“Greater than the sum of its parts” comes to mind when considering the unlikely but powerful use of contrasting sappiness and wacky at the heart of Netflix’s new sitcom “After Life.”
British comedian and actor Ricky Gervais’ latest series is a comedy that on its surface breaks little new ground, but when experienced on the small screen manages to be both cynically hilarious and empathetically beautiful. It does this by contrasting themes of loss — protagonist Tony (Ricky Gervais) is shaken by the death of his wife — and hilarity, seen in the absurd outcomes of Tony’s resolution to say and do exactly as he pleases.
Such a gimmick might bring to mind ill-fated concepts like Jim Carrey’s 2008 film “Yes Man” in going overboard with a premise, but “After Life” grounds itself by contrasting the laughs it generates with occasional tears.
Tony’s wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) makes posthumous appearances through pre-recorded hospital videos, advising her now-deadbeat husband on how to live life after she’s gone through simple instructions like which bins are garbage and recycling. As a plot device, it seems overly convenient and artificial that one person would record so much footage before dying, but it works to establish how far Tony is from the man his wife wanted him to be without her.
In an age of comedies under the long shadow of “The Office” — the more successful, meme-friendly American adaptation of Gervais’ original British program — innovation seems like a necessity. Contemporary hits like “Atlanta” utilize groundbreaking cinematography to tell loosley anthologized stories about the black experience in America. Netflix’s own “Master of None” tackles cultural issues like minority representation and coming out in brilliant new ways. “Barry” has both SNL talent and a clever script to be a refreshingly new hybrid of crime drama and comedy.
“After Life” is not as ambitious as any of those shows with its pleasing but sparse set of locations, limited cast and music choices that don’t get much more inspiring than “Rocket Man.” Yet by being so emphatically British in its contrast and blending of sadness and crude comedy, Gervais’ latest creation manages to avoid being purely saccharine or overly cynical. Tony’s character lobbs crude but relatively accurate insults at the souls sharing his mundane post-marital existence, but he’s also scolded by those around him for refusing to move on.
These moments of intense but effective contrast are evident right from the first episode, such as a scene in which Tony is visiting his senile and crass father — a small role played subtly but effectively by David Bradley — at a care facility. “If it was a dog, you’d put it down,” he remarks coldly to the nurse after his father asks Tony where his wife is for the umpteenth time. “We say there’s nothing going on inside, to make ourselves feel better, but there’s definitely something going on,” she responds, chastising Tony for his lack of empathy and open-mindedness.
All around Tony the world seems innocent and unphased. His brother-in-law Matt (Tom Basden) is his naive boss at the Tambury Gazette, a local paper that covers small-stakes tabloid scoops, like an elderly gentleman receiving the same birthday card five times in a row.
The moment initially seems to be played only for laughs as Tony and his reporting partner sit through a tedious explanation of the escalating strangeness with each new copy of the same card at the man’s home. Out of seemingly nowhere the scene turns heartbreaking when the old man details how he cannot wait to see his story in the paper to show his now-deceased wife, whom he still likes to imagine sharing the absurdities of life with. Tony is as taken aback as the audience by the sudden relatability and sweetness of the exchange.
Other characters — like a terrifyingly uncaring psychiatrist, junkie news deliveryman and eager new feature writer at the paper — make for entertaining appearances. But the majority of substance in “After Life” comes from Tony and his German shepherd, who keeps him from suicide by depending on him to open her cans of food. It is the little things, both sad and amusing, which keep life special and worth being a part of.
“After Life” is unlikely to become an outrageously popular new mainstream comedy, perhaps in large part due to its understated vibe and overall dour circumstances. However, viewers who make the effort to get through a relatively brief set of six half-hour episodes are sure to get a healthy dose of pathos with their laughter.