home movies and morale-boosting messages. After sinking into depression, Tony decides he just can’t deal with life without Lisa and opts to take his own life.
Preventing his early demise is a simple situation…Tony has run out of dog food for his now most trusted friend, Brandy, so he shelves his plans for the moment. In fact, Tony decides to take a far more cynical approach to deal with his grief. If suicide isn’t an option, he might as well just do and say absolutely anything he wants. He’s had everything taken away from him, so whatever the consequences are of his actions, it really couldn’t be any worse than his current pain. His new view of the world is that, ‘…we’re a disgusting, narcissistic, selfish parasite and the world would be a better place without us.’
The other characters in his life all take a hit from Tony’s freshly readjusted approach. First in line for the venom is his postman, Pat (Joe Wilkinson). Corner cutting, such as handing over the mail or asking someone else who happens to be on their way into Tony’s house incur Tony’s wrath. There’s a local drug addict, Julian (Tim Plester), who is paid to deliver the Tambury Gazette (something that doesn’t always happen) but uses his money to satisfy his addiction. Tony dabbles in the drugs with him as another escape, and he also engages the services of local sex worker (not a prostitute, as she is at pains to point out) Roxy (Roisin Conaty), although she merely ends up as a friend who helps with household chores.
While these three characters are on the periphery of Tony’s life, those who bear the brunt of his crushed spirit and newfound honesty are those at his office. Boss Matt (Tom Basden) also happens to be Tony’s brother-in-law, and potentially one of the nicest people on the planet. Mild-mannered and tolerant to a fault, he despairs at Tony’s brutal new persona, especially when it involves his son, another character Tony cannot bear the thought of being apart from.
Within the office, his closest ally is the slovenly Lenny (Tony Way), photographer and by default, the closest thing Tony has to a confidant at the Gazette. Also on their trio of desks, with the worst possible timing, is new employee and feature writer Sandy (Mandeep Dhillon). She has arrived with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm only new employees can carry and her desire to do well and carve out a career is a far cry from Tony’s cynicism and despair. Completing the office line-up is Kath (Diane Morgan), the one person most likely to criticise Tony and antagonise him with her horoscope predictions and her desire for Kevin Hart. Work is inane and irrelevant to Tony, and nobody typifies the banal than local oddity Brian (David Earl), whose life seems entirely focussed on one of his quirks getting him on the front page of the Tambury Gazette.
When not at work, Tony visits his Dad (David Bradley) at a local care home, where he comes up against his Dad’s principal carer Emma (Ashley Jensen). Of all the people in Tony’s life, she is the one most likely to call him out on his behaviour and the pair quickly see their relationship improve as she adopts a zero tolerance for his antics. She is certainly the most productive person in Tony’s support network, in sharp contrast to the one person he is actually paying to help him – an obnoxious psychiatrist played by Paul Kaye, who has by far the most uncaring attitudes to all around him. Tony’s only apparent escape from the pains of life is visiting his wife’s grave, where he strikes up an unlikely friendship with widow Anne (Penelope Wilton), who dispatches golden nuggets of support based on her own dealings of grief.
Across the first series, Tony fires off all kinds of arrows of derision…he threatens a child with a hammer at the local school who has been bullying his nephew, goes on a disastrous blind date organised by Matt and has a stand-up row with a comic after being bullied into attending a local comedy night. It’s a mark of the clever writing of Gervais that for all his outrageous behaviour, we never once take sides against him. His reactions, given the heart-breaking situation he is in, are fully understandable.
The characters around Tony are an extremely well balanced collection. The staff at the gazette if anything trump The Office for believability. The naïve newbie, the loud-eating slouch, the gossip queen, the boss who is far too nice to be a boss – they are all eminently recognisable characters that work well as an ensemble. As for the non-office folks…Wilkinson is glorious as Pat, another relationship that thaws as the show progresses, Kaye is repulsive as the unpleasant shrink, while the new women in his life, Roxy and Emma bring the warmth and humanity that is needed to balance Tony’s cynicism.
After Life may be about a man struggling with the early death of his partner, but its appeal can stretch beyond that scenario. It is in essence a programme that deals full on with anybody who has ever thought that however good and kind you might be in life, sometimes it feels like the world is just going to throw the worst of everything at you to the point that you wonder what the point is. Tony’s ‘screw it’ attitude is a moment of despair that continues for some time when he has lost all faith in the idea that the world can be kind, and it is perhaps for that reason that After Life has struck a chord with so many.
Gervais isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, it’s fair to say, and the comedy isn’t for the easily offended. However, in After Life he seems to have found a medium that has propelled his comedy to a new level of depth. We care about Tony, something we rarely did about David Brent and for Netflix, After Life has become a glowing success. Winning Best Comedy at the 2021 National Television Awards is a major coup and Gervais himself considers the show to be his finest work. For all the accolades, he has noted people thanking him for portraying a very real state of mind that has helped them see themselves through similar situations. If that remains the biggest legacy of After Life, it’s not a bad one to have.
Review by Brian Slade:
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on November 7th, 2021. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.